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Bob Rennie, left, and Kathleen Bartels. (Jeff Vinnick and Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Bob Rennie, left, and Kathleen Bartels. (Jeff Vinnick and Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

visual arts

The collector vs. the director: Bob Rennie and the VAG Add to ...

The rain was falling and the Blue Mountain Brut was flowing on the rooftoop of the Rennie Collection at Wing Sang as guests, protected under a giant white tent, toasted visiting Tate director Nicholas Serota with a dinner put on by the collection’s founder: Bob Rennie, condo king and art collector and provocateur.

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The Serota dinner, like the dinners Rennie and the collection’s director Carey Fouks have hosted before and since, attracted a who’s who of the Vancouver art scene and beyond: On this night, B.C. Premier Christy Clark waded her way through the almost 3,000 pink balloons of Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed’s Work No. 329; philanthropists such as Michael and Inna O’Brian were there, so were artists Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham and Steven Shearer. Absent from the high-calibre list was Kathleen Bartels, the director of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In terms of visual art, Rennie and Bartels, the collector and the director, are among the most powerful people in Vancouver. He’s a self-made multimillionaire and cultural force – he is also the chair of the Tate’s North American Acquisitions Board – she’s the Chicago-born curator who’s driven the VAG into the local and international public’s consciousness with daring shows, such as 2004’s Massive Change and 2009’s Andreas Gursky exhibition.

He’s got the bucks; she’s got the walls. An outsider could see Rennie and Bartels as potential allies who might work together to create an exciting new gallery experience for their city, which has a rich visual-art history, and scene. Yet, even at this important moment for Vancouver, the two do not directly speak to each other and have not done so in years.

As the gallery is trying to make a case that it needs – and can raise the funds for – a new building, Rennie is floating another idea. Rather than build one $300-million facility, why not build eight or 10 $30-million buildings, one after the other, around the city – as far east as funky Commercial Drive and as far west as, possibly, Stanley Park. Each location would focus on a particular area of art – first nations, contemporary, Emily Carr, etc.

Rennie is speaking up, he says, as someone who is deeply interested in the health of the city that made him. “My job is to city-build,” Rennie said recently at a café across the street from the VAG. “I think [we should] start to look at the city as a whole, rather than just one location.”

His involvement, though, goes beyond a public mulling. He talked publicly about the idea at the Innovation City event at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto this summer; now, he’s meeting privately with decision-makers at the city and on the VAG board. (Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s chief of staff Mike Magee and the chair of the VAG’s relocation committee Peeter Wesik confirm they’ve lunched with Rennie over this, but neither would comment on what he’s proposing at this early stage.)

Whether or not his idea gains traction, it represents a demand for more public input and for literally thinking outside the box. The multiple site approach has something in common with the Tate’s four primary collections, housed in four different locations in Britain, but it is also a response to a more restrained time in fundraising, when skepticism about the worth of blockbuster buildings has replaced exuberance. In the post-Bilbao era, even starchitects like Santiago Calatrava are finding their bills questioned – as the Spanish architect has recently – rather than paid without complaint.

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