Michael Audain looks startled as he enters the offices of Polygon Homes Ltd. On this otherwise ordinary fall morning, the real-estate developer’s place of work is overrun with staff from the Vancouver Art Gallery. Quietly, efficiently, and with immense care, they are stripping the walls of art. They’re taking down paintings, photographs, and text works, measuring them, writing condition reports, wrapping them, and carting them away. Their activities resemble a well-planned and politely executed campaign of plunder. When Audain, Polygon’s chairman and one of Canada’s most generous cultural benefactors, agreed to meet with the Straight to talk about the art he owns and its forthcoming exhibition, he clearly was not expecting that the work would be on the move this day.
Titled Shore, Forest and Beyond: Art From the Audain Collection, the show opens at the VAG on Saturday (October 29). Its chief focus—and Audain’s greatest passion and pride—is the art of British Columbia. The work includes a stunning array of 19th-century First Nations masks, an equally amazing group of Emily Carr paintings and watercolours, and a range of contemporary photo-based works by Vancouver’s international art stars—Stan Douglas, Ken Lum, Rodney Graham, and Jeff Wall. There’s also a strong representation of contemporary aboriginal artists, such as Marianne Nicolson, Dana Claxton, and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, and an unexpected segue into Mexican modernism, its highlight being a remarkable self-portrait by Diego Rivera.
Ushering us into his ninth-floor office, Audain points to Takao Tanabe’s big, sombre 2001 landscape of the mouth of the Jordan River—a work that’s also destined for the show—and says, “I’m in this painting.” Now we’re startled. We peer at what seems to be an unpopulated scene, all grey water, dark clouds, and immense loneliness—and, well, where exactly is he? “I’m here,” Audain says, crouching in front and to the right of Tanabe’s work and recounting a childhood memory of accompanying his father on a duck hunt some six decades ago. “We were hidden behind a log, waiting for the ducks to fly up the river,” he says. Then he recalls, with pride, what a quick and eager Labrador retriever he had in those days.
This story typifies the relationship Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa, have with the art they’ve acquired over the past 25 years: emotional, unpretentious, and extremely personal. So personal that when the VAG first approached the couple about exhibiting some of the myriad images and objects they own, they were extremely reluctant.
“It took us a long time to get comfortable with the idea,” Audain says. “We went backwards and forwards on it for quite a number of months.” Although his staff and business associates have access to the artworks hung in the Polygon offices, the majority of the couple’s collection is in their West Vancouver home. “For us, it’s something we live with,” he explains. It’s not something they like to show off to the world.
Ultimately, however, VAG senior curator Ian Thom convinced them that it would be generous to share their visual wealth with the public. And although shunning publicity, they are extremely generous. Since its establishment in 1997, the Audain Foundation has given $25 million to various arts and academic bodies. The couple has also donated major works of art to the VAG and other public institutions. “We’ve always planned to donate the work eventually,” Audain adds. “Nothing goes back on the market.”
It’s a promise he reiterates to the old Northwest Coast masks he has gathered from distant points in Europe and the United States “What I tell them is: ‘You’ll never leave the coast again, as far as I have anything to do with it. You’ll never be sold again. You’re not trade goods. You’re almost home.’ ” The suggestion is that they’re nearing their final repatriation. In 2006, Audain and Karasawa bought a rare Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch figure from an American dealer, and in 2008 they donated it to the U’mista Cultural Society in Alert Bay. Audain continues to describe the conversations he has with the masks that usually hang in his den (and are now hanging on the first floor of the VAG), wishing them good morning and good night. “I know that sounds all very strange but it indicates the reverence and respect I have for them.”
Sitting at a small table in his office, he flips through Shore, Forest and Beyond, the handsome publication that accompanies the show. Published by the VAG and Douglas & McIntyre, it features five scholarly essays and a wealth of colour photographs of artworks in the collection. Audain lingers on these images, talking excitedly about each. At the same time, he deflects questions about himself, evincing an unwillingness to revisit the past or, again, step into the spotlight. He directs a few of our queries to “Some Reflections”, the chapter he wrote for the book. Others he dismisses altogether. And although he’s talked previously about his socially and politically active early adulthood—his involvement in the American civil-rights movement, his cofounding of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, his dedicated work and advocacy in the field of social housing, all before he entered the business world at the age of 43—today he wants only to talk about the art. At the end of our interview, he closes the book, pats the cover, and says, “That tells you more about me than any speech I can make.”
Shore, Forest and Beyond: Art From the Audain Collection runs at the Vancouver Art Gallery from Saturday (October 29) until January 29.