New Audain Art Museum finds a fitting forest setting

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      As a photographer stands on Whistler’s Blackcomb Way, trying to frame a shot of the entrance to the new Audain Art Museum, two young guys walk by. Their colourful snowboards, tucked under their arms, proclaim their sporty intent on this cool weekday morning. The museum sign behind them, tastefully lettered in red and white on sombre grey, poses a quite different intention: the housing of a stellar collection of British Columbia art, assembled over the past few decades by developer and philanthropist Michael Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa.

      Together, boarders, building, and benefactors suggest a provocative social experiment, siting a Class-A art museum in a world-renowned mountain resort. When the museum opens to the public on Saturday (March 12), it will vie for the attention not only of Whistler’s 10,000 residents but also of an estimated 2.7 million annual visitors. They’re the visitors who, until now, have been drawn to the place by its Olympic-class ski runs in the winter and its hiking and cycling trails in the summer. They’re also the visitors whose more hedonistic desires have been serviced by an array of high-end hotels, shops, restaurants, pubs, and spas.

      The boarders scarcely seem to notice the brand-new, 60,000-square-foot museum—which might be considered a good thing. Clad in dark metal, it has been designed by its architects, John and Patricia Patkau, to disappear into its forested site, at the east end of the Village Stroll. At the museum’s media preview, John Patkau tells the Straight that he and Audain wanted the building to be “subordinate” to its natural setting.

      Michael Audain speaks at the opening.
      Bob Frid / Audain Art Museum

      “At the initial phase of construction, we removed only one tree on this site,” he says. “The whole plotting of the building was to slide it into the existing forest.” The exterior cladding, he adds, “is an intentionally recessive colour—it recedes into the shadows, and that’s our view of the appropriate relationship between it and the [natural] context”.

      Still, although the museum disappears into its natural setting during the day, a different aesthetic will prevail at night. The pale gold hemlock panels that line the exterior entranceway and also the walls and ceiling of the large interior lobby will be lit in such a way that the museum will glow “like a lantern in the forest”, Patkau asserts.

      As for building an art museum in Whistler, a move that surprised many in the Vancouver art scene, Audain explains: “For me, the important thing is the landscape. Without this landscape—the beautiful spruce trees and cedar we have on the site—I don’t think we would be here.”

      He and Karasawa wanted to open their collection to the public in an “indigenous” setting. “That’s what we like ourselves, and we also felt that our art would be most comfortable in it,” he says of the facility, whose construction has been funded by the Audain Foundation and whose operation will be supported by sources such as admission fees, a growing endowment, and public and private grants.

      Bob Frid / Audain Art Museum

      The art they’ve donated ranges from rare 19th-century First Nations masks to landscape-based abstractions by modernist West Coast painters such as Jack Shadbolt, Gordon Smith, and Takao Tanabe, and on to big, contemporary photographs by leading Vancouver artists such as Dana Claxton, Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham, and Ken Lum. Also on permanent display are the largest private collection of Emily Carr paintings and watercolours and an equally impressive collection of paintings by the late E.J. Hughes. Carr is famous for her early identification with the First Nations subjects and the dense rainforests of the British Columbia Coast. Many of Hughes’s folk-realist works depict mid-20th-century life on the same coast, characterized by fishing boats and tugboats, log-strewn beaches and lumber mills. (Many of the Hughes paintings on view have been loaned to the museum by the Barbeau Owen collection.)

       “The thing that I didn’t appreciate at the outset, which I appreciate much more now, was how significant this forest context is for the oldest pieces in Michael’s collection,” Patkau says. He observes how many of the featured artists are strongly connected to the British Columbia landscape and marvels at how their work speaks to the museum’s setting. “Having the ability to look at the art, step out, back into the glazed walkway overlooking the forest, I think is just a spectacular juxtaposition.”

      The Audain Art Museum (4350 Blackcomb Way) in Whistler opens to the public on March 12. In addition to its seven permanent exhibition galleries, the museum will also feature a show of Mexican modernist paintings, on view until May 23 in its temporary exhibition space.