Whistler 'profoundly fortunate' to get Audain Art Museum 

Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman talks about her experiences building a game-changing resort art gallery; Fundraising 'Sneak Peek' dinner for Audain raises $201,000

click to enlarge PHOTO BY PASCALE GADBOIS/WWW.GADBOISPHOTOGRAPHY.COM - Audain to Aspen Philanthropists Yoshi Karasawa and Michael Audain (left and centre) with Heidi Zuckerman of the Aspen Art Museum at the first fundraiser for Whistler's Audain Art Museum at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler on Saturday, March 28.
  • Photo BY Pascale Gadbois/www.Gadboisphotography.com
  • Audain to Aspen Philanthropists Yoshi Karasawa and Michael Audain (left and centre) with Heidi Zuckerman of the Aspen Art Museum at the first fundraiser for Whistler's Audain Art Museum at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler on Saturday, March 28.

When you speak to Heidi Zuckerman, director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum (AAM), you find out things like Andy Warhol learned to ski in Aspen.

It's amusing to imagine the late too-cool-for-school, pop art hipster speeding down a run, white hair flying.

But Zuckerman, who took the helm of the 40-year-old contemporary art museum in 2005, is full of great stories. One of the best is her own.

She came from illustrious galleries in New York and Berkley, Calif., and found out after she got the job in Aspen that they had a project in mind for her.

"That they wanted a new museum building was not shared with me during the interview process," Zuckerman says, smiling.

"And that became a big part of what I've done there."

The $72 million, 1,625-square metre gallery opened in downtown Aspen in 2014.

"I maintained that we weren't going to build an art museum just because they were being built all over the place, but only if we deserved one. And people said, 'Deserved? But that's not an Aspen word!'" Zuckerman recalls.

By this she meant she wanted the art museum to be full of schoolchildren, a place where parking would be hard to come by because lots would be full, "literally bursting from the seams." To her, a museum must have relevance for everyone.

"To get us there we needed to rewrite our mission and vision, and clarify our service to the community," Zuckerman says.

That rewrite took up much of her first two years in charge, but what was finally decided was that the AAM would become the best non-collecting art museum in the world.

Zuckerman was the keynote speaker at the first-ever fundraising dinner for the Audain Art Museum on Saturday, March 28, at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler.

The event, which included a major art auction, raised $201,000. This will be added to the $6.3 million raised to date towards $25 million capital fund for the Audain.

Along with Zuckerman, museum founder Michael Audain was on hand with his wife Yoshi Karasawa. He, too addressed the sold-out fundraiser.

Called a "sneak peek," the event also revealed more of the collection of the museum, which is due to open in the fall of 2015.

Along with paintings by Emily Carr and E.J. Hughes, at least two members of the Group of Seven will be part of the collection, Lawren Harris and Frederick H. Varley.

Other artists named include James Hart, Ian Wallace and Rick Harry (Xwalacktun).

In an address to the gala attendees Zuckerman presented a fascinating look at how Aspen made its art museum project work.

The main thing, she says, is that they developed a vision that attracted benefactors who agreed with them.

"When I joined the museum the single largest donation was $75,000. The first gift after I joined was from an incredibly supportive donor, Larry Marks, a cheque for $1.5 million," Zuckerman says.

"We had a lot to do and needed to get all our ducks in a row."

And that they did. Since that first donation, Zuckerman has overseen the raising of $105 million for the AAM, an astonishing feat even in well-heeled Aspen, a community with a smaller number of permanent residents than Whistler.

The AAM moved from its original home in a converted power plant to one designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban. Zuckerman says 75,000 visitors passed through its doors in its first eight months, 8,000 of those in the first 24 hours.

The museum has an annual operating budget of US$7 million and a staff of 70.

Now they concentrate on building a non-collecting museum of contemporary art from around the globe.

"We do commission a lot of the work that we show, so a lot of the work at the Aspen Art Museum is being seen there for the first time," Zuckerman says.

"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."

The museum is free to the public, thanks to donors John and Amy Phelan, who cover admission costs.

Zuckerman says the creation of the Audain Art Museum in Whistler being down to mainly one benefactor is very unusual.

"I think the community is profoundly fortunate," she says. "I talked with Michael and it seems like an incredible windfall and a game changer for Whistler. The fact that the mayor and the council embraced the opportunity quickly, sounds like there could have been opportunities to derail things but people said 'yes.' That doesn't often happen, for everyone to be so in sync."

She says her biggest piece of advice is for people to become involved as early as they can.

Zuckerman says: "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 (eventually) Whistler, she says two words: "No, none."


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