An interview with CHRIS KEATLEY, Curator

Pendulum Gallery, Vancouver BC, Canada.

Pendulum Gallery installation photo

We are thrilled to present an in-depth interview with Chris Keatley, Curator of the Pendulum Gallery in Vancouver. Appointed curator in 2007, Keatley talks about the evolution of the Gallery, his vision and the many roles he plays to make the Pendulum successful.  “I see the Pendulum Gallery as a public-facing, non-traditional space with a plurality of audiences with a range of art gallery experiences –  some people may wander in to have a quick look, or come across the gallery as they visit downtown – others are dedicated art people who come to the Pendulum to see a particular show. It is important that we make the experience engaging and welcome to all.” 

Tell me about the Pendulum Gallery and what is does. 

The gallery evolved out of an agreement between the City of Vancouver and the original owner of the building to provide a public cultural facility when it was constructed in 1986. First envisioned as a performance venue, a moveable wall and display case system were added in the mid 1990’s, at which point the space became focused on the visual arts and the Pendulum Gallery was born.

Our focus is twofold : to open up the programming to allow for outside groups or individuals to mount exhibitions and to put together a number of gallery-initiated projects and collaborations. Here you can see shows you might not normally see in a gallery setting – public art projects, historical photos, fashion, graphic, architecture and urban design, little-known or underrepresented artists and arts communities from the region.

I see the Pendulum Gallery as a public-facing, non-traditional space with a plurality of audiences with a range of art gallery experiences –  some people may wander in to have a quick look , or come across the gallery as they visit downtown – others are dedicated art people who come to the Pendulum to see a particular show. It is important that we make the experience engaging and welcome to all.


When did you get involved?

In 2006 I was approached by the City and was asked if I was interested in developing and implementing a vision for the space. At that time, I was working as a landscape architect and I was also helping run my wife’s gallery, the Tracey Lawrence Gallery, in Vancouver. I started working with the Pendulum as their curator in 2007.

As I became more involved with the Gallery, I recognized there was potential, not just as a curatorial opportunity but also the range and scope of possible exhibitions. I got to understand the role of the gallery in the community as an important cultural facility and the opportunities to shine a spotlight on lesser-known artists who may not have had much exposure, but who are doing interesting work.

In 2010 I started working with Architect Marco Simcic to explore what could be done to transform the Pendulum into a cutting-edge exhibition space with flexibility to mount a range of exhibitions and displays.  The design and budget required the approval from both the Board of the Pendulum Gallery and the City of Vancouver.

This took quite a long time as there are many stakeholders and the display system had to function in multiple ways. We were also exploring some new ideas of how the gallery systems could be updated and utilized effectively. This included an earth magnet hanging, RRIF wireless security, moveable walls, flexible storage systems and dedicated and programmable lighting. It took until 2015 to complete design and construction.

My curatorial approach is less about imposing my ideas, it’s about looking to see what’s out there, sharpening those ideas and collaborating with artists to bring out the best of what they’re doing.

What is your role as curator?

I act as the program curator, and curator of selected exhibitions. Curating the program entails collaborating with the broader arts community in Vancouver, incorporating these groups and organizations into our programming whenever possible.  We work with major arts organizations – Arts Umbrella, Capture Photography Festival, East Side Culture Crawl as well as artists groups and artists with less formal affiliations. We’ve also opened our programming to include pop-ups in conjunction with commercial galleries from around the region who provide interesting curated exhibitions that appeal to our public while supporting the private gallery component of the Visual Art ecosystem in the City.

Interspersed with these shows are 3-4 exhibitions that I curate each year. These may be one, two or more person shows. Sometimes they may be topical – such as Mercy Mercy Me, an exhibition on artists responses to climate change from 2022. Or based around a theme, such as Holding On, a photography show dealing with Vancouver’s constantly changing urban fabric, from 2021.  I particularly like two person shows as you can get an interesting dialogue going between the artists, and space to show a good number of works from each artist.

My curatorial approach is less about imposing my ideas, it’s about looking to see what’s out there, sharpening those ideas and collaborating with artists to bring out the best of what they’re doing.

Pendulum Gallery, installation photo

Mercy Mercy Me, installation photo

How does your role differ from the role of a public gallery or museum curator?

My role as curator is more wide-ranging than that of a typical visual arts curator working in the public or private sectors. I have multiple roles I fill at the Pendulum Gallery – as curator, manager, marketer, facilitator, and writer, and all of these activities shape the overall program. I am responsible for the financial side of things – developing budgets for our yearly program and overseeing our non-gallery activities that help to fund our operations.

I have an excellent crew of installers. I have help managing our website and social media, as well as accounting and legal services. What’s critical for me is the management of the exhibitions; planning what is to be shown, how it’s going to be installed, coordinating media and public promotion, and setting budgets for the year and for individual shows.  I have an expanded role in the structure of the organization than that of a traditional curator, who generally does not deal with the organizational and administrative side.

Are exhibitions a result of dialogues where the curator acts a catalyst?

I’m interested in work that is visually engaging and relevant to issues in both Contemporary Art and the broader culture.  Dialogues with artists are one of the central features of the role and at the heart of my curatorial interest and focus.

There are practical considerations when considering what to exhibit –  for example does the work fit the space, is it appropriate within our overall program and will the public be engaged by what we show?  There are contextual and curatorial concerns that may derive from initial curatorial ideas that expand as the exhibition is brought into focus.  Some exhibitions can take two years until they are ready to go, others can be pulled together in a couple of months.

I try to encourage artists to push their work as much as they can; to be ambitious. Often I make suggestions. I ask questions: Have you thought about doing it this way? Is there another way to do it? Sometimes the dialogue will move the curatorial premise in a new direction or make connections to other ideas or artists. It’s an open-ended process for me. Seeing the work in a studio and hearing the artist talk about their practice allows me to understand what they’re trying to do and how it may fit with what I’m doing curatorially.

Pendulum Gallery installation photo

Pendulum Gallery installation photo

Do you have any preconceived ideas or themes you want to explore or does it emerge from the artists or the space?

At any time, I have a number of ideas I am interested in – these can be related to art ideas and movements in circulation, or broader topical issues of the day.  I may curate based on finding artists who speak to these existing ideas or by coming into contact with artists who are engaging with interesting new ideas or approaches, which in turn might lead me to look into their practice in greater detail, and perhaps explore whether this is a broader trend that is shared by other artists.

It helps to look at a lot of art – both from emerging and established artists,  and I get out to exhibitions as frequently as possible. Travelling and looking at the art outside of City is also critical; to see what’s out there, see the trends, the ideas that are emerging.

The Gallery display system is able to expand or contract to meet the requirements of a range of exhibitions, so I tend to allow the work itself to determine how the exhibition will be set-out.  However, I have to be aware of our audience who might be very casual viewers – just passing through – or else hard-core art people. My strategy is to make all the exhibitions interesting and comprehensible to those at both ends of this spectrum and to present shows that will create more engaged art viewers out of those who might initially experience the gallery in a more ‘ambient’ way.

What makes the Pendulum Gallery successful?

The success of the gallery started with establishment of the Atrium as a cultural facility independent of the building itself (the Atrium is a legal right-of-way through the building) which allows the City to have a great deal of control over the space. Capital funding for future facility upgrades and purchases was also put in place at this time. This funding allowed us to build the current gallery system in 2015.

The location and visibility of the Gallery is also critical. You can’t beat being located at one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the City, and across the street from the Vancouver Art Gallery. The design of the building at street level allows for expansive views into and out of the space, creating a unique gallery experience reinforced by the effect of the natural light that enters the gallery from the glass structure above, giving the space an indoor/outdoor feel.

Also critical is the buy-in from the stakeholders. I have to give a lot of credit to building owner and manager Cadillac Fairview who have embraced the Gallery and supported it in multiple ways, from offering legal support to providing security staff and maintenance above and beyond what they are required to do. They take a lot of pride and ownership in Pendulum Gallery and market and promote it to their tenants as a unique amenity that adds value to both the location and the building itself.

The City of Vancouver is also very supportive, providing us with creative leeway as well as advice that allows us to operate and manage the space in the best way possible. Although we fall under the jurisdiction of the City we do not receive any direct funding from them for our operations. Not having to be dependent on grants or corporate sponsorships allows us to maintain a great deal of autonomy.

Pendulum Gallery installation photo

Pendulum Gallery installation photo

What type of art interests you?

I’m less interested in individual artists and more interested in movements of art – Dada, minimalism, and land art of course given my background in landscape architecture. But I’m a pluralist and enjoy vital art from all periods – from medieval manuscripts to multi-media installations.

I like art for art’s sake. That’s out of fashion these days, but I’m okay with that. I don’t believe art has to always have a political agenda or provide a social critique. I like art to reference other art. But ultimately the work needs to be visually interesting and anchored in art history.

I’m always learning. Expanding my ideas. I get excited when I come across a new artist or writing about art that provides a different point of view.  It makes me better understand my emotional connections to art and how I can bring that into my curatorial practice.

Who is a curator that has influenced you?

Patrik Andersson, who is an Associate Professor at Emily Carr University and the Curator of Trapp Projects.

He’s the stealth curator and dealer. He has an incredible eye and ability to recognize young artists. He opens up conversations, he understands who he’s talking to. I value what he does and trust him.

Patrik and I go back about 25 years to the time Tracey and I first opened the Tracey Lawrence Gallery (1996 -2008). Our daughters are the same age and they hung out together at Gallery openings, along with other young children of artists and gallerists on the scene at the time.  He was incredibly supportive of the gallery and would frequently direct collectors and curators our way.

We both kind of do the same thing; he comes out of an academic background and I come out of a commercial and operational background, but we often end up in the same place.

Pendulum Gallery installation, Mercy Mercy Me

Pendulum Gallery, installation photo

How do you find artists?

I go to a lot of shows, tour studios and festivals and use social media to keep up with things. I frequently ask artists I know to tell me who they think is doing interesting work. I depend on artists telling me about other artists, I trust their opinion.

What are some characteristics you look for in artists?   

Lately, I’m finding my interest shifting to mid-career and senior artists. I’m interested in exploring how their work has developed overtime. I appreciate the second and third acts; the pushing on, the stick-to-itiveness. These artists are driven and continue to produce new art no matter what. They’re doing really good work. How will history remember these people?

Emerging artists can be exiting, but it takes a while for an artist to find their authentic and unique voice. When I see work of young artists that are of interest to me, I try to figure out how they fit into what else is happening with other artists, and how their work could be contextualized through participating in an exhibition.

Young artists need time to develop their practice. They need to keep working even when no one appreciates what they’re doing. But many stop out of frustration or need to focus on other things.

Pendulum Gallery installation photo

Pendulum Gallery installation photo

As a viewer you have to be curious. You have to develop the ability to look closely and see and try to interpret and understand things in a fully engaged way. People seem to be losing that ability, and I feel this has a lot to do with ‘swipe-culture’ and the way many people experience visual art these days.

Do you think art should favour the building of communities or human connections, especially with rise of social media?

I believe that the central relationship in art is between the viewer and the art-object. That is the primary one.  It is not necessarily between the viewer and the artist. The artist is a dexterous guide, reflecting cultures and history in a Jungian way – that is, out of a collective consciousness that we all share and they are able to channel.

That’s not to say that artists don’t have independent ideas, interests and approaches to art, but that the art they produce comes out of a long cultural history and has a life of its own when it leaves the studio and starts to engage with the wider art world of viewers, critics, writers, collectors and curators.

Art does build communities, and these tend to be centered around support and shared interests.  What art can do is bring people into connection with others in a physical or intellectual space that allows for both personal interaction with the art-object and the opportunity to share this experience with others.

I think we all realized during the pandemic that viewing art on a screen was no replacement for the experience of seeing art in person.  Social media, while it might provide a wealth of images, fails to provide any real sense of community or allow for the primary one-on-one relationship of viewer and object to be achieved.  That’s not to say social media doesn’t provide some value, but I think its value lies in documentation and promotion of things (art in this case) that are most valuable when experienced in person.

As a viewer you have to be curious. You have to develop the ability to look closely and see and try to interpret and understand things in a fully engaged way. People seem to be losing that ability, and I feel this has a lot to do with ‘swipe-culture’ and the way many people experience visual art these days.

Chris Keatley, Curator Pendulum Gallery

Chris Keatley

You and your wife collect art. How has this influenced your role as a curator?

My wife Tracey Lawrence and I have collected art together for over three decades. We have over 150 works from local, national and international artists. As the collection has grown, I have become very interested in the relationships between the works, and the way the art allows me to present a coherent projection of our values, understandings of art and our aesthetic interests.

A collection, like an exhibition, is a bringing together of things. Everything in a collection, like multiple works in an exhibition, influence, and impact everything else that is shown or collected. It has a multiplier effect, leading to connections of meaning that can exist across time among various art-objects. Paying attention to the dialogue between art-objects is critical.

The mother of a close friend – Rosemary Poll (1926-2023) – had a Gallery in Gastown for many years and put together an extensive collection of Contemporary Art in her home.  In my teens we hung out at the Poll house a lot, and I was always very intrigued by the art and spent a lot of time looking at it, enjoying it and considering its meaning. She had works by Canadian artists Greg Curnoe, Paterson Ewen, Maxwell Bates, Jack Shadbolt, Michael Morris, and Iain Baxter and some great international artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, David Hockney, Miro and Calder.

I would often ask Mrs Poll about works in the collection – who they were by and what they meant – and she was always willing and interested in discussing art with me. She encouraged my interest and our art-discussions continued for years, right up to when I last saw her about a year ago.

You didn’t see much contemporary art in people’s homes in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and being exposed to Rosemary’s collection was a critical element of my education in the arts, and had a significant influence on me, both in terms of my professional pursuits and my understanding of what a personal collection of art could be and what it adds to a life.

What is one of the most important accomplishments of the Pendulum Gallery?

Inclusiveness and diversity within our program while maintaining a high quality of exhibitions is one of the things I’m most proud of.

I’m very aware of my responsibility in running such a visible public space and gallery. I’m very pleased with my role in getting the gallery to where it is today.

And for the future?

I feel a sense of responsibility towards the Pendulum Gallery. It’s a little gem. It has a presence and a history.

As professionals in the artworld, we are custodians and guides for the cultural production and presentation of art and artists.  We are caretakers of this cultural legacy.  During our time we mold it, shape it and then pass it to the next generation.

I want the Pendulum Gallery to be able to maintain it’s trajectory, continually evolving, become more integrated in the City’s cultural milieu. It is an important and unique cultural space in Vancouver and the incorporation of a plurality of voices and ideas needs to be maintained.

Thank you Chris Keatley for sharing this enlightening look into your multi-faceted role as curator of the Pendulum Gallery.  And a huge thank you for your continued dedication and commitment to the artists and the visual arts in Vancouver.

PendulumGallery  @gallerypendulum
Photos: courtesy of the Pendulum Gallery