Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Citizen Rennie

As we enter the final month of summer those of us who were friends in winter find ourselves reunited at stationary superstores and cafes, where we provide summaries of travel, island getaways or drapes-drawn staycations. From there the conversation turns to what we have in common. If that is the arts -- the visual arts -- then we discuss the Globe and Mail's recent visit with condominium salesman and art collector Bob Rennie, who suggests that instead of moving the Vancouver Art Gallery into a new ($300M) building, why not have "eight to 10" smaller ($30M) VAGs spread about town.

Like all of us, Bob Rennie is entitled to his opinions. Unlike most, we do not have the Globe standing by to air them. But I'll get to that. In the meantime, what to make of "eight to 10" smaller galleries? 

If you want my opinion, we already have at least "eight to 10" smaller galleries. They are: Access, Artspeak, Gallery Gachet, grunt, Or, UNIT/PITT, VIVO and the Western Front (to name the most established). That these galleries happen to be autonomous artist-run centres does not preclude them from borrowing work from the VAG's overflowing collection, nor does it preclude the VAG from approaching them to make available that collection. That this has yet to happen tells me a) artist-run centres have their own agendas; and b) the VAG is not interested (apart from the occasional loan). However, if the VAG wanted to allow local artist-run centres to curate shows using their collection, and if those centres wanted to enter into such a relationship (perhaps through PAARC), I would ask that Bob support them, put his money where his mouth is, and call the exhibition Bob Says.

But getting back to Bob's latest opinion -- why did the Globe allow him their megaphone? Given that newspapers are increasingly prone to publishing stories relative to a writer's new book, a musician's new record, a director's new film, a choreographer's new stage production and an architect's new building, what is newsworthy about Bob's musings? What, besides the hundreds of thousands of dollars Bob has paid to the Globe's advertising department, necessitated this bit of agit prop?

Last spring the City of Vancouver began quietly interviewing members of Vancouver's visual arts community about their perception of the VAG, a process that would have included responses to the VAG's earlier -- and disastrous -- public discussions regarding their move to a new location. Why these interviews were not conducted in advance of these public discussions speaks less of a City caught off-guard by the VAG juggernaut than a City eager to make a case against an institution out of touch with the public imagination, a bullish VAG that plowed ahead as if the City -- and its increasingly taxed taxpayers (who contribute to the director's $315K-a-year salary) -- had no choice but to follow.

Bob's opinion piece was timed to arrive in the midst of the City's interview process, and can only be seen as a pre-emptive strike, an attempt to win what the VAG took for granted: the hearts and minds of those who live here (not to mention the condos that might be built around these smaller galleries). Will Bob succeed? Judging from the comments that follow the Globe article, I would say that he, too, has fallen prey to the same trap as the VAG, coming off less as a "visionary" than as a self-interested speculator.

While Bob does not direct a public institution a la Jeffrey Deitch (LA MOCA), nor sit on a board a la Eli Broad (LA MOCA), he does want a hand in determining the cultural ecology of the city. That he wants to do so from his own private Xanadu (Wing Sang) is telling. Like the VAG, Bob only wants to play ball with himself, and that is not "city-building" but "city-breaking". Shame on Bob, shame on the VAG, shame on the Globe and Mail.

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