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Audain Art Museum virtual gala raises record-breaking amount

Amidst challenging pandemic year, Illuminate Gala raises $650K 
Heffel Fine Art Auction House managed the live bids for 16 art pieces during the Illuminate Gala & Auction on April 24.

On the morning of April 25, Curtis Collins woke up and breathed a sigh of relief. 

The night before marked the Audain Art Museum’s first virtual Illuminate Gala & Auction and, frankly, he hadn’t been entirely sure how the event might translate online. 

“In a year that was very unpredictable, I can only say I went, whew—exclamation point,” Collins, director and chief curator of the museum, said. “As our first-ever virtual gala, it was a massive success both in terms of how much we were able to raise for the museum, but also the community support that really rallied around the museum, in terms of purchasing tickets to the event or participating in the silent auction and, of course, the live auction as well.” 

In the past, the last four galas (last year’s was cancelled due to the pandemic) grossed between $300,000 and $500,000. This year’s online event raised $650,000. 

“In terms of ticket sales, we sold more tickets than ever before,” Collins says. “There were 379 people in attendance.” 

The event was more important than ever for the museum after a tough year in which they had to cut 30 per cent of their staff and cancel a number of exhibitions due to the pandemic’s impact on their budget.

“With the success of this year’s virtual gala, it will enable the museum to … rehire a number of managerial positions,” he says. “It will also allow us to bring back our exhibition schedule to what it was previously.” 

While the gala usually takes place in a Whistler ballroom, this year, ticketholders had food, wine, a cocktail kit, and an ice sculpture depicting the museum delivered to their homes in time for the one-and-a-half hour broadcast. 

The show featured a welcome song from the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, live music and dance performances, as well as a silent auction with many items and experiences donated from local businesses. “It oscillated between Vancouver and Whistler,” Collins says. “In many respects, the museum wants to establish itself as one of the premier cultural institutions in the Sea to Sky corridor; that underlined it.”

But perhaps the liveliest part of the night was the live auction for 16 pieces of art—ranging from traditional to contemporary, including one commission. Potential bidders had the opportunity to see the art in person at previews in Whistler and Vancouver, which helped drum up enthusiasm, Collins says. 

With Robert Heffel of Heffel Fine Art Auction House as the auctioneer, six people were taking bids by phone while other bidders were submitting online simultaneously. 

“I’m going to say four or five of [the pieces] went to locals,” Collins says. “We had quite spirited bidding from Whistlerites. Similarly, somewhere in the order of eight or nine pieces went to people in Vancouver or the Lower Mainland.”

The success of the event—which Collins attributes to the Audain’s staff and volunteer committee—could have implications for future years. 

“Next year’s event, we’re hoping it will be in-person, but I think what we’ll do is some kind of hybrid between in-person and virtual,” he said. “What we found out this time is a lot of people were interested in keying into the live auction broadcast, so we may offer that.”

New exhibit opening in June 

The museum, which is currently closed to accommodate the ongoing COVID-19 travel advisory, is set to reopen with a new temporary exhibit next month. 

Featuring work inspired by Nunavut, it will include drawings by the late Itee Pootoogook, a Nunavut resident, and large-scale photos by Louie Palu, who travelled to the north in pursuit of a photo series. 

Pootoogook’s work will be on display with upwards of 60 of his colour pencil drawings. 

“These drawings will give you an Inuit perspective on contemporary life in Nunavut,” Collins says. “They’re beautiful drawings.” 

Palu’s series, meanwhile, set out to explore the Distant Early Warning system in Artic during the Cold War. 

The exhibit as a whole will depict “the Inuit perspective on the North and the Southern settler perspective of the North,” Collins says. “One in drawing and one in photography. They offer two very different perspectives in different mediums.”

Stay tuned to for the official opening date.