03/07/2013 02:42 EST | Updated 05/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Michael Audain Gives Emily Carr University $5-Million Donation

VANCOUVER - Emily Carr University's plan to expand its visual arts school is looking good, following a multimillion-dollar donation from businessman and philanthropist Michael Audain.

The chairman of Polygon Homes announced a $5-million gift Thursday toward the planned expansion of the art school's campus on Great Northern Way in Vancouver.

It’s the largest individual private donation in the university's history, spokesman Barry Patterson said.

"No other donor in the history of this university has shown this kind of visionary support," Patterson said.

Ron Burnett, Emily Carr's president, likened Audain’s contribution to an earthquake for the arts scene in Canada.

"Michael, you’ve done more than you know," Burnett said at a news conference at the school's campus on Granville Island.

Audain's contribution adds to $113 million already promised by the provincial government toward the estimated cost of the new $134-million campus.

"It is now up to the rest of us to raise the balance," Audain said.

The school is already well-known nationally and internationally, with alumni and faculty work exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the National Gallery in London, among others.

Some of the school’s most-notable alumni include award-winning artists Sonny Assu, Marianne Nicholson, Corin Sworn, Brian Jungen, as well as writer and designer Douglas Coupland.

The new campus will include spaces for painting and illustration, ceramics, print media, photography and sculpture.

A proposed Audain School of Visual Arts aims to attract the best visual artists from around the world, the university said.

Audain grew up with art-less walls at his family’s home in Victoria, but he said his appreciation of art stemmed from mandatory boarding school trips to Saturday lectures at what is now the Royal BC Museum.

With no formal art history courses under his belt, Audain said he buys art based on what speaks to him "on an emotional level."

"If I feel I can’t live without it, I acquire it," the 75-year-old said.

Among his most prized acquisitions was a ceremonial club given to Captain James Cook by the Nuu-chah-nulth people of Vancouver Island, Audain said.

Valued at approximately $1.2 million, he purchased the club from a private art dealer in New York and repatriated it to the Museum of Anthropology. It was the last remaining object from Captain Cook’s personal collection not housed in a public museum.

Audain has made other significant donations to universities and museums from his family’s foundation and extensive private art collection.

According to Audain Foundation estimates, over the years the family has granted over $36 million to 61 organizations for projects related to visual arts.

He said his two children and four grandchildren have inherited his interest for the arts.

One of Audain’s grandsons attends a liberal arts university in Squamish and won a high school award for his sculptural works. Another, aged 10, dances at Granville Island’s Arts Umbrella studio three or four times a week.

“I’m very proud of them,” Audain said. “You’re allowed to boast about your grandchildren.”

Last fall, Audain announced plans to pioneer a new art museum in Whistler, B.C. The museum’s permanent collection with be culled from Audain’s personal collection, which includes several hundred works by renowned artists such as Emily Carr, Andy Warhol and Diego Rivera.

The Whistler gallery will chronicle the province’s artistic history from the late 18th century to current works — with particular emphasis on First Nations’ works.

Vancouver has emerged as an world leader in visual arts, Audain said, and he hopes his contributions to the industry will promote arts-related jobs and economic growth to reduce the province’s dependence on natural resources.

Construction crews are scheduled to break ground on Emily Carr's Great Northern Way expansion in May 2014. It's due to be completed in 2016, allowing the university to expand its enrolment to 3,444 students by 2030 — a 197 per cent increase.

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