Arts·Museum Guide

Got a day off in Vancouver? Here's where this artist would spend it

Sandeep Johal shares why the Rennie Museum is her favourite place to see art in the city.

Sandeep Johal on why the Rennie Museum is her favourite place to see art in the city

Rooftop of the Rennie Museum, Vancouver. (Photo: Martin Tessler/Courtesy of the Rennie Museum)

Let's go to the museum! Over the next few weeks, we'll be discovering Canada's favourite museums and public galleries and sharing little lifehacks for planning your trip right. What are the must-sees? The hidden gems? At every stop, a different artist will be your tour guide.

Unlike the other spots we've visited so far, Vancouver's Rennie Museum is a private collection of contemporary art — one of the largest of its kind in Canada, actually — and the gallery hosts a rotating series of exhibitions throughout the year, all completely free and open to the public. (On now: a show featuring the works of Andrew Grassie, William E. Jones, Louise Lawler and Catherine Opie.)

So unlike the other stories in this series, your guide, Sandeep Johal, isn't going to be singling out the "must sees" waiting inside. (No trip can ever be the same!)

Your tour guide, Vancouver artist Sandeep Johal! (CBC Arts)

Instead, the Vancouver-based artist takes the stance that the Rennie itself is one of the best "hidden gems" in her beloved hometown. It's her favourite place to see art in the city — an oasis of contemporary art resting inside the oldest building in Chinatown, located stumbling distance from her favourite shops and restaurants and the No. 1 place in the world to watch otter vs. koi fish drama.

"It's such a beautiful, thoughtful place," she says. And if you find yourself with a day off in Vancouver — a luxury for this artist/mom — here's why she thinks you should make the trip. She wishes she did sooner.

Sorry, no walk-ins. (Photo: SITE Photography/Courtesy of the Rennie Museum)

Plan waaaaay in advance

"Anybody can go," says Johal, "which is really awesome." But remember: there's no such thing as walk-ins — or taking a self-directed wander around the place, either. Every visit to the Rennie is led by a tour guide, and your free ticket must be reserved in advance. To lock down a spot, you'll need to book a timeslot through the museum's website. On Saturdays, five public tours are typically available between 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and each one lasts about an hour.

It's just an email. Don't overthink it

If that online reservation system sounds intimidating, Johal gets it. For ages, she says it actually scared her off of visiting — so don't make the same mistake. Art doesn't bite. "I think I had a sort of reticence to do it," she admits. "Oh, I have to book an appointment? Oh my god!"

"But now I get it," she says. "It just ensures that you have a certain number of people in there at one time. It provides a nice viewing experience."

"And the folks who work at the reception when they buzz you in? They're just super nice. I think some people might feel intimidated walking in, but you feel very welcomed when you walk in the place."

View of the Rennie Museum's Spring 2019 exhibition, on to June 15. (Photo: Blaine Campbell/Courtesy of the Rennie Museum)

You can get the place all to yourself (plus a bunch of your best buds)

If there's one pro-tip to take away from this guide, it's this: book yourself an exclusive tour.

If you roll in a group of eight friends or more, you can arrange a private tour of the Rennie Museum — a V.I.P. perk that'll cost you absolutely nothing. That's how Johal was first introduced to the space, and she raves about the time she and some pals got a walk-through of last year's Kerry James Marshall exhibition.

"I think [a private tour] is better, for sure," she says. "The person we had leading our tour, she was very passionate about his work, and very passionate about social justice and Black rights. You could see how much the work impacted and affected her, and so she was so compelling when she was speaking. That made the experience so much better."

The Rennie Museum's 2018 Kerry James Marshall exhibition. (Photo: Blaine Campbell/Courtesy of the Rennie Museum)

Whether you go the pubic or the private route, though, all of the Rennie Museum's guides are university students who've created their own tours of the exhibitions. According to a gallery rep, every tour is designed to be interactive, with plenty of discussion encouraged — which might be especially fun if you're visiting with a gang of your favourite humans.

Hour-long private tours are offered between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Fridays, and must be reserved online. (One important detail to note: if you're interested in a private tour, you'll need to head to the "visit" section of website to contact the museum.)

Exhibition view of Kerry James Marshall at the Rennie Museum. (Photo: Blaine Campbell/Courtesy of the Rennie Museum)

Bask in 'ridiculous' beauty

Beyond the exhibitions, which are all curated from the personal collection of local "condo king" Bob Rennie, Johal is gaga over the venue itself. The gallery shares space with Rennie's real estate marketing firm in the historic Wing Fang Building, a structure that dates back to 1889. "The whole thing has been refurbished," says Johal, "but they've kept a lot of the architecture from the initial building and fused it with a more modern look."

Bonus tip: Take a bathroom break. (Photo: Blaine Campbell/Courtesy of the Rennie Museum)

"It's really airy; it's really bright. Just really spare, but the details and the construction are just so on point. It's a nice space to be in — even down to the bathrooms. The bathrooms are just SO nice!" she laughs. "The fixtures, everything. I can't even!" (Fun fact about the facilities, since she loves them so much: all the millwork in the bathrooms is made out of reclaimed wood from the original structure.)

The best way to end your visit

Because the exhibition will leave you with plenty to think about, Johal suggests spending a little time to decompress before heading back to the outside world. On the ground floor, walk in the direction of the bathrooms. At the back of the building, she says you'll find a space with long benches. That's her favourite rest spot. Grab a coffee or tea and reflect on what you've just experienced, she says.

"When you're inside the buildings, everything is really quiet. You don't feel a lot of noise. It just feels really relaxing," she says. "Often times when you go to bigger museums there's a ton of people, it's kind of crazy. There's lots of stuff going on. This, it really does feel really relaxing when you're in the space."

Gallery view of the Rennie Museum's Spring 2019 exhibition. (Photo: Blaine Campbell/Courtesy of the Rennie Museum)

For more info on how to plan your visit to the Rennie Museum, visit


Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.