Whistler’s Audain Art Museum gets first major art donation

Space constraints at Vancouver Art Gallery deter donors

E.J. Hughes painted his Harbour Scene in 1970 and the work is likely to be in the Audain Art Museum when it opens next year 

Whistler’s Audain Art Museum (AAM) in Whistler has received its first major art donation from someone other than its founders.

Vancouver art collectors Jacques Barbeau and his wife Marguerite Owen have agreed to allow 15 of their approximately 80 paintings by B.C. artist E.J. Hughes to hang on a 30-year lease at the under-construction, $30 million Audain museum, which will focus on B.C. art.

Vancouver developer, art collector and founder Michael Audain and his wife Yoshi Karasawa are spending upwards of $30 million to build the museum, which will have a gallery dedicated to Hughes. That gallery will include both the art donated by Barbeau and Owen as well as at least four pieces that Audain and Karasawa own.

“The agreement is for our art to hang at the gallery certainly for a minimum of 30 years,” said Barbeau, who is 83 years old.

He then explained that he chose to donate Hughes’ art to the Audain gallery instead of the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) because of VAG’s space constraints.

“It doesn’t mean that this is something personal or that I’m denigrating VAG – not at all,” Barbeau told Business in Vancouver.

“The cellar of VAG is huge. It holds tremendous holdings of art from B.C. So, what happens is, if that you donate paintings, they come in and they come out. The VAG has a number of E.J. Hughes that have been collected over the past 50 years. They are shown every five years or seven years.”

AAM executive director Suzanne Greening stressed that her museum is not in competition with VAG.

VAG’s director of marketing and communications, Stephen Webster, similarly, said VAG was “absolutely delighted” to hear that Barbeau and Owen had chosen to donate their art to the AAM.

Art collectors in Vancouver were similarly impressed.

“It is wonderful to see private collectors such as Jacques and Marguerite bring their works, which are literally lining the floors and leaning against the walls at home, and generously making them available to the public,” said Rennie Marketing Systems owner Bob Rennie, who has a vast art collection and has invested millions of dollars to create his own art gallery in Gastown.

“What I like about what Michael is doing is that it’s similar to what we’re doing in Chinatown – we’re both putting action to our passions and getting our collections out there for the public to see."

Audain had been on the VAG board of directors for 16 years, 13 of them as chairman, until he resigned earlier this year.

One thing that’s virtually certain is that Audain’s 56,000-square-foot museum, designed by Patkau Architects, will be built. It is under construction and set to be complete next year.

The VAG, on the other hand, is still raising funds in its capital campaign and must come up with $150 million by April 2015 in order to meet a City of Vancouver deadline and get rights to a 99-year lease, which the city approved conditionally in 2013.

VAG wants to build a $300 million iconic facility at Larwill Park, which is the city-owned block bounded by Cambie, Dunsmuir, Beatty and Georgia streets, which used to be a bus station.

VAG has chosen the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron to design the facility. That firm is known for work on iconic structures around the world such as Beijing’s Birds Nest stadium.

Some of the firm’s principals were recently in Vancouver.