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B.C. philanthropist Audain steps up for emerging artists

It was a show at another Vancouver art gallery that gave local philanthropist Michael Audain the idea to create an endowment for emerging artists at the city's main public art institution.

At the opening last January for Exponential Future at the University of British Columbia's Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, a show focusing on young Vancouver artists (and sponsored by the Audain Foundation), Audain was struck by what he saw.

"It was very interesting for me because it was a slice of what's new and what's kind of going on in the city," he said in an interview this week.

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"This is what we should be collecting," he thought.

In the car on the way home, Audain and his wife started talking about establishing a fund to help the Vancouver Art Gallery acquire works by emerging artists.

Yesterday, the $2-million Audain Emerging Artists Acquisition Fund was officially announced - an endowment that will allow the VAG to purchase work by emerging artists in perpetuity. It's the largest fund of its kind in the country.

"This will give us the opportunity to very specifically look at this generation of up-and-comers," Kathleen Bartels, the gallery's director, said in an interview.

The gallery will use income from the endowment - 4 to 5 per cent each year - to acquire a work or works from emerging B.C. artists generally under 35, who have not had solo exhibitions in key institutions.

The first acquisition, also announced yesterday, is Vancouver artist Mark Soo's photo-based work That's That's Alright Alright Mama Mama.

Soo, 31, said he was "thrilled" with the news. "It's a tremendous opportunity to be amongst works I've long admired and have been important to me and my development as an artist."

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The work consists of two three-dimensional views of a reconstructed version of the studio where Elvis Presley recorded That's All Right (Mama) in 1954. Soo recreated the studio space using rented equipment and props. And yes, 3-D glasses are part of the experience.

The work was in the Exponential Future show that initially inspired Audain's endowment - but that was a coincidence. Audain had nothing to do with the acquisition decision.

He does, however, approve.

"Strangely enough, it was one I was most intrigued with. [It's]not easy to forget seeing Elvis's studio where he did his first work.

"I hearken back to the Elvis generation, although I must confess I was never an Elvis fan, I was very much around in the fifties and very, very familiar with music at that time [so]I think that meant something to me. I also thought it was very clever. I thought it was a pretty important piece of art."

Soo is being considered for an as-yet unannounced VAG exhibition of B.C. contemporary artists in January, but the newly acquired work will not be in the show, as it was exhibited so recently here.

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Yesterday's announcement comes as public funding of the arts has emerged as an issue in the current federal election campaign. Both Audain and VAG director Bartels are adamant that Ottawa has an important role to play.

"I'm a strong advocate of public funding for the arts, both at the provincial and the national level," Audain says. "I don't think we can depend on private philanthropy alone."

Bartels, whose last position was assistant director at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, says a private funding-only model simply does not work. "I came from an institution that relied strictly on individual and corporate support, so you wake up every beginning of your fiscal year and know that you have to raise from individuals and corporations $19-million. That's daunting. … I don't think not having any government support is acceptable."

Still, private support is clearly welcome and at the VAG Audain is a big part of that. He chairs the Vancouver Art Gallery Foundation and the VAG's relocation committee. In 2004, he donated $2-million to endow the Audain Curator of British Columbia Art position.

"If we only had five more Michael Audains, we'd be in a more significant place," Bartels says. "That generosity is what makes not-for-profit institutions like the gallery achieve what we want to achieve."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More


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