Rennie's private art museum opens in Chinatown's oldest building
Rennie's life is hectic at the best of times. But this week, it's
in overdrive. Tonight the local real estate titan is unveiling
his private art museum to the world - and a lot of the world has
come to see it.
have 72 people from out of town at the house for dinner tonight,"
he said Friday afternoon.
"Tomorrow there is a few hundred invited
[to the opening]."
He laughs, a bit ruefully.
"It's like a wedding. You can't have
everybody to the wedding, 'cause as soon as you invite one cousin
you've got to invite the other cousins. Socially it's very straining
on me, because my nature is to be inclusive."
It's also hard on Rennie because he wants
the focus to be on the art and the artist, not the collector.
Which is a stretch, considering he's a local celebrity who has
spent upwards of $10 million transforming the oldest building
in Chinatown into one of Canada's most dramatic spaces.
But he's found an artist to meet the challenge
of opening the stunning space - Mona Hatoum, a Palestinian artist
who lives in London.
"I chose Mona Hatoum because the art
deals with the sensitivity of identity and place," said Rennie,
whose collection focuses on socially-conscious contemporary art.
"It really suited the Downtown Eastside
[where the gallery is located]."
One of the key pieces in the display is
Hot Spot, a giant globe with continents fashioned from red neon
"Hot Spot normally refers to spots
of conflict in the world," Hatoum explained over the hub-bub
of last-minute construction.
"When I was making this work I was
thinking spots of conflict are no longer restricted to specific
areas, or specific borders. It feels to me at least that the whole
world is caught up in conflict and unrest, as opposed to specific
little areas of the world."
It's a striking piece. The globe is a frame,
the neon is strung over top, and you can see right through it.
"The actual structure that holds the
neon is very delicate, and at the same time has this kind of feeling
of high tension, high electricity," said Hatoum.
"It buzzes, when it's quiet you can
hear the buzz of the electricity. The globe looks very much like
a cage, but these bars are actually corresponding to the meridians
and parallels. There's something fragile about it, but at the
same time there's an implication of danger, because the red [neon]
you think of as red hot."
Rennie loves it.
"[It means] when one of us have a
problem we all have a problem," he said.
"If somebody in a household gets cancer,
the whole household gets cancer. I think it's very appropriate
for the Downtown Eastside. We say that Vancouver has a homeless
problem. Well, Vancouver doesn't have a homeless problem, Canada
does. It just happens to exist on East Hastings street. So it
The 53-year-old bought his first piece
of art (a Norman Rockwell print) when he was only 17. He's been
building a serious collection over the past 30 years, and is well
known internationally - he's on the American acquisitions board
of the Tate Modern art gallery in London.
"We have a photography collection,
a painting collection, an identity collection, and an appropriation
collection," said Rennie.
"We have 40 artists that we collect
in depth, and about 170 artists in the collection. Our collection
is known for taking on major tough works, and then going backwards
and acquiring older works, while we move forward slowly with the
first work displayed in his museum is a neon sign by Britain's
Martin Creed reading "Everything is going to be alright."
It's installed on the sixth storey roof, so that it can be seen
all over the place - including the financially troubled Olympic
village in False Creek, where Rennie is selling the condos.
Rennie knows that some would consider that
a controversial statement, given the entrenched poverty and social
problems around his building. But he really believes it, and wants
to be part of positive change in the historic neighbourhood.
"My goal is to have the less fortunate
walking down the street with the fortunate, and bring balance
to the community," said Rennie.
"You're not going to do it by having
all of one, whether it's less fortunate or all fortunate. I think
by bringing my offices down there, and bringing the world to look
at the museum, it's helping to animate the street."
It's a private gallery, but will be open
to the public by scheduled appointments Thursdays. It is definitely
worth a look, because the inside is breathtaking.
The gallery is located at the back of the
Wing Sang building, which was built in 1889 by Yip Sang, a Chinatown
legend who made his fortune hiring the Chinese labourers that
built the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The property at 51 East Pender is actually
two structures, a three-storey building in front and a six-storey
building in back. The front building held Yip Sang's import-export
business, the Wing Sang company. Originally two storeys, a third
was added in 1901. In 1912, Yip added a six storey building in
back, where he housed his large family - four wives and 23 children.
The front building will be Rennie's office,
some gallery space and a couple of retail outlets. The back building
holds the main gallery, and has been completely transformed. Empty
since the 1970s, it was in poor repair, so Rennie gutted it into
a four-storey high space.
"It's a fantastic space," said
Hatoum, who has a long-time association with Vancouver's Western
"It's really a dream for any artist."
Hatoum's Berlin art dealer Max Hetzler
flew in for the opening. There are private galleries like this
in Europe, but he said Rennie's gallery ranks with the best.
"It's museum standard," he said.
"Beautifully done, great light.
"This size and this vision that Bob
has is very unique. I can't think of any comparable private space
in Europe. I can tell you there are private galleries, and collectors
who have their own space, but the main gallery that Bob built
is fantastic. It's amazing."
Rennie clearly loves the building,
"We took the heritage restoration
on as a legacy for our family," said Rennie.
"The museum is Bob Rennie and my partner
Carey Fouks and my three children."
Mind you, it's an easy building to love,
because it includes all sorts of amazing period quirks. His office
will be in the old schoolroom for Yip Sang's children, which retains
its original blackboard. To the west of the building is a secret
alleyway that the Chinese would use back in the old days to access
the hidden world between Chinatown's commercial buildings in front
and residences in back.
"The slot, the old secret laneway
of Chinatown, I think is one of the most important spaces in the
city," said Rennie.
"We didn't allow our Chinese population
out after sundown in the 1920s. It's wrong, it's wrong, it's wrong.
But that memory has to be restored."
The plan is to have three shows per year,
showing works from Rennie's collection. After Hatoum, the lineup
is Richard Jackson, then Thomas Houseago, Amy Brisson and Kerry
"The only goal [of the museum] is
that artists want to show there," said Rennie.
"So we created 20,000 square feet
with six different spaces that artists will be challenged by and
want to live up to the challenge."