Q & A: ARTS PATRON MICHAEL AUDAIN
By day, he’s chairman of Vancouver-based Polygon Homes, but Michael Audain’s real passion is the visual arts. He’s an enthusiastic collector and evidence of his passion for British Columbian artists can be seen on the walls of Polygon’s 9th floor office — paintings by Jack Shadbolt, Gordon Smith and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun mix with photorealist works by Ian Wallace, Rodney Graham and Tim Lee. His volunteer commitments include years as a director at the Vancouver Art Gallery — he now chairs their endowment fund.
But the stakes rose a notch in 1997 when he started a family trust fund, the Audain Foundation for Visual Arts. As of early 2008, he’d given more than $10 million of his personal fortune to the arts, including the annual Audain Award for Visual Arts, a $30,000 cash prize given every year to honour the lifetime achievement of a B.C. artist. He believes in the value of the visual arts, but shies away from being called a philanthropist. It’s too grandiose, he says. Galleries West sat down with him to find out where his commitment comes from.
Why are the arts, in general, important to you?
One way of measuring quality of life in major cities is by looking at access to cultural activities. Without these activities you tend to experience a brain drain. A case in point is Singapore. Ten years ago, the government embarked on a plan to improve the cultural infrastructure there. Students used to study abroad and viewed Singapore as a boring town. Now there is always some sort of festival going on. There is a centre for visual arts, orchestras and more — and it’s all state sponsored.
But you tend to focus on visual arts. Why?
The visual arts are something I developed an interest in as a teenager and it’s been a major interest in my life. As I get older, I’m able to take more time off from business — my partners allow me to do it — and spend more time focusing on that.
What was the experience that drew you to your commitment to the visual arts?
I was first interested in art of the Pacific Northwest. When I was 10 years old I met Mungo Martin, who was commissioned to replicate some poles that were rotting away in Thunderbird Park [adjacent to what is now the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria]. He was from Alert Bay. I asked him what he was carving and he said, “What does it look like?” I said “it looks like a face, but I can’t tell if it’s animal or human.” He put down his tools and talked with me for 15 minutes. He explained that in his tradition, spirits go from one form to another and stories tell of animals becoming men and men transforming into animals. It was one hell of a lesson and I never forgot it.
What are your favourites in your own collection? Anything on your wish list?
I don’t talk about my own collection. I will say that whatever Yoshi [his wife] and I have in our personal collection never goes back on the market. It gets donated to the appropriate sources, particularly older Northwest coast pieces. Our interest is in repatriating them to the band they came from, particularly if they have the curatorial facilities. But I feel Northwest coast art belongs in general art galleries as well. For example, I’m interested in the Vancouver Art Gallery acquiring more First Nations art as part of their general collection.
How do you decide what projects the Audain Foundation will fund?
We get a lot of proposals and prioritize them with an emphasis on supporting visual arts in B.C. first, supporting public art galleries and exhibitions. We also support education in visual arts and Aboriginal arts initiatives.
Can you comment on the importance of private sector funding in the arts?
It’s becoming more important because the Canadian government has not expanded their support for the arts over the last 25 years, especially in keeping with how the population has grown and with how the interest in arts has grown. We’re becoming more reliant on private philanthropy, and the challenge for those of us who care about the arts is to convince our fellow citizens that it’s just as important to support culture as health and educational institutions. There are a lot of wealthy people in B.C., they just need to be given the right opportunity to get involved. — Heather Ramsay