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Once merely condo royalty, Bob Rennie emerges as Vancouver's cool king of modern art

Known as the condo king to some and chairman of the Tate Modern acquisitions committee to others, Bob Rennie, CEO of Rennie Marketing Systems,  takes immense risks as a businessman and art collector.  Here Rennie talks about the Olympic Village, the 2010 Olympic Games, the Vancouver Art Gallery, Mayor Gregor Robertson, and the Wing Sang Gallery, where he shows off his riveting collection of modern art. 

Photograph of Bob Rennie by Yukiko Onley at the Wing Sang Gallery on Pender Street

"You're not just creative in one area,” Bob Rennie said. 

From his desk in the Wing Sang building on Pender, Rennie turned and looked towards the small window that opened into the studio where Texas artist Richard Jackson, stood on a raised platform lost in the creative process.  Rennie got up and went to the window.  

The tall, slender Jackson worked beyond the wall and Rennie, a trim, young-looking 53 year old, observed his process with a look  that bordered on joyous.  The city's most successful condo marketer peered down into the sprawling gallery/studio that he had chosen to pour his wealth into. It was a controversial choice that emerged inevitably, it would seem, as a result of Rennie's resources, his collection and his sense that Vancouver Art Gallery was failing to challenge the city either intellectually and artistically.  Perhaps, he thought, he could make a better gallery that would showcase the kinds of artists VAG seemed too staid  to include.  

Jackson, from Texas, toiled beside a dozen or so canvases placed in a precise pile. Sunlight cut  through the skylight above the artist, dappling the top of his head and Rennie pointed out the floor to me. It looked like a puzzle cut from images of Jackson wearing a baseball cap, he explained.   It also was art.

"The Museum is open to the public, by up to three days a week," Rennie said. It isn’t open to the general public, because, "We can't afford to have security guards standing in each corner.”  

That would be too great a risk, he said, and although Rennie said he believed in taking risks, he wasn’t referring to the security of the collection. As a former New Yorker who haunted Chelsea’s galleries and museums on a regular basis, it’s the kind of work I miss seeing in the Vancouver Art Gallery---art that smacks you right in the face, shows you something you don’t want to know, cracks your small mind open a bit. Rennie collects edgy art, the kind I used to  encounter in the galleries around Twenty-Third Street.

Risky art. Like the installation by Martin Creed on the roof of the Wing Sang building that silently communicates an unlikely message for Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside: “Everything is going to be alright.”

"Criticism of anything he does..."

At a party I attended at the gallery during the Olympics, I heard a man tell his date that it was wrong to project this message in Canada’s poorest postal code.  "It's meant to be provocative,” said the woman, who wore a black cocktail dress and had curly brown hair.  The guy wasn’t having it.

Rennie hoped the piece would catalyze conversation when he installed it.  

As for the suggestion that he may have set himself up  to be criticized by choosing that piece, Rennie acknowledged that he had.  But he defended the deeper possibilities.

In a humanities class he teaches at UBC for people who have recently worked their way out of homelessness,  he said,  someone confronted him about it.

“Easy for you to say everything’s going to be alright," the student said,  referring to Rennie’s wealth, which although, Rennie told me, "isn't what you might think," places him within a level of privilege few can dream of achieving.  Rennie acknowledged that it IS easy for him to say this, but he said the work refers to a deeper level of “alright.” To the existential “alright.”  In a 2008 Vancouver Magazine  profile on Rennie, which might be called, “The Bible of Bob” for its sheer size and comprehensiveness, the author said Rennie Marketing Systems had generated over $1.5 billion in sales in 2007.  

“This is what we’ve got,” he told me last April in a long interview in his beautiful office. “It better be alright.”   

In the mode of Jenny Holtzer who created the piece in Rennie’s bathroom at home that reads:  What country would you live in, if you wanted to get away from poor people entirely,  Creed's work demands reaction, consideration and response.

“It forces the issue,” Rennie said. “And ultimately, what can we do?  We have to have hope.”

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