A brand new art gallery filled with an extensive collection of First Nations art and one of the best collections of Emily Carr's work has opened in Whistler.

The collection and building were donated by Michael Audain, chairman of B.C. developer Polygon Homes, Ltd., and Audain's wife, Yoshiko Karasawa.

The Audain Art Museum located at 4350 Blackcomb Way opened to the public on Saturday.

"This is a mind-boggling gift," said Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "I've been saying that it's a $100 million gift to the community."

The Audain Art Museum is nestled in a wooded area at the base of Blackcomb, near Whistler village. It's an angular, dark metal-clad structure raised several metres off the ground due a flood plain.

Architect John Patkau said the 56,000 sq. ft. gallery was designed to blend into the forest, and only one tree had to be removed to build it.

Audain Art Museum

Architect John Patkau says the building was designed to blend into the surrounding forest. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"We sort of threaded the building the apertures in the existing forest so that we retained as much of that value as possible," he said. "Right from the outset, we wanted the building to be quiet in the site. We made it a dark colour so it would recede into the shadows."

Patkau said the publicly announced budget for the building, which took three years to design and build, was $30 million.

Whistler offered a 'great deal' on a gallery site

Audain, who lives in West Vancouver, said he chose to put the gallery in Whistler, because the municipality made him a good offer — the land cost him nearly nothing.

"It's a 199-year lease and it was either $10 or $100. I think it was $100," said Wilhelm-Morden. "It was a great deal."

The museum will feature a permanent exhibition of early First Nations masks and artwork, as well as a significant number of Emily Carr paintings. Artists E. J. Hughes, Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham, Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace will also be permanently represented.

'I'll miss a lot of the work'

Audain says his walls at home look a little more bare after handing over the collection he and Karasawa had been working on for years, but he wouldn't say which single piece he'd miss the most.

"I'll miss a lot of the work, but probably the old First Nations masks that we collected from around the United States and Europe with the idea of bringing them back to the West Coast," he said. "We had the privilege of living with them for a few years and we will definitely miss those works, because they're very, very special."

Audain Art Museum

Michael Audain says he'll miss this collection of First Nations art from his home the most, after donating it to the Audain Art Museum in Whistler. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"When I went to school in Victoria, I had the idea that our art-making out on the coast started with Emily Carr. But as I discovered later, Emily Carr knew full well, herself, that there was a wonderful tradition of art here going back many thousands of years that until recent decades have been rather ignored." said Audain.

"It's just an astounding collection," said Patkau. "It's really remarkable. It's so rich and it has such a long time frame. The mask collection at the outset is just stunning. It's a world-worthy collection of irreplaceable historical artifacts."

Children get in for free

Audain emphasized how much he looked forward to seeing children enjoy the art, noting that they get free admission.

"I hope they will be affected — I know they'll be affected by the art and that's very important to me."