Impressions of the Audain Art Museum, Whistler

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.

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“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.

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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.

 

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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.

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  • “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.

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8 thoughts on “Impressions of the Audain Art Museum, Whistler

  1. Lynn, thank you for providing us with a comparison to explore what was working and what wasn’t working in the way works were presented in the Audain Museum. I’ve never been to Haida Gwaii but hope to someday visit and check out the cultural centre. I too thought that the Audian collection had some truly beautiful pieces in it, but I too disagree with the curatorial decision to present the works without much in the way of context, particularly when it comes to the historical and contemporary First Nations works. While I get the inclination to want to allow patrons to develop their own appreciation and relationship to the works, this strikes me as contrary to the educational function of a public, non-profit museum. In the first gallery we entered, the mask collection was incredibly impressive, but I know from visits to the Bill Reid Gallery or Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, that each mask is laden with meaning and cultural context. The dance masks have a ceremonial function. Characters and designs belong to specific clans and families and vary from nation to nation and story to story. Museums are doing great innovative work to beef up their educational function – audio tour apps, docent-led highlights tours, text on walls and art tags to provide key contextual highlights, social media links to profiles of individual pieces… QR codes leading to short essays on pieces is great as part of the strategy, but not as the whole strategy. It made the gallery feel much colder than it should have.

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    • Hi Melissa,
      I would have loved to have been there, but I am reading this for the first time today. (Saturday). Thanks for your comments, I really appreciate them.
      Linn

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  2. Hi Linn

    Thank you for this post. I too felt ambivalent about the Audain, but to be fair, I think part of it was because we really didn’t have much time in the gallery as the tour had to be done within hour. Had I been able to, I would have gone back to spend more time, quietly strolling through each gallery room and taking it all in again. Although the curator provided a totally logical explanation as to why he chose not to provide much information to accompany each piece, if the Audain’s goal is to reach more people, and a more diverse group of people (was it? I can’t recall), I think more explanation of the pieces right there with the exhibits might be helpful. I don’t actually believe enough visitors will take the time to do the research on each piece once they’ve left the gallery. One of our classmates suggested that an audio tour might be useful if the Audain prefers to stick to minimal written information about the works. Perhaps that’s work a try. My personal bias is showing here, as in particular with the older masks, I find history and information about their origins, their meaning and associations interesting. But not everyone does, surely. These masks are lovely works of art, but we are also looking at a piece of indigenous history when we view them. I want to understand the culture as it was then, in the words of those who they belong to. It would be wonderful if the Audain could gather information about these pieces from the ancestors of those who created them to help fill in their vibrant stories.

    -Gayle

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  3. thank you Linn for this unique critique of the Audain Gallery visit; comparing it with your impressions of Haida art in its geographical and cultural setting was interesting and thought provoking. By measuring the success of displays of Indigenous Art to location and geographical congruence, are we not, perhaps subconsciously, imbuing our criticism with a colonial and politically correct positioning? This is the argument I am wrestling with for myself personally and in attempting to respond to both you, Melissa and Gayle. Are indigenous pieces works of art, worthy of display in any setting and perfectly capable of holding their own worth in any setting (in the world) or are they historical works only, primarily in need of curation and interpretation. We have the luxury of being much better educated than most viewers, not only in British Columbia history and the impact of colonialism and racist government policies on indigenous peoples, but also having a better knowledge, (no matter how shallow) than most international visitors in viewing BC indigenous art for the first time. Do we really have to go to Haida Gwaai to view and understand the art in all its power? Much as I would like to do so I am persuaded by Michael Yahgulanaas argument that Haida art is in reality very accessible and we are capable of deconstructing the issue of accessibility (a trip to Haida Gwaai is not completely necessary). Bill Reid’s work at the YVR and UBC Museum of Anthropology, as well as Yahgulanaas’ pieces at the same venues demonstrate the power of beautifully executed work, humour and mischief to convey internationally understood themes. Indeed, the works of those two individuals certainly do stand on their own, in major galleries in North America and Europe, so perhaps I’ve already resolved my personal argument. But what about the older, more historical pieces, which were lost to “us”, more pointedly, lost to their original creators and cultural nations for so long, through either trickery or theft and are only now back in British Columbia via the purchasing power of a private collector. These are historical pieces, important in their narration of culture and place; in my view, they are indeed powerful enough to stand alone, but I still want to know so much more about them!
    I too was very not very happy with the curation of the Coastal Nations masks at the Audain Gallery. I don’t believe many people take the time to visit a web site after a gallery/museum visit and felt strongly there should have been much stronger identifying information regarding the artist, nation, time frame and meaning behind each individual piece and not simply the attribution of the gift or pending donation to the gallery (that felt particularly egotistical; conveying once again ownership and the complex relationship in the art world of the means of acquisition and ownership, especially in the realm of historically significant and spiritual pieces…….but that’s another debate). In the case of Audain Gallery, a specifically British Columbia only art gallery; in the setting of the village of Whistler; gathering place of the local and international traveller, the collection of First Nations pieces deserved to be presented in a way not only respectful but in such a way as to be highly informative to those viewers who have never before had the opportunity to be introduced to this art. It may not be a gallery dedicated to First Nations works of art, but it certainly has created a standard and mission of presenting British Columbia artists and their works, at least, that is the stated intent. Or is there something else on display at the Audain gallery?

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  4. Hi Judith,
    Thanks for your thoughtful critique!! I don’t think you have to go to Haida Gwaii to experience Haida art, but for me, it has been a powerful experience. I think we should organize a GLS “pilgrimage” to Haida Gwaii, and check it out!!

    Linn

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  5. Linn, this statement in your critique says so much, “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 whole idea of colonial judgement of First Nations art based on European (and their mixed descendants’) observations, without any cultural context, has always angered me. I have actually wept looking at masks in the past. Some of them feel so possessed to me that I am massively impacted by being near them. To see them behind glass with dainty spotlights over top of them makes them appear stolen, ripped out of where they should be used and viewed simply as objects of ignorant curiosity. They are a diaspora, locked away in climate controlled halls, without their kin to contextualize and animate them.

    Exhibited by the people who created them, or even better, worn by dancers who can tell stories through them, they feel at home. I didn’t even begin to deal with this in my critique. There were so many ideas that were available to us to write about with this museum. If nothing else, it was a wonderful catalyst.

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