An intricate and colorful final hurray for the Rennie Museum in Wing Sang – 71Bait

Rennie, 66, is a real estate marketer who has made a fortune and spent much of it on a massive but meticulously curated contemporary art collection of nearly 3,000 works.Rachel Topham

The final exhibition at Rennie Museum in Wing Sang is a complex and colorful reminder of what Vancouver is losing with the gallery’s closure. The exhibition 51@51 – a reference to the museum’s address, 51 East Pender St. – features 51 works, all but one of which are being shown for the first time in Canada. In a large space, works in neon, rope, and other materials reflect the collection’s central themes of race, social justice, inclusion, and gender. A long, narrow corridor speaks of the horrors of racism, lit by red light. Another large gallery displays an aspect of Rennie’s collection that has received less attention on these museum walls over the years, his paintings.

“Our heart goes to these spaces,” says Rennie during a tour of the show as it’s being installed. “It’s the end of an era.”

In 2004, Rennie acquired the historic but empty and derelict Wing Sang Building and transformed it into a private museum and office space with a $22 million renovation.Rachel Topham

Rennie, 66, is a real estate marketer who has made a fortune and spent much of it on a massive but meticulously curated contemporary art collection of nearly 3,000 works. In 2004, he acquired the historic but empty and dilapidated Wing Sang building — the oldest in Vancouver’s Chinatown — and under a $22 million renovation turned it into a private museum (and office space) where he exhibits work from his collection could show public.

The space garnered widespread attention in 2009 with an exhibition by Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum. The building was still under construction. The day after about 800 people showed up for the opening – the hottest ticket in town – the entire show had to be dismantled so the building could be completed.

Kaphar’s Conclusive recreates a 17th-century painting and then deconstructs it by cutting out its central figure.Rachel Topham

Now, after 20 consecutive shows featuring the likes of Yoko Ono, Martin Creed, Rodney Graham and Kerry James Marshall, the building is changing hands. It will be the first permanent home of the Chinese Canadian Museum.

“Nothing lasts forever,” says Rennie, sitting in the staff lounge. It was an apprenticeship, he says. “If that was our master’s, we’re doing our doctorate now.”

Collection director Wendy Chang says that 51@51, with its 37 artists, numerous themes and diverse types of work, is the most complex the gallery has built from a curatorial perspective.

For the visitor, it is an uninterrupted sensual homage to the collection and the space.

Immediately upon entering, the visitor is confronted with Jackson’s Rennie 101 (2009-2010), a work made directly on the wall for the museum’s second exhibition and then built over to preserve the piece.Courtesy of the Rennie Museum

The American artist Richard Jackson My self-portrait as Queen of England (2018-2019) waves to passersby from the front window and motions them in. Immediately upon entering, the visitor is confronted with Jacksons Renni 101 (2009-2010), a work mounted directly on the wall for the museum’s second exhibition. Rather than removing the piece after the exhibition, the museum built a wall over it to preserve it. For 51@51, this wall has been removed to allow the work to be seen again.

“It was hidden behind this wall,” Chang says, “like a kind of invisible witness to every show since.”

Up the stairs past Hank Willis Thomas’ large button-like slogan work I am the best (2012), sure to become a selfie magnet, an airy gallery space filled with provocative works.

Thomas 19,281 (2020) (2021), a giant flag with a star for each person killed by gunfire in the United States in a given year hangs high in a corner and falls to the ground. Thomas creates a version of this work for each year; Rennie acquired the 2020 piece, the year a riot broke out following the police killing of George Floyd.

The somber installation dominates more colorful works, including South African artist Buhlebezwe Siwani’s rope installation Mombathiseni (2021), Nick Caves sound suit (2015) and the bold LED sign installations by Los Angeles artist Lauren Halsey.

Also in this room: Cauleen Smith’s Light Up My Life (for Sandra Bland) (2019) and Titus Kaphars Destiny Series: Sandra Bland, Renisha McBride, Tanisha Anderson (2015) where the faces of the three slain Black women are superimposed on the screen.

Four works with young black swimmers refer to the lack of access for blacks to beaches and swimming pools.Rachel Topham

Four works show young black swimmers and refer to the lack of access for blacks to beaches and swimming pools. In Derek Fordjour’s great pool boys (2019) the central figure diving into the water is collaged from material containing newspaper stock listings. It’s next to it lilo (2018) by Jonathan Wateridge, a white artist from Zambia.

The other large gallery on this floor displays large format paintings including Kaphars Conclusive2008-2009, where he recreated a 17th-century painting and then deconstructed it by cutting out its central figure, who falls down and lies face down flat on a low plinth behind.

The last room on this level vibrates like a homage to youth, which hasn’t always been reflected in culture, whether popular or not, toy store or art gallery. Such works include Adrian Pipers Barbara Epstein and Doll (1966), made when Piper (who won the 2015 Venice Biennale Golden Lion) was just 18 – and Gordon Parks Doll Test, Harlem, New York (1947) in which a black child looks at two dolls, one white and one black. He seems fixated on the white guy.

When I ask about outstanding memories from the 13 years here, Chang talks about the school visitors, including a girl who came years ago with her elementary school class and now in high school told Chang on a recent visit that she plans to go to the art school.

A school group visits an exhibition by Lara Favaretto in 2015.Courtesy of the Rennie Museum

Chang also talks about a class of kindergarten and first-graders spinning between the car wash brushes in Italian artist Lara Favaretto’s show in 2015. “Little kids respond to art where they don’t have to shut up and put their hands behind their backs,” says Chang.

She also mentions a young black girl who came with her class to see the 2018 Marshall show. As the only black child in the group, she drew all kinds of positive attention and questions from her classmates, who seemed to see her in a different light due to the artwork dealing with the black American experience. “She was beaming,” says Chang. “She literally stood taller.”

Rennie’s partner on the venture, Carey Fouks, says when the museum reopened after the COVID-19 shutdown, he cried. “We are so proud of what we have achieved here,” says Fouks.

Next, Rennie’s offices will move to a building he bought near Granville Island, where public art has already become part of the site.Rachel Topham

Next, Rennie’s offices will move to a building he bought near Granville Island, where art open to the public has already become part of the site, with a Wangechi Mutu sculpture acquired after being placed in the niches of the facade of the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York.

Rennie is seriously considering a sculpture garden for Vancouver. And he will continue to lend his works. Since the museum opened, it has loaned more than 600 works to museums around the world. More than 75 pieces are currently on loan to institutions such as the Met, Tate Modern and the Guggenheim Bilbao. The loans will continue to be a major focus as museums around the world struggle.

“We’re going to be more generous participants,” says Rennie, noting that shipping and insurance costs have become prohibitively expensive for museums. In order to make the artists accessible to the public, he will also try to support these costs. “I have a fantasy of being the best lender in the world.”

51@51 is at the Rennie Museum in Vancouver from Aug 13 to Nov 11, 2012.

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