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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. 

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“Given that some people see Bob as the evil agent of gentrification and resortification in the city, I’m sure there will be criticism of anything he does. Perhaps especially because of his interest in art that explores marginalization and oppression.  He’s a challenging, contradictory character for sure, not easily explained,” Frances Bula wrote in a blog entitled “Bob Rennie emerges with new identity: Centre of Vancouver’s art world” that the Globe and Mail reporter posted on October 24th, 2009.

"Risk," Rennie said. "If you don’t take a risk, you don’t get anywhere.”

From his work marketing the Woodwards Building to his gallery in Chinatown to the works in his collection, Rennie seems in a continuous process of redefining Vancouver by pushing beyond conventional boundaries. "I really believe if everybody understands what you're doing, then you're probably giving in to mediocrity.  You're going to ruffle feathers, if you're taking chances and really moving things.  You can't cause change and satisfy everybody."

A Cultural Calendar

"If I owned the city, what I'd like to see is a calendar. One day a week, the VAG has its front doors open for a wine bar.  One day a week, the library has its doors open for a poetry reading and a coffee bar. The contemporary art gallery, jazz, opera, ...if everybody did something one day a month or bi- weekly for two years and signed on that they're going to live through their bad nights and their good nights and their slow periods...where they got people engaged and got to the point where people said, 'we're going to a movie tonight, why don't we go there first?'  You would bring people out of the closet and they would engage,and through that they'd find their philanthropy.

"Not everybody is supposed to like art, or ballet, or...but a general thread runs through them.  What made everybody come into town for LiveCity for the Olympics, but yet the next Saturday they stayed home?" he asked.

"That fascinates me."

He talked about how the Olympics created "memory points," all through downtown. I knew exactly what he meant. For instance, Robson Square will always contain memories for me of dance, music and huge crowds of people from all over the world.  The Canada Line stations contain memories of individuals bursting into "O, Canada," and the anthem spreading from person to person until  crowds joined in.  I can't walk down Granville at Georgia without the ghosts of the street sculptures from the Olympics hovering. I knew what he meant.

 "It's so simple," he said. "Newcomers to Vancouver are going to insist on a cultural revolution."

What would it look like?

"We don't always need extravaganzas," he said.  "There're people who go see the Temple of Doom and there're people who go to see a good art film. It's hard to make a lot of profit from a good art film.  You're going to need a smaller place and donors.  Obama did it with $10 donors.  We have to get a lot of people involved in the arts from a lot of different demographics.  You can't keep phoning Jim Pattison and Joe Segal."

Vancouver Art Gallery's "starkitechture"

"Why did they chose da Vinci to show during the Olympics when we could have showcased Rodney Graham, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas or a show of the finest graduates from the Emily Carr University?  It was an opportunity to show our excellence.  Instead we opened with something that anybody in the world could have opened with. Anybody who could afford the insurance."

"There's amazing talent born in Vancouver, artists whose seeds are planted here, but their lives are elsewhere.  Jeff Wall does not have a gallery in Vancouver. Rodney Graham doesn't.  Ian Wallace does.  So many artists and their careers are nurtured elsewhere."

"This is an amazing place to work from. How do we get Jeff Wall back, or get the next one not to leave?"

He turned to the proposal to build a new facility for VAG.

"I'm vocally against spending an extra 100 million on ‘starkitechture’ when we don't hear anything about the cost to run the museum," he said. Rennie has had many differences with VAG and he said part of his motivation for opening the gallery stemmed from his frustration at VAG's limitations.

"We're not hearing about the content.  All we're talking about is the architecture.  The contents are  far more important than the box."

Location, location, location...

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