Michael Audain, the former head of the Vancouver Art Gallery's relocation committee and a key voice in the campaign for a new gallery, is no longer a VAG trustee, exiting as chair of the Vancouver Art Gallery Foundation. His departure comes at a crucial time for the gallery, which has recently named an architect for the project, and is moving ever closer to a city-imposed deadline to raise $150-million.
Mr. Audain says after 16 years on the foundation board – 13 as chair – he decided not to remain beyond the end of his term. He is leaving, he says, as a result of "a lot of priorities" – which include the building of his own art museum in Whistler, scheduled to open in October, 2015.
"It's simply because I've got so many projects going on," Mr. Audain explained in an interview, making it clear that he is strongly in favour of the relocation project. "Obviously, we'll be supportive of the new building in due course."
Mr. Audain has also recently left his position on the board of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation (he stepped down as the National Gallery's board chair in July 2012).
Chair of Polygon Homes, Mr. Audain, 76, is a wealthy real estate developer and a generous patron of the arts, with a keen interest in visual art – in particular art of the Northwest Coast. He and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa, have amassed an astonishing personal art collection, with works by the likes of Emily Carr, Lawren Harris, Andy Warhol and Diego Rivera. Many of their works (including art the couple has donated to the VAG) were showcased at the gallery in 2011-12 in the exhibition Shore, Forest and Beyond: Art from the Audain Collection.
In Vancouver, as a result of his philanthropy, there is a gallery with the Audain name on it at both the Museum of Anthropology and SFU Woodward's; the Audain Prize for the Visual Arts awarded annually to a senior B.C. artist; and an Audain Curator of British Columbia Art at the VAG. Last year, he announced a $5-million gift for the Emily Carr University of Art + Design to create the Audain School of Visual Arts at the new campus; a year earlier he gave $5-million to the University of British Columbia to create the Audain Art Centre at UBC. There is a long list of recipients of Audain funding, including the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and the Bill Reid Foundation.
But he is most closely associated with the VAG, where he joined the association board in 1990, and was first elected to the foundation board in 1998. As chair of the relocation committee, he became the face – along with gallery director Kathleen Bartels and then-board chair David Aisenstat – of the fight for a new, purpose-built facility.
But after years of vocal advocacy, Mr. Audain stunned the local art scene in 2012 by announcing he would build his own museum in Whistler. The $30-million, 56,000-square-foot museum, designed by Patkau Architects, will feature Northwest Coast works from his personal collection – ranging from First Nations masks to contemporary art by the likes of Jeff Wall and Ken Lum – and will be funded by his foundation. Even a few months behind its original schedule, the Audain Art Museum is moving at lightning speed compared to the VAG project, which has been in the works for more than a decade and has a spring 2020 opening target date.
"Michael is one of our strongest supporters, closest friends, advocates, cheerleader," said Ms. Bartels. "Him and I have been partners on this project since 2003, so in many ways the two of us have been leading this together. He's been involved in every important decision, every important committee. Early on, we had our real estate subcommittee looking at sites – he chaired that. He's been with us every step of the way … and I don't think that will ever change."
The VAG, which recently selected the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, has until the end of April to raise an additional $150-million from Ottawa and the province in order to meet the terms laid out by the city, which owns the land where the VAG plans to build.
Mr. Audain calls it "a great project" and said he will still be "a keen supporter." Nothing should be read into his decision to leave the board, he said – other than the fact that he is very busy.
"There's only so many things I can work on and take responsibility for, and that's a big, long-term project."