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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 ...

Talks with City Hall over the desired block are going well, Bartels added, and there might even be something to present before the February deadline. She said the idea that the VAG move into a Canada Post building (which Canada Post is going to close) across the street from the desired site, has not been a focus of the discussions.

Rennie also refuses to discuss what went sour between them, and because of the touchy situation, is careful about how he inserts himself into this discussion.

“I have no relationship with the Vancouver Art Gallery, but I do have a relationship with the arts and culture fabric of the city,” he says. “My thought process comes more from city-building than interfering in an arena that I’m not involved in, which is the Vancouver Art Gallery. But because it’s our city, we all have a comment.”

For the city, multiple sites mean spreading the cultural wealth around the downtown core and to neighbourhoods beyond. And true to his background, Rennie also looks to a spreadsheet for some of the benefits: From a practical, fundraising perspective, multiple sites offer several opportunities for wealthy philanthropists to get their name on the outside of a building.

“Once you’ve given away naming rights to the building, it does get difficult to raise large sums of money,” says Rennie. “This way we have eight to 10 different naming rights.” He offers a hypothetical example: the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Michael Audain Museum of Contemporary First Nations Art. (Audain has a keen interest in first-nations art.)

“This to me starts to lead where the world’s going,” says Rennie, acknowledging his is more of a vision than anything near a concrete plan at the moment. “I really think that this is starting to look at where we’re going, as opposed to what’s been done before.”

David Baxter, an economist and research analyst, now retired from the Urban Futures Institute, is one of the people to whom Rennie has presented the idea, and he agrees this is an important discussion for the city.

“This is really a once-in-50-years decision,” Baxter says. “The art gallery is making a fundamental decision about how it sees itself relating to the city for the next 50 years. Maybe the work has been done, but it seems to me the decision is being cast in a traditional building location format …rather than throwing it open and saying: ‘So, 50 years from now what do we want the gallery to look like?’

“I don’t think this should be cast as a conflict,” Baxter continued. “We have a real opportunity as we move into the Twitter age to ask what are other ways that this collection could be presented.”

On a personal level, Baxter likes the idea of creating a range of gallery experiences that would be accessible from different parts of the city. And he rejects concerns that tourists might not bother to check out more than one building. “I don’t know anybody who goes to New York and only goes to one gallery.”

He also agrees with Rennie entirely on one issue. The conversation about the future of the VAG needs to have a larger public component.

Rennie says his vision might not be the answer, but Vancouverites should at least be able to ask the questions. “If this dialogue does nothing but provoke controversy and conversation, I think it forces us to look at things differently.”

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