Since our visit to the Audain Art Museum in Whistler last week, I have been trying to decide why I feel some ambivalence about my experience there. The Museum is in a forest, and overlooks a meadow and woods. It is beautifully integrated into the natural setting and is a spectacular building, about 55,000 square feet, which includes six galleries for the permanent collection and an exhibition wing with galleries on two floors.
The Museum is the generous gift of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa, and includes a large part of their personal art collection, an eclectic combination of British Columbia art, with a strong focus on northwest first nations art, and Canada’s largest permanent display of the works of Emily Carr.
“Forest Light”, Emily Carr, c 1931
“The Dance Screen (The Scream Too)”, by Haida Master Carver, James Hart was the highlight of the tour for me. It is the only free- standing dance screen in the world, and the only one carved to this level of detail. Principal animal figures from Haida legends have been brought together in this piece.
The Dance Screen (The Scream Too) by James Hart in the Audain Art Museum
Although I saw many other beautiful pieces of art in the spectacular new museum building, I was surprised that I did not have a stronger connection with the Museum, and wondered why that might be.
I have been comparing my reactions to those I had the first time (and subsequent times) I have visited the Haida Heritage Centre near Skidegate in Haida Gwaii. From my first visit there in 2007, I was inspired and enriched by my engagement with the works of art, and by the people I met there. Although it is similar in size to the Audain Art Museum, it serves more diverse purposes. It houses the Haida Gwaii Museum, Performance House, Canoe House, Bill Reid Teaching Centre, two multipurpose classrooms, a Welcome House area, and Eating House. It had been a dream of the Haida people for decades to build a place where they would be able to preserve and celebrate their past, as well as celebrate the living culture of their people. In 2007, when the Centre was finally opened at the ancient village site at Kay Llnagaay, people could take pride in this achievement as the result of the collaboration of the whole community, reflecting the values of that community. Every piece of art in the museum has meaning to the Haida, as it is part of their history and culture, and that makes the experience, even for a non-Haida person, very powerful.
Haida Heritage Centre Museum, Haida Gwaii
The current holdings of the Audain Art Museum reflect the artistic choices of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa over many years, and of course, reflect their values and tastes in art. The Museum was built at Whistler, in part, because the Resort Municipality offered a 199-year lease for $1 a year, not because the donors or the artists had any particular connection to the area. Although Emily Carr is prominent in this collection, there are few other women whose work is displayed. This is starting to change, according to Darrin Martens, Chief Curator. A new work by Susan Point, Salish artist, will become part of the collection in the Fall of 2017. Although not part of the Museum’s works, but right outside the Museum, is Point’s joyful installation “A Timeless Circle.” It is the newest addition (March 2016) to Whistler’s Public Art Program.
- “A Timeless Circle” Art Installation, Whistler, by Susan Point, Salish Artist
When James Hart was carving “The Dance Screen (The Scream Too)” he said that doing this work was proving “that we are still here. We are not gone. We are not a dead culture.” If I had seen that work in Haida Gwaii, I would have felt his message very clearly. Although I loved the piece, I didn’t feel that context in the Audain Gallery. I think this missing context is what made me less connected to many of the works, than I might have been. In Haida Gwaii, the works are part of survival of a people and a culture. In the Audain Gallery, they are beautiful pieces of art, which have been purchased for their beauty.
The Museum has only been open since March of 2016, so will inevitably change over time. It has developed, out of necessity, as a “top down” project, not a community project. I hope that when new acquisitions are made, more British Columbians will have input to the direction of the museum, and will be able to make suggestions for educational and cultural events that could be held in that space. Using the donated works as a base, I hope that the Museum will evolve to be truly reflective of the work of the artists of British Columbia, and will develop to take its place as an integral and critical part of the larger British Columbia arts community.