Places + Spaces: Unit 17, Vancouver

The Canadian art landscape is ever-changing. Akimbo keeps you apprised of the standard-bearers as well as the upstarts in our monthly series on exhibition spaces from across the country. This month, we speak with Tobin Gibson of Unit 17 in Vancouver.

What is the history and mandate of your gallery?

Installation view of inaugural exhibition at Unit 17

Unit 17 opened with a group exhibition featuring Derya Akay, Tiziana La Melia, and Tristan Unrau in January 2017 with an intention to focus primarily on sculpture, installation, film, and video. I started the gallery after working with Maureen Paley, Presentation House Gallery (now The Polygon Gallery), The Apartment, and Simon Fraser University. With particular attention given to developing artist-driven solo exhibitions and curated group shows by Canadian as well as international artists, the gallery began in a 500 square-foot office space in East Vancouver, operating by appointment. In August 2017, the gallery expanded to a 3000 square-foot 1930s storefront on the west side of the city. The space included a 1500 square-foot garden, studios, kitchens, and an outdoor shower in addition to the gallery, which was passed on to the forty-five-year-old artist-run-centre UNIT/PITT Projects in September 2023. Unit 17 re-opened at 207 West Hastings Street in January 2024.

Installation view of The Neighbour’s Plate at Unit 17

In 2020, the gallery hosted the exhibition The Neighbour’s Plate with Derya Akay, Amna Elnour, and Dana Qaddah. This opened up our program to begin presenting group exhibitions that form through invitation. Artists represented by the gallery invite additional artists (from within or outside of their community) that they wish to show alongside, and allow them to choose their level of participation through larger collaborations, public programs, or more discreet interventions. At present, the gallery is focusing on solo exhibitions by gallery artists to further open our new gallery. Our current exhibition, Derya Akay’s Flowers from a Story, is on display until July 13.

What is a highlight of your neighbourhood?

Installation view of Derya Akay’s Flowers from a Story at Unit 17

Our new location is in an area of Vancouver that sits between Downtown, Gastown, Chinatown, and the Downtown Eastside. This location makes for an incredibly dynamic context, accessible to many people interested in the gallery’s program throughout the city, as well as those that are visiting.

What’s your favourite part of running an art gallery?

Working on specific artistic visions, making sure we can support making this happen.

How do you find out about new artists?

Work by Unit 17 artists Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill and Christian Vistan on display at Artissima 2024 in Turin

Often, relationships with artists take a while to develop. The gallery looks to peer gallery programs and our artists who let us know of practices that we should be paying attention to. Gallery staff are also often travelling, which opens up relationships and possibilities.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Work by Unit 17 artists Ezra Gray, Nadya Isabella, and Tristan Unrau on display at ART021 in Shanghai

We are continuing to do work outside of Canada, mostly in Italy, China, and Japan, as well as South Korea. In five years, these projects will only grow and become more consistent or established.

What excites you about your upcoming exhibitions?

The entrance to Unit 17

The gallery is starting many new relationships with artists, so we are looking forward to sharing these forthcoming exhibitions starting Autumn 2024.