Profile by Jane Ledwell
When I meet Pan Wendt at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, kids are playing in the concourse outside Mavor’s Bistro, poking at glass display cases for visual art exhibitions. “As a kid,” Pan remembers, “I was in here all the time, and in some senses it was just the place where my dad [Konrad Wendt] worked. I had no idea of its place in the community.”
Now that Pan is a Yale-trained art historian and the curator at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, he recognizes his childhood experience was not typical. He laughs, “To think of this place as kid-friendly is hilarious when you thing about its original mandate.” He says, “The original gallery was an elite, isolated, ivory tower. During some periods, you would read exhibition texts aimed at an audience that didn’t even exist here.”
Thankfully, time has changed that, and, “Now, the gallery is way more involved with the community,” Pan says—one signal being long-time Islanders as gallery director and curator and well-represented on the Gallery staff, a team Pan describes as “beyond belief excellent.” The gallery, Pan says, “is a place you can access things from away; at the same time it is a venue for people from here,” and that goes both for gallery visitors and artists represented in shows.
Pan notes, “It’s not always clear to people who are coming in, but there are about 30 exhibits here a year, and that means that every week-and-a-half, we’re changing shows.” He also says, “The gallery is also more involved with the Centre as a whole; there is more visual art throughout the Centre. It’s a fluid space here [around Mavor’s],” he gestures to the kids and parents viewing the display cases, “and there are a ton of kids coming in the gallery. That’s partly under the ‘educational’ function of the gallery—but it is more than education.”
Pan says visiting a gallery is a window into “how visual invention takes place, and this is incredibly important because we live in a visual culture right now.
“Here [at the Gallery], you can experience the limits of what you can do with visual images,” he says. That experience can be challenging, he admits, adding, “Everybody needs to be exposed to things that are new. Period.”
As an art historian on the one hand and a gallery curator on the other, Pan has both a research interest and a hands-on interest in the role of public spaces in our culture and imagination. The controversial, brutalist architecture of the Confederation Centre, Pan says, makes the building “a cross between something you circulate through and a monument which blocks everything. It interrupts the ordinary flow of business.” He adds, “There are not many of those spaces left: it’s mostly just parks and museums… What you realize is that these kinds of spaces are not being made now—but as they slowly get eliminated, until they are gone people won’t realize the value they have.”
Number one, for him, is that Confederation Centre is a public space for the arts: “It’s a space where really creative things can happen, and they are not just about commerce.” Number two, “The Gallery is a national-level exhibition space, and when we do something at a national level here, it’s important.”
Pan says, “The culture model for PEI is changing. We’re talking culture, culture, culture—not just tourism, tourism, tourism. It’s the decline of the ‘tourism-is-everything’ model.” From his vantage point in the Gallery and at the Centre, he says, “It feels consistently like it’s almost getting more and more exciting here.”
The excitement may come from both seeing change and actively creating change. Pan says, “I’m a two-hatted person, who is doing a combination of academic criticism on the one hand and curating exhibitions in the art world on the other. One side is hands-on; the other is intellectual. They cross over, but they are really very different.” As a gallery curator, Pan Wendt is enjoying work with a difference, enjoying the free space for imagination in the centre of cultural contradictions.