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Audain art Museum Part III: A life in art

"For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.

"For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."
- William Wordsworth

Just as the poet William Wordsworth could recall the golden daffodils long after he had actually seen them "fluttering and dancing in the breeze," so too can Michael Audain remember the brush strokes of his art collection.

Miles away from his Emily Carr paintings, which are hanging in his new museum in Whistler and almost ready to be unveiled to the public, he sits back in his chair and closes his eyes, and the painting appears, summoned in an instant. There, in his mind's eye, he sees Carr's dark and brooding The Crazy Stair, just as though it were hanging before him in his office, just as vivid as Wordsworth's daffodils.

"I have that memory for things that I'm interested in," he says, keeping his eyes closed as he lingers just a little longer with his painting.

"I can see them anytime I want. I can't show it to anyone. But I can enjoy it myself."

Now The Crazy Stair and some 200 pieces of art, collected over his lifetime, will be on display for the world to see at the new Audain Art Museum.

In this third part in our Audain Art Museum series, after looking at the rising star of Emily Carr (24 of her pieces will hang here) and the artists who will surround her in Whistler, all with their own unique take on B.C., Pique takes a closer look at the man behind the museum and what it all means to him... and to us.

'A great experiment'

In many ways, Whistler is an odd choice for Michael Audain. Before he decided to build his museum here, he had rarely been to visit.

"I'm more of a sea-coast man," he admits, of a life lived by boats and near the ocean. The mountains never really held any special allure.

They're starting to now. This is the place, after all, that will forever hold his name and his legacy, in a state-of-the art museum tucked into the forest.

After a whirlwind multi-million-dollar build, unforeseen complications, the inevitable delays, the doors of the Audain Art Museum will officially open on Saturday, March 12.

With the countdown on, Audain isn't nervous as much as curious, anticipation building, wondering if anyone is going to come to see his collection.

He is no stranger to this feeling. Audain is the chairman of Polygon Homes, a company that has built more than 26,000 homes in various forms throughout the Lower Mainland. Before he opens a new condo unit, he feels this same anticipation.

"I'm always wondering if anyone is going to show up and buy anything," he says.

They always do.

The museum is another story.

"We weren't big on business plans... because what are the comparables?" says Audain.

How many people will come? How much money will it raise through admissions? How will it be received in a town famous for its sports and its mountains? How to determine, even, its success? Will it bring its own unique clientele to Whistler on top of the 2.7 million visitors who already descend here annually?

"There are no Picassos in there," cautions Audain.

No Picassos, to be sure. Rather, something arguably even more unique when taken as a whole — a museum reflecting the heart and soul of British Columbia.

Group of Seven artists, Emily Carr, Rodney Graham, Jeff Wall, Brian Jungen, Takao Tanabe, Bill Reid. And so the list goes on. This is the story of B.C., through the eyes of its esteemed artists.

Canadian art critic Sarah Milroy called it "a great experiment."

Audain has a simple measure of its success.

"I think if the public takes an interest in it, that would be good. But you know what I'm most interested in would be a form of success that's hard to measure: what impact does it have on young children? That is the thing that interests me the most."

Growing up in Victoria, there was no public art gallery for him to visit. He remembers getting dragged to the symphony instead; that led to a lifelong love for classical music.

It's so important for children to see real works of art, visual or otherwise, not just in books or on iPads, teaching them an appreciation of a life lived with art.

"If I go there and if I see a group of kids looking not too bored, or with some interest or surprise, that will be of interest," he says.

"I never had that opportunity as a child."

This is one of the reasons why there is no charge for children to access the museum.

'An extraordinary philanthropic gesture'

The museum is the crowning gesture in Audain's lifelong patronage to the arts.

Almost 20 years ago, he created The Audain Foundation, a family-trust to support the arts. The foundation is financing the construction of the museum, which was budgeted at $35 million before construction began.

The Audain Foundation has been a critical part of preserving and enhancing the arts for more than two decades — funding an artist-in-residence program at Emily Carr, creating an annual entrance scholarship there too, donating $5 million to create the Audain School of Visual Arts there, to name just a few initiatives.

Audain has donated more than $100 million to galleries, museums and universities in B.C., both personally and through the family foundation.

Senior curator with the Vancouver Art Gallery Ian Thom puts Audain's patronage in perspective:

"Mr. Audain and his foundation are by far and away the most significant philanthropists in the visual arts in this part of the world, by far. No one else can even come close."

He donated his art before he began making plans to build a permanent house for it on Blackcomb Way.

"There are a few of them that I'd like back. But I'm too polite to ask," he jokes, of pictures that have been donated to other museums.

It wasn't always this way. When he first started collecting in the early 1960s Audain had a budget of $50 per work.

That was about the time when, as a student at the University of British Columbia, he joined the Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the southern United States in 1961 to challenge the non-enforcement of the Supreme Court decision that segregated buses were unconstitutional.

He was arrested for standing up for what he believed in, a sign of just how deep his social conscience ran within at a young age. This was also reflected in his early jobs in social work and housing.

"A deep, deep part of him as a person is that inquiry about: how do we live together and how do we make better environments?" says Milroy. "I think there's an enormous social conscience to the man that I deeply respect."

It's there in his fascination with early First Nations art, in the reflection of B.C.'s dramatic landscape and European settlement here and through the urban photographic lens.

"There's a fundamentally progressive impulse behind his interest in how these cultures come together," adds Milroy.

'It's a personal collection'

In his personal essay "Some Reflections," written to go along with his Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition in 2011, Audain said there was never any "grand plan" and he has resisted the title "art collector."

"I bought art simply because I wanted pictures to hang on the wall," he wrote.

"I buy based on emotion, because I am fascinated with an object that I simply cannot live without."

It remains to be seen what the Audain Art Museum will do for Whistler and how it will change the cultural landscape here but it will be, without a doubt, a place of inspiration for the next generation of artists.

"Every artist I know spends a lot of time looking at other art," says Thom. "That's one of the things that allow them to move on with their own practice."

Take some of the greatest figures in art history — Picasso and Matisse and Rembrandt.

"They don't exist in a vacuum," adds Thom. "They exist in relationship to other art. And that's one of the things the museum does — it exposes artists to other art and it's never the same when you actually look at the real thing as opposed to a reproduction."

For everyone else, Thom imagines that they will be struck with what he calls the "extraordinary range" of objects in the collection and its richness.

Audain knows there will be critics.

"It's a personal collection; it's Yoshi's and mine, our collection... So, you have to take it for what it is."

Some pieces will inspire, other pieces will baffle. Some things will invoke great feelings, one way or the other. Some things will puzzle people and make them look twice.

Remember, says Thom, artists are almost always ahead of the public. That's been true in virtually every period in history.

The beloved impressionists for example, which Emily Carr trained under as part her early career in France, were dismissed in their time.

It was years before the French museums actually bought anything. And yet, no one would look at an impressionist painting now and think it was "an incredibly radical thing."

"To me, art is something that should make you think and make you feel," says Thom. "It shouldn't just be a piece of decoration on the wall.

"The reality is when you put objects in an art exhibition, it's up to the public to make their own decisions. Some people will walk away that they loved certain things and they actually can't understand some other things at all.

"And that's probably the way it should be."

The museum will open March 12 to the public. On March 12 and 13 visitors will be allowed in at staggered times to enjoy the art. There will also be a traditional First Nations welcome at noon on March 12.

Pick up the

Pique next Thursday for a sneak peak review of what's inside.