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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 ...

It makes sense that it is Rennie, 56, who is at the forefront of coming up with a new proposal, although others, like architect Michael Green, are thinking along the same lines. From a working-class childhood in East Vancouver, Rennie became president of Rennie Marketing Systems, helping real-estate developers sell condominiums on a very large scale, including Woodward’s and The Shangri-La. But Rennie is much more than a condo magnate. Not merely wealthy, not merely well-connected: He is a household name in Vancouver with a virtual key to the city in the form of a golden Rolodex. He spent several years renovating the Wing Sang building in the city’s Chinatown to house his vast and storied collection, a project that Wallpaper Magazine last year named one of the top 20 reasons to be in Canada. Among the artists he collects are Mona Hatoum, Ian Wallace, Rodney Graham and Kerry James Marshall.

He was a member of the VAG’s board when Bartels began her tenure in 2001, after a post as assistant director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The following year, he quit. In the time since, he has set foot inside the place only once. (He made an exception to his no-VAG rule to tour through the show Shore, Forest and Beyond: Art from the Audain Collection, consisting of works in the collection of developer/philanthropist Michael Audain. Audain also sits on the VAG’s relocation committee and has been one of the driving forces behind the gallery’s proposed move. Rennie calls him “one of the most important art citizens in our city.”)

So when Rennie went public with his vision for the future of the Vancouver Art Gallery – one that is radically different from the path the VAG is pursuing – you can imagine it raised eyebrows within the VAG’s executive offices.

The VAG, constrained by its current facility – a provincial courthouse in the downtown core renovated by Arthur Erickson for the gallery 30 years ago – is eager to move to a new, purpose-built facility. Bartels and her board lobbied for a prime plot of city-owned land – currently a parking lot – a few blocks from the VAG’s current home. In February, 2011, city council voted to reserve the city block for two years, during which time the gallery (which would have to share the land with an office tower) would have to make its case. The gallery was asked for a solid business plan, and to prove it could raise the funds (widely estimated at about $300-million, although Bartels herself has been careful not to publicly offer a figure). It was also asked to demonstrate that the public supported the idea.

In the lead-up to the council vote, a petition was launched and public forums were held.

But since the vote, the discussion has moved largely behind closed doors – to the point where people who should be in the know have asked reporters who have covered the issue: “Any idea what’s happening with the VAG?”

Bartels, in a discussion about the VAG move – but not about her relationship with Rennie – said she is not keen on the multilocation idea.

“One of the hallmarks of the Vancouver Art Gallery and our exhibition program is to really find thematic links between historical and contemporary, the local and the global, and I think that would be very difficult to do with multiple sites,” she says. “People have come to see Vermeer, Rembrandt and have discovered Huang Yong Ping. And they probably wouldn’t have done that if it had been at a separate site.”

She also worries about the impact on smaller galleries in the city, and says it would mean higher operating costs for the VAG, and fewer opportunities for accommodating the education component which is an integral part of her vision. And it would take something away, she believes, from the visitor experience.

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