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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.

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.

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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