On May 9, election day in British Columbia, Bob Rennie – well-known Vancouver real estate marketer and former fundraising chair for the BC Liberals – was nowhere near the political action, or even the province. He was in Venice, giving away art.
At a reception ahead of the opening of the Venice Biennale, the National Gallery of Canada announced a major donation from Rennie – 197 works of art, all Canadian with one exception – valued at more than $12-million. It is one of the largest donations in the National Gallery's history and probably the largest donation of contemporary art in terms of the number of works and value, according to director and CEO Marc Mayer.
The donation, made to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation, includes works by important B.C. artists Ian Wallace, Rodney Graham, Brian Jungen, Damian Moppett and Geoffrey Farmer, who is representing Canada at this year's Biennale.
In return, the NGC will name a gallery after Rennie. The upper contemporary exhibition gallery will be renamed the Rennie Gallery. It's the same gallery where Jungen's large-scale work Court, 2004, which was previously donated by Rennie, was installed for some time.
"It's remarkable," says Mayer, of the donation announced Tuesday. "Because of our history of lending and the lending program we have at the National Gallery, these things are not only [going] to the National Gallery. I like to think we're probably the most useful place for all these works to be. Because we're a very generous lender and we have the capacity to make sure these things get seen by people."
Rennie is a hugely successful real estate marketer – he has been referred to as the condo king – but is also a passionate collector who has amassed, with his life partner Carey Fouks, a collection of about 1,800 works focusing on issues of race, identity, prejudice and social commentary (and more recently, the environment). He has built his own museum in Vancouver's Chinatown – the Rennie Collection at Wing Sang – where work from the collection is installed. Their next exhibition, which opens this month, features work by Wallace.
Rennie, who estimates he has acquired about 30 new works in the last two months, is a member of the Tate International Council and former chair of the Tate Modern's North American Acquisitions Committee. He also sits on the Art Institute of Chicago's board of trustees.
"Bob is one of the most serious and ambitious collectors of contemporary art in the world, let alone in Canada," Mayer says.
Rennie and Fouks started thinking about what they were going to do at their museum for Canada 150 and that evolved into a discussion about making a bigger statement.
"We decided that we wanted to do a gift to the nation," says Rennie, adding that discussion about the gift to the NGC has been going on since the fall of 2015.
When Farmer, a Vancouver artist, was announced as Canada's Biennale artist for 2017, Rennie felt they should mark the accomplishment with a donation: Farmer's Pale Fire Freedom Machine, a large-scale work which was installed at the Power Plant in Toronto in 2005.
"We thought, let's celebrate Geoffrey Farmer and the 150th and give that," Rennie says.
The donation expanded to include 40 works by Wallace, whom Rennie has been collecting since the 1970s. It also includes 148 works by Moppett, six by Jungen and a large-scale three-panel lightbox by Graham.
"It means that we are the museum of record for Ian Wallace, it means that we are the museum of record for Brian Jungen, it means that we have a major work by Damian Moppett that we were hoping to acquire ourselves earlier," Mayer says. "It means that we have yet another major work by Geoffrey Farmer, only this time it's an earlier work that is a work that really, I think, got a lot of people to take him very, very seriously."
The one non-Canadian in the mix is Doris Salcedo, a Colombian artist whose lead and steel installation Tenebrae Noviembre 7, 1985 was inspired by the violent 1985 seizure of Colombia's Palace of Justice in Bogota by rebels.
"This is a remarkable installation that helps us to deepen the seriousness of our international contemporary art collection," Mayer says.
In B.C., Rennie has been an outspoken critic of the Vancouver Art Gallery, specifically its plans to build a new facility. When asked whether this donation to the NGC could be considered a snub directed at the VAG, Rennie balked.
"I knew that the question would come up," he says. "Really this came about as doing something for Canada's 150th and … the National Gallery can afford the custodianship. They can afford the maintenance, they can afford the storage … and then they will make sure those works are lent out not only to the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Alberta and the AGO, but to Prince Rupert and Prince Edward Island and Red Deer and Mission.
"So it really came about: What was the safest place for these artists?" he continues. "And I guess the VAG could ask that question, but so could the Art Institute of Chicago and so could the Tate and many other museums that we're engaged with."
Mayer commended Rennie for the flexible donation – the works do not have to be on permanent display or displayed specifically in the Rennie Gallery. And he stressed that the works will be available for loans and thus have the potential to be widely seen.
"It deepens our ability to tell the story of these artists and when you're looking at artists of that significance, that's what you want if you're the National Gallery of Canada. We're the largest lender of art in the country and if anyone in the country or anyone in the world for example wanted to mount an exhibition of any of these artists, we'd be an indispensable partner to that show. So that's one of the things this helps us to do."