Whistler, British Columbia, the almost too-picturesque-to-be-believable mountain resort town, is just a two-hour stunning, ocean drive up the coast from Vancouver. Whistler’s wooded and often snowy mountains have long been a magnet for international black diamond skiers, and nature lovers alike. Now, with the opening of a small gem of an art museum with a stunning permanent collection and a slate of internationally compelling temporary exhibits, the famed mountain town of Whistler introduces itself on the world stage as a cultural hub too.
The young Audain Art Museum honors both the still unspoiled British Columbia wilderness that surrounds Whistler and many of the artists, past and present, who have been inspired aesthetically and spiritually by the power of the landscape. The Whistler art museum’s permanent collection is a visual homage to British Columbia’s indigenous people and its still untamed nature. From rare and dramatic traditional First Nations 19th century ceremonial masks to the transformative work of contemporary artists Marianne Nicholson and Brian Jungen—whose internationally known 21st-century works are inspired by their own First Nations heritage—the collection is simply mesmerizing.
A cultural hub for the community
The museum is the brainchild of Canadian builder, philanthropist and art lover, Michael Audain. In fact, the museum’s more than two hundred permanent pieces of art were part of Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa’s personal collection. It comes as no surprise to those familiar with Audain’s long history of arts philanthropy that he decided to share these treasures with his fellow residents of British Columbia, and, indeed, because of Whistler’s scores of international visitors, the world. Audain, on explaining his project, modestly refers to his ownership of the art as temporary. “All collectors have only a temporary association with the works,” he says with unmistakable humility in his voice. “We are all just custodians.”
Audain’s sentiment is deeply appreciated in the arts community. Arlene Gladstone, a long time participant in and contributor to the Vancouver cultural scene is a part-time resident of Whistler. She expresses what many residents of the area feel about the museum and Audain’s gift, “I think I’m not alone in feeling enormously grateful to Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa for sharing this with the community. Not just amazing to have this collection here, but have it surrounded by such beauty.”
That “beauty” includes the low, understated sculptural dark gray steel and aluminum clad building created by Patkau Architects. Elevated on piers, it is discreetly set into a grove of spruce, cedar and fir trees. Visitors enter along a bridge through the tree branches and even before going inside are welcomed by, a 16-foot high aluminum totem pole by Xwalacktun, a contemporary artist from the Squamish Nation. Gail Lord of Lord Cultural Resources, a global cultural consulting company involved with the planning for the Audain Art Museum, has worked with museums around the world, from the Guggenheim Abu Dabi to the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. She says this one is unique. “To see a collection you would expect to see in a major city in a ski resort and a building that is this sophisticated surrounded by mountains is a special experience.”
The museum’s entrance opens into a light-flooded area where large glass windows look out on the forest and fields beyond, an architectural statement that suggests that the museum is not only dedicated to the art of the region, but to its natural surroundings. Inside the first of the galleries housing the permanent collection, visitors are greeted by a floor-to-ceiling cedar screen almost alive with carvings of fish, bear, beaver, and frogs. “The Dance Screen” (The Scream Too), as the panel is called, is made of wood, abalone, mica, acrylic, and wire and is a contemporary work by James Hart, a Haida master carver. Hart’s 2013 work is surrounded by the one-of-a-kind collection of large intricately crafted ceremonial masks from North Coast First Nations such as a fierce red and black raven transformation mask with extended wings and an eagle headdress of wood, abalone, and hair.
Iconic Canadian Art
As dramatic and unique as this part of the permanent collection is there are other jewels in the collection that are not from First Nations artists and artisans. Another gallery is devoted to a significant number of paintings from iconic Canadian painter, Emily Carr. One of Canada’s most revered painters, she has been compared in significance to both Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo. Carr visually chronicled the lives of Canada’s West Coast First Nations people and culture in the early 20th century. “Go to Whistler just for the purpose of seeing the Carr collection,” says Beaverbrook Art Gallery Director and CEO, Thomas Smart, who has written about Canadian art for three decades. “The experience is transformative!”
Still another gallery is filled with work of more contemporary Canadian art such as Toni Onley’s expressionistic and mysterious watercolors of the northern Canadian landscape and that of some of B.C.’s most interesting post-modern photo conceptualists such as Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas.
Although the permanent collection and in particular, Canada’s largest collection of iconic painter Emily Carr, seem to be the big attraction since the museum has been open, its carefully curated temporary exhibits are attracting art lovers (even those who don’t ski!) to Whistler. The aim of these exhibitions explains the museum’s chief curator, Darrin Martens, is to bring in a variety of internationally recognized work that would not normally be seen in a resort community. And, he adds, “Of course we want works that complement the permanent collection.”
Martens points to the recently opened exhibit, Stone and Sky: Canada’s Mountain Landscape that runs until February 26, 2018. That exhibit of photographs, paintings, prints, drawings by some of Canada’s most celebrated artists (1867-2017), is a coast-to-coast exploration of Canada’s mountain landscapes.
From March 30 to June 11, 2018, the museum will showcase Beau Dick (Beau Dick: Revolutionary Spirit). Dick, a carver, sculptor, and printmaker was a member of Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation. His often-haunting work, though deeply reverent of his traditions, also challenged those traditions artistically.
While some of the temporary exhibits like the Beau Dick retrospective relate to the region, Martens says, others such as Pop Art Prints, coming up next summer, is an opportunity to simply show high-quality interesting work to the regional audience and to the growing audience of international visitors. From June 29 – September 17, 2018, the Audain Art Museum will exhibit prints from pop art icons such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol.
Perhaps the museum’s most unusual show is an upcoming exhibit of contemporary Aboriginal art from Australia. Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection opens next autumn and runs from October 5, 2018, to January 7, 2019. Darrin Martens says he hopes the exhibit of works from legendary Aboriginal artists such as Rover Thomas and Emily Kam Kngwarreye “can create a dialogue between Canadian Indigenous art and Aboriginal arts of Australia.
For the resort’s 2.5 million yearly visitors, skiing, hiking, climbing, and snowboarding will always be a draw, but the addition of the Audain Art Museum to a burgeoning slate of cultural activates that includes yearly film and music festivals is quickly transforming Whistler from a haven for outdoor thrills to a four seasons go-to headquarters for arts and culture. For his part, Michael Audain, a fifth generation British Columbian, says his hope for the museum that bears his name is simple. “I want visitors from all over the world to appreciate the wonders of the art from this part of the world, the Pacific Northwest.”