Vancouver Art Gallery super-donor Michael Audain writes captivating memoir

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This month, the public learned that the president of the Audain Foundation had made the largest cash donation to an art gallery in Canadian history.

Michael Audain has donated $ 100 million to support the creation of a new Vancouver Art Gallery building in the block-sized parking lot on West Georgia Street near Stadium Station.

Many Vancouverites know Audain as the founder and longtime president of Polygon Homes. Others hail him as the most generous patron of the visual arts in British Columbia long before the $ 100 million donation. Many people have visited the art museum that he and his wife, Yoshi Karasawa, established in Whistler. Still others know he worked for the NDP government in the early 1970s, playing a pivotal role in the founding of BC Housing.

But few know that his great-great-grandfather was the ruthless 19th-century coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, a Scottish immigrant and industrialist.

Audain writes candidly about this and many other fascinating aspects of his life in his new autobiography, A man in his time.

He points out that the fortunes on his family’s Dunsmuir side were “reduced to smoldering ruin by the time I arrived.” This was due to “several generations of infighting and bad life.”

“For much of my life, I tried to avoid identifying with my Dunsmuir ancestors,” Audain reveals in the book.

His grandmother married a Sandhurst-trained officer, Colonel Guy Audain, who lived the high life with his family’s money. Her father, drinker Jimmy Audain, retained a fondness for local Indo-Canadians in Victoria, a holdover from his father’s time served in the British Army in India.

Audain, an introvert, bluntly describes his rather unhappy childhood. These included escaping from an Anglo-Norman island during WWII, enduring brutal corporal punishment at a British school, and failing to impress its teachers with many academic or athletic prowess.

It wasn’t until college that he figured out how to pass his exams.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is about his experience as one of the Freedom Riders. These were groups of white and African American civil rights activists who traveled by bus through the Deep South to challenge racist laws.

Audain also sat in the back of the bus with black passengers, refusing offers to move to the front of the white area. He also sat in the “Colored” section of a bus stop in Jackson, Mississippi. And for that, Audain was arrested.

A detective asked if he was a member of the Communist Party.

“No, I actually voted Progressive Conservative in the last Canadian election because I wanted to support John Diefenbaker,” replied Audain.

It was nonsense, according to the detective, because it is not possible to be both progressive and conservative at the same time. So he had to be a communist.

This landed Audain in a Mississippi prison, which he describes quite graphically. When he was released, he was greeted by an angry crowd, including a young man who splashed urine on his shirt and pants.

A man in his time includes many other dramatic and funny moments, including the moment NDP Leader Tommy Douglas encouraged him to remove a photo of Fidel Castro from Audain’s table during the NDP founding convention.

He describes his “transformation from a reformist social worker to a full-scale residential developer” as a “natural progression”.

He was invited into the house building industry by a developer named Vern Paulus in the 1980s when he was about to write a novel based on a 17th century Greek who became chief minister of a kingdom of Southeast Asia.

Audain consulted a Buddhist monk, who let him know that he would be successful in business and as a writer. But the monk’s advice was that it would be better to go into business because he would earn money and he could always write a book later. This persuaded Audain to accept Paulus’ invitation.

“Certainly in this role I have been able to create much more affordable housing for ordinary BC families than I ever could have if I had stayed in the public sector or for purpose. nonprofit, ”he writes.

Audain also shares his thoughts on what it was like for his business to be sued during the leaky condo crisis of the 1990s. He points out that all claims were settled without the cases ever going to trial. in court, but not without more than a few sleepless nights as a public inquiry was underway into the matter.

Written in an easy to read style, A man in his time reveals how a person’s life can evolve in radically different directions depending on a chance encounter, a fluke of history, or sheer determination. It’s straightforward but nuanced and erudite but not pretentious or boring.

Come to think of it, the monk was right: Michael Audain would have succeeded wonderfully if he had decided to become a writer in the 1980s.

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