A new home for Art in Whistler 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY PASCALE GADBOIS - Yoshiko Karasawa and Michael Audain, the benefactors of the Audain Art Museum, at the building's entrance.
  • Photo by Pascale Gadbois
  • Yoshiko Karasawa and Michael Audain, the benefactors of the Audain Art Museum, at the building's entrance.

As Whistler and its visitors are about to find out, experiencing the new Audain Art Museum brings a whole new dimension to the Whistler adventure.

It is certainly unusual for a ski resort to boast an art museum — and in using that description it is not done lightly. This is a 4,900-square-metre building with a permanent collection yearned for by more established galleries in Canada, as well as space for travelling exhibits. It is not a gallery of private works in someone's home.

It will house one of the world's most important collections of Northwest Coast First Nations masks, more than 24 Emily Carr paintings, coastal artist E.J. Hughes' paintings, as well as art by some of Canada's most significant post-war modernists, including Jack Shadbolt and Gordon Smith, and works by internationally collected contemporary artists such as Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas, Geoffrey Farmer, Robert Davidson, Brian Jungen, and others.

But its meaning to the resort goes far beyond just the art that is housed in its unique "ark" style home. It also marks an important crossroads for the resort as it continues to pursue its desire to become a cultural hub in Canada.

This is not a new goal — perhaps the first time the idea became cemented in the minds of Whistlerites was when in 2009 the resort was named a Canadian Cultural Capital marking a new focus on our cultural experience journey. Whistler went on to host a spirited cultural program during the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2010.

A year ago, Heidi Zuckerman, the director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum (AAM), was invited to address a fundraiser for the Audain Art Museum. She was a fitting choice, considering that she steered the helm while the AAM developed and built a new 3,000-square-metre building, which opened in 2014.

About 75,000 visitors passed through its doors in its first eight months, 8,000 of those in the first 24 hours. The AAM has an annual operating budget of US$7 million, funded entirely by private donations, and a staff of 70.

The Audain Art Museum, which will add to its collection, is a non-profit that needs to earn its keep. Fundraising is ongoing for a $25-million endowment fund for operating, but it must generate enough revenue to cover most, if not all, the annual costs through donations, grants, rentals, retail, memberships and admissions.

Like Whistler, Aspen wanted its museum to be more than just an afterthought diversion for its visitors.

"Instead of a destination with a museum we are trying to be a museum destination — and I think that's worked very well for us," said Zuckerman at the time.

"Museums are so important to society.

"I think our world is troubled in many ways now, and museums are an antidote to a lot of that. They are places where people with diverse political opinions, with different economic opportunities, can come together and rub shoulders."

Asked if there were many other art museums at the resort level like those in Aspen and Whistler, she said: "No, none."

No others.

Some argue building the Audain Art Museum was a risk. Why would you think that mountain bikers, hikers, snow sliders, backcountry enthusiasts and adventurers of all stripes would visit an art museum while visiting an outdoor mecca?

Only time can answer this question.

Officials at the Audain are being conservative hoping for about 10 per cent of the 2.5 million visitors to the resort will be guests at the venue. It will be open late at least two nights of the week and it will provide slippers at the front door for those who come right off the slopes.

The museum is part of Whistler's Cultural Connector plan, which has a proposed budget of $600,000 this year and $500,000 in 2017. The funds are from the Resort Municipality Initiative fund channelled to Whistler by the province to grow tourism.

The money will be used to improve the physical, visual, experiential connectivity between six significant cultural institutions — the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, the Whistler Museum, the Lost Lake PassivHaus, Maury Young Arts Centre, Whistler Public Library, and the Audain Art Museum.

At one time there was discussion of a bridge being built across the Fitzsimmons Creek between the Cultural Centre and the Audain Art Museum, but that has been abandoned.

Taking culture and art into the neighbourhoods of Whistler is also part of the RMOW's plan through the home-based studio strategy — though in its current form it's not clear if artists will sign on to sell their art under the municipality's watchful eye.

Added to this, of course, is the Festivals, Events and Animation program, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestral Institute at Whistler, the Emily Carr summer school and the new design program through Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

The RMOW is hopeful that the Museum in conjunction with the other cultural offerings will draw new guests to the resort.

Diversification has long been on the table here and with climate change waiting in the wings it is becoming more pressing.

For as long as there has been art, it has been held up as a panacea for all kinds of problems in society. Our cynical selves might poke holes in that idea but there is no doubt at all that the arts provide a catalyst for the creation of social capital.

The addition of the Audain Art Museum feels like Whistler has just won the social capital lottery.

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