Bob Rennie and Contemporary Art: Test of Time

Bob Rennie reflects on a labour of love and building a legacy in art.


Bob Rennie reflects on a labour of love and building a legacy in art.

The past year has been a roller-coaster ride for those of us in real estate, and at times I’ve found it difficult to be that positive voice in the wilderness. Nobody wanted to hear that things would turn around; all people 
wanted, it seemed, was more news of doom and gloom. But as the Martin Creed sign that hangs outside our museum says, “Everything is 
going to be alright.” It was my mantra during the dark days of 2008, and it’s my mantra today. 
Good times or bad, we have no choice but to work with the reality of a given situation and make the best of things.

That’s the attitude I adopted when my partner Carey and I decided to build our new museum, the Rennie Collection at Wing Sang. It too has been a roller-coaster ride – almost 4½ years in the making – with many twists and turns along the way. But as I write this column we’re finally about to open our doors, with our first exhibit, by the Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, opening in late October. 

I made the mental decision to build a contemporary art museum back in 1999 when I acquired a work by Mike Kelley, consisting of a four-metre figure of astronaut John Glenn made of found articles from the Detroit River and 441 photos. I told Mike his work would be in a private space and that it would be displayed properly. While I’ve collected contemporary art for more than 30 years, by the early 1990s my passion had become a pursuit; I realized that the collection needed a house and that the pieces needed to be shown on a more regular basis. Carey and I looked at private museums throughout Europe to understand how various programs ran, and from them we adopted some of the best practices to launch our own space. 

Of course, saying you’re going to start a museum and actually starting one are two different things. One of the complications was waiting for the right location. We couldn’t afford to build this space on Burrard Street, so when the Wing Sang building came up in February 2004, we (along with our then partners) decided to buy it. But construction took longer than expected. The biggest challenge was all the heritage restoration: the Wing Sang building is the oldest structure in Chinatown, so its bones had to be meticulously preserved. I knew going in that restoring the building would be expensive, but I didn’t realize how expensive: when all’s said and done, the project will be over budget by 150 per cent. My accountant and my lawyer said stop a couple of years ago, but today – as I walk through the space with Carey and my son Kris – I’m very glad we took it on. 

So why build a museum? Part of the reason is that I’ve long wanted to give back to Vancouver and be a part of the city’s cultural fabric; for me, the sort of philanthropy where you just write a cheque doesn’t work. But I also think that by deciding to build our museum in Chinatown, we’re helping to contribute to the reimagining of a neighbourhood. The Chinatown that my parents and I knew growing up is not coming back. We need to add real businesses to the area and bring activity back to the streets, and I’m hopeful that our museum and adjoining new offices will help do just that. 

Yip Sang built what’s now known as the Wing Sang building in 1889. He was an ambitious businessman whose import/export business prospered during a time when Chinese Canadians faced widespread discrimination. He had a vision for what he hoped to accomplish there, and by the time he died, at age 82, he had largely realized that vision. As I stand in his building now, and think about what I hope for this museum and its place in our city, I can only hope that things turn out as well. Only time will tell.