Future Whistler museum takes shape with major E.J. Hughes loan

Steamer in Grenville Channel (1952) by E.J. Hughes

Collector Jacques Barbeau stands before Steamer in Grenville Channel (1952)

Taylor Bay, Gabriola Island, B.C. (1952) by E.J. Hughes.

Old Baldy Mountain, Shawnigan Lake (1961) by E.J. Hughes.

Barbeau began collecting works by E.J. Hughes in 1964, when he purchased a small piece for $400.

A gift of paintings by one of B.C.’s most important modernists brings Audain Art Museum in Whistler closer to realization

Real estate developer Michael Audain’s future art museum in Whistler came one step closer to fruition Monday, with a long-term loan of 15 works by the artist E.J. Hughes from Vancouver collector Jacques Barbeau. With a gallery space roughly half the size of the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Audain Art Museum will house the largest permanent exhibition of West Coast art in the country when it opens in 2015.

On Monday Barbeau showed reporters the fifteen works scattered throughout his Shaughnessy home. Reproductions of the paintings lay on the floor, modest replacements which will go up on Barbeau’s walls when the originals move to Whistler. “Hughes caught my imagination,” said Barbeau, a former lawyer and director at Laurentian Bank who has collected works by Hughes since 1964. It was an illustration on the cover of the B.C. Tel phone directory, steamers off a on a dark day of B.C.’s coast, that first caught Barbeau’s eye in the 1950s. Barbeau, who has made an effort to repatriate works by the artist to B.C., said he was delighted to see the works, which has collected over the course of five decades, move to Whistler. The pieces are on a 30-year loan to the museum.

Hughes is among the few B.C. artists to have works sell over the $1-million mark; in June, his 1952 Coastal Boats Near Sidney, B.C. painting sold for $1,140,750.

Together with paintings in Audain’s collection, 19 works by the B.C. artist E.J. Hughes, who painted iconic watercolours and oils of the province’s coastal landscape, will form the centrepiece of the museum’s collection, housed in their own distinct space, the Barbeau-Owen Gallery.

Nestled in a spruce grove near Whistler village, the museum has moved from proposal to construction (and soon to opening) at “lightning speed,” says Ian Thom, senior curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), who has advised Audain on his new museum. 

In 2011, Thom curated a exhibition at the VAG of works from Michael Audain and his wife Yoshi Karasawa’s extensive collection. That exhibit will form the basis of the permanent collection at the Whistler museum,

Audain Museum executive director Suzanne Greening and Thom also offered details on the future museum. In total, the future will display 189 works from Audain’s private collection, said Thom. With a focus on art from the Pacific Northwest, the museum will open with an array of First Nations masks and ceremonial objects from the 19th century. 

Visitors will then walk through a chronological series of spaces containing works by Emily Carr and West Coast modernists like Lawren Harris and Frederick Vallery, and then the dedicated E.J. Hughes gallery, featuring his work from the 1930s through to the 2000s. The gallery will end with a selection of contemporary First Nations and non-First Nations artists, including works from world-renowned Vancouver school artists Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Stan Douglas.