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Amsterdam City Report

To coincide with the long-delayed reopening of the Stedelijk Museum, which closed its doors in 2003, frieze commissioned three reports from the Dutch capital. Nick Aikens reviews the renovated museum, Maxine Kopsa takes stock of last year’s cuts to cultural budgets, and Timotheus Vermeulen considers the impact of the recent national elections

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Stedelijk Museum with new extension by Benthem Crouwel Architects, 2012; photograph: John Lewis Marshall

Stedelijk Museum with new extension by Benthem Crouwel Architects, 2012; photograph: John Lewis Marshall

Nick Aikens


Stedelijk Museum, interior shot of new extension, 2012; photograph: Matthijs Borghgraef

Having moved to the Netherlands at the beginning of this year, I wasn’t able to share in the fraught anticipation, frustration and nostalgia felt by Amsterdammers towards the Stedelijk Museum and its protracted reopening: a story of delays, a bankrupted construction company, botched decisions by the city council, and press attacks on the museum’s American director, Ann Goldstein, all set amidst the Netherlands’ ruthless public funding cuts to culture. Rather, my reaction was fuelled by a sense of intrigue: how would the Stedelijk – a museum with one of the world’s most esteemed collections of modern and contemporary art and design, and with twice the exhibition space it had previously – attempt to woo back its constituents? And, perhaps more interestingly, how would it position itself in the Netherlands of 2012?

The most obvious change, of course, is the Stedelijk’s new building. Designed by Dutch firm Benthem Crouwel Architects, the sleek white construction – which resembles a gigantic acrylic mould and has already been nicknamed ‘the bath tub’ – now serves as the front of the museum, meaning you enter from the side of the Museumplein, or Museum Square, adjacent to the Van Gogh Museum. From the Stedelijk’s vast new entrance hall – the basalt floor of which continues through the glass facade, giving the sense of a covered street – you step through the back of Adriaan Willem Weissman’s 1895 red-brick building into the galleries.

The Stedelijk’s collection (and the lack of room in which to display it) has defined its history: from the original bequest by the heiress Sophia Adriana Lopez Suasso in 1891 – consisting of antiques, paintings, linens, porcelain and even a toilet – through the Stedelijk housing the Clock Museum, the Medical Museum, the Maritime Museum and objects from the Museum of Amsterdam’s Armed Militias at the turn of the 20th century, to its evolution in the 1950s into a dedicated museum for modern and contemporary art and design. The collection, described by Goldstein as ‘the heart and soul of the museum’, is what the public is most impatient to see again and, wisely, all the galleries bar one were given over to a selection from its 90,000 pieces.

The ground-floor galleries – covering the period 1870–1960 – operate within a loose chronological framework, shifting between thematic displays (the first, ‘Town and Country’, included works by Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Gustave Courbet), movements (‘Expressionism’, ‘CoBrA’) and monographic displays (Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich). What is immediately clear is that the Stedelijk is the keeper of numerous historical gems and sanctioned heavyweights: Van Gogh’s Augustine Roulin (La Berçeuse) (1889), Mondrian’s first diamond piece, Lozenge Composition with Two Lines (1931), and the largest collection of Malevich works outside Russia (currently on show is a series of Suprematist compositions from 1915–18 as well as a room-sized feast of works on paper). Equally clear is that these heavyweights have dictated the approach to display. As a Stedelijk curator confirmed to me, they began with a selection of the 30 art works they felt compelled to exhibit, which they then used as the basis for the remainder of the installation.

This object-based methodology seems geared towards the Stedelijk’s estranged former visitors, who are eager to return to the museum to see the art works and history they are familiar with. The danger is that such an approach results in a comfortable, out-moded version of the canon that leaves little room for new readings. Nonetheless, the ground-floor displays contained occasional glimpses of what such new contextualization could be: there is a treasure chest of a room given over to Dutch photography and typography of the 1920s and ’30s, including Cas Oorthuys’s Bauhaus-inspired designs for Eenheid! tegen fascisme (Unite! Against Fascism, 1937), a pamphlet highlighting the lurch to the right in 1930s Europe and its resistance in Dutch leftist circles, whilst On the Terrace (1930) by Dutch painter Nola Hatterman, in the ‘Interbellum’ display on the ground floor, depicts a suited Surinamese man enjoying a beer in an Amsterdam café, offering a rare art-historical perspective on the Netherlands’ colonial past.

In the upstairs galleries – which cover the period from 1950 to the present day – the museum’s iconic works are again given central billing: opening with Edward Kienholz’s complex installation The Beanery (1965), the displays include immaculately installed rooms dedicated to the art movements Nul, Zero and Nouveau Réalisme, as well as monographic presentations of Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman (the latter’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue of 1966 was infamously slashed by a visitor in 1986). The installation is sparse: it’s a Modernist display for Modernist masters, which reaches its zenith in the central gallery with a roll call of Minimalist giants – Carl Andre, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden. By creating such a potent display of pre-eminent American male artists – and by positioning it at the centre of the newly expanded building, without any recourse to criticality or contemporary counter-balance – the art history played out in the surrounding galleries is cast under a formal and ideological North American shadow. Even for the Netherlands, whose love for US art is arguably more pronounced than elsewhere in Western Europe, this stance feels oddly regressive.

In the remaining upstairs galleries, artistic pairings are considered and precise: one room aligns Arte Povera artists Alighiero Boetti and Mario Merz with the contemporaneous Dutch conceptualist Jan Dibbets, whilst another sees Cady Noland, Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol form a surprisingly successful trio. Whilst there is a welcome re-balancing of genders (with new acquisitions by Marlene Dumas, Martha Rosler, Paulina Olowska and Cosima von Bonin) there is, however, little inclusion of artists working outside Europe and North America or due space given to developments in the 1990s. With the Stedelijk’s public yet to be fully introduced to relational practice, post-colonial discourse and the cultural ramifications of globalization (a consequence of both the museum’s long closure and the neglect of former directors), the decision not to re-orientate artistic, geographical and historical narratives is a major shortcoming.

The design galleries on the ground floor – featuring exhibits from 1900 to the present day – do afford the opportunity for diverse stories to be told. (Surprisingly, this is the first time in the museum’s history that the design collection has had dedicated exhibition spaces.) While major movements and figures are once again given central billing – Bauhaus, De Stijl, Philippe Starck – the inclusion of graphic design allows for the museum’s own history to be incorporated. One room features work by the Stedelijk’s iconic former director Willem Sandberg – who, during his directorship from 1945 to 1962, designed all the catalogues, invitations and posters for the museum.

According to Mels Crouwel of Benthem Crouwel Architects, Sandberg was the inspiration for the new building. In the late 1930s, when Sandberg was a curator at the Stedelijk, he famously told the then-director David Röell to go on holiday whilst he whitewashed the walls. He subsequently did away with superfluous furnishings and installed white glass lights, transforming the Stedelijk into a museum fit for displaying modern art. The two new columnless galleries, totalling more than 3,000 square metres, are immense white cubes – vast chambers for art that would have no doubt met with Sandberg’s approval. They will house temporary exhibitions, beginning with the much-anticipated Mike Kelley retrospective in December. Currently, the lower ground-floor gallery includes large-scale installations from the collection, the highlight of which was Joan Jonas’s Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy / Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll (1972–94), comprising video, costumes, drawings and ephemera from the New York performance of her feminist alter ego, Organic Honey.

In the upper gallery is the exhibition ‘Beyond Imagination’, which presents works by 20 artists who were either born in the Netherlands or who have lived, studied or worked there. As graduate schools face drastic restructuring and grants to artists are slashed, ‘Beyond Imagination’ – celebrating the country’s artists, residency programmes and artistic network – is a necessary reminder of what the nation stands to lose. But the most revealing part of the Stedelijk’s reopening strategy remains its approach to the collection, its prize asset and its primary tool to win back doubtful visitors and financial backers. In the short term, this is the museum’s most pressing task. For the city’s inhabitants, eager to see their long-lost friends back on the walls, the museum has given them what they wanted. Moving forward, the Stedelijk must assume the role of effective leader in an increasingly challenging cultural and political landscape. To do that one hopes it has the resources and the desire to challenge, rather than merely appease, its adoring public.

Nick Aikens is assistant curator at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. He also works on International Projects for Outset Contemporary Art Fund and is a regular contributor to frieze. He lives in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.MAXINE KOPSA


Interior view of the Stedelijk Museum, 2012, foreground: design posters, background: Donald Judd, Untitled, 1989; photograph: Gert Jan van Rooij

Imagine New York without MoMA or London without Tate, or even Rotterdam without the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. In 2003, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam had to close the Neo-Renaissance building in which it had been housed since 1895 for renovation. For the next five years, the museum temporarily relocated to a 1960s high-rise, the former Post CS building, where the permanent collection was not, however, on view. Ultimately, off-site projects and small presentations of selected works from the collection had to bridge the gap between 2008 and the reopening of the restored and extended Stedelijk in September 2012. Effectively, for the past ten years, the citizens of Amsterdam have had to live without their contemporary art museum.

In cultural-educational terms, this equals a full generation: anyone born in, say, 1997, who has almost finished high school by now, will have had little or no direct experience of one of – if not the – most important art collections in the Netherlands. Of course, closing for renovation and extension is an understandable and necessary thing. But the reopening of the Stedelijk has been re-scheduled so often (2007, 2010, 2011) that the delay must have left awkward spaces in countless calendars, not least in that of Ann Goldstein, the museum’s director since 2010.

Still, hopes are high. With the Stedelijk open again, a new influx of visitors will revitalize the city, says Amsterdam gallerist Annet Gelink: ‘The energy and excitement were already tangible,’ she adds. ‘The September gallery openings around town were extremely busy, everyone had a good show on.’ Frédérique Bergholtz, director of the evolving curatorial platform ‘If I Can’t Dance I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution’, and member of the selection committee for the Stedelijk’s opening show of municipal acquisitions ‘Beyond Imagination’, is equally positive about the reopening: ‘Supporters in favour of a “quick uncomplicated fix” of the museum want to see its international reputation restored as swiftly as possible, but I believe that a show like “Beyond Imagination” – performance-heavy, unorthodoxically ephemeral, yet anchored in current, local artistic production – sets out a vital course for the institution.’

On the other hand, of course, there are the funding cuts. Up until last year, in terms of cultural-sector subsidies, Holland must have seemed like La-La Land to its neighbours: individual artists could appeal for financial assistance with studio rents, materials and for investment in technical equipment; artists and institutions could apply for funding for both short- and long-term projects; local galleries could obtain grants for art fairs; foreign galleries and cultural institutions for support to exhibit Dutch artists. The list of possibilities was long.

According to Thomas Peutz, director of SMART Project Space (SPS), these recent changes in cultural policy are a tragedy. sps is a large-scale institution with artists’ studios, a gallery space, theatre and café; due to the funding cuts it will have to merge with the Netherlands Media Art Institute to form New Art Space Amsterdam, which will open in January 2013. ‘The extreme decrease in support for individual creative production,’ says Peutz, ‘forms a complete undermining of the infrastructure which shaped Amsterdam into an exceptionally favourable city for artists. The new Dutch cultural policy is geared towards support of national heritage and no longer towards the funding of the production of new (art) works. As a result, the city will lose its character as an internationally orientated cultural hub entirely.’

Gitta Luiten was director of the Mondriaan Foundation from 2001 until the end of 2011, when the foundation amalgamated with the other largest national funding body – the Foundation for Art, Design and Architecture – and was renamed the Mondriaan Fund. During that period, in which she was one of the most powerful women in the Dutch art world, Luiten was often questioned about the country’s generous grant policies, these being – short-sighted analysts would claim – the cause of Holland’s perceived mediocrity in terms of developing international art stars. She responded simply to the effect of: why wouldn’t we be generous towards something we believe in and can afford to support?

Belief, one may say, is no longer; respect for the visual arts has dwindled, and politicians have chosen to uphold disastrous cutbacks that only marginally help the national deficit, yet have ripped up a carefully balanced infrastructure of residencies, internationally renowned academies and exhibition platforms in a matter of mere months. Subsidy criteria have been re-written to measure an art institution’s success according to the relation between geographical location and visitor numbers, so that the difference on a grant application between a community centre and a museum is difficult to pinpoint. Serve the public, aspire to achieving a greater and, more importantly, demonstrable social good, stop living the easy life of a parasitic grant-taker, and work efficiently for your – no, scratch that – our money.

Some claim the artists themselves are to blame, that their wish to be more pertinent social players in the mid-1990s led them to the political negotiating table and, in turn, made them not only complicit with, but also dependent on, its capitalist logic. As Camiel van Winkel argued in an article for Metropolis M (August/September 2011), they exchanged their position of autonomy for one of function. And now that these same political allies have chosen the free market as a feasible replacement for their support – following a logic of ‘if something is good enough people will pay money for it’ – the artist and the art institution are left to fight their corner by means of investment-friendly terminology, or not at all.

At the time of writing, Amsterdam is in a state of limbo regarding the impact of the cuts. Institutions whose state funding has been severely reduced or completely withdrawn are waiting to hear who will benefit from the Mondriaan Fund. Many – whose local-government support is insufficient to cover management costs, let alone programming – will have no option but to merge: the Rijksakademie and de Ateliers (two of the most important and internationally reputed art-educational institutions in the Netherlands) have been forced to submit a joint application for government support; at the time of writing, their futures remain undecided. Others will be forced to splinter into smaller organizations: for example, the structural funding for the Foundation for Art and Public Domain (skor) will be discontinued as of 1 January 2013, forcing the institution to dissolve into several smaller bodies and effectively terminating many of its ongoing public art projects. Still others will have to start begging from the handful of private individuals (mainly collectors) and corporate bodies that might be willing to help them, but whose pooled potential could never make up for the retracted €17 million, or they will have to throw in the towel.

For an institution like W139 – founded in 1979 as a squatted, artist-run space and now a well-established alternative artistic platform in the city – the stakes are high. But it could be worse, explains Tim Voss, who left the institution in September 2012 after a two-year directorship. The city of Amsterdam has awarded w139 with a four-year structural grant, so even though their government subsidy has been cut by €200,000 annually, they can certainly survive. Voss, who is German-born and was based in Hamburg before relocating to Amsterdam, sees the situation from an outsider’s perspective. ‘It seems to me that institutions in Holland are suffering from an identity crisis as a reaction to the cutbacks,’ Voss explains, noting that he witnessed how institutions began to change their profiles to fall into line with grant specifications under the conditions of populist politics put into action: ‘This cultural crisis is not specific to the Netherlands but […] the country has become an exemplary pioneer of this practice: all over Europe, populist voices are now questioning everything.’

So should we share in the enthusiasm for the Stedelijk Museum’s reopening or languish in a state of distress? Probably both. The general financial crisis and its ensuing political (mis-)management have revealed the dark side of Dutch pragmatism: Calvinist tendencies that look to the lowest common denominator as a place for the reassurance of the masses, while patronizing the audience at large. And even though the recent general elections saw the right-wing populists defeated, these tendencies will not simply be reversed. In the name of efficiency and free-market streamlining, all ‘difficult’ forms of culture are deemed, quite simply, superfluous. And the argument to reinforce art’s slow demise is frighteningly rational: why should we invest in something so impractical, something we find boring?

The country’s official Dichter des Vaderlands (poet laureate), Ramsey Nasr, summed up the Netherlands’ growing lethargy and small-mindedness in an article widely published in national newspapers and on the web during the spring 2012 cultural protests: ‘Of course the arts need to cut costs. Of course the division of finances can be improved. Of course sometimes too much money has been thrown to less worthy projects. Of course the art world needs to lose its in-crowd tendencies. But not everything can be made appealing, made easy. Students don’t learn about the 18th century any more; they learn about the pruikentijd [‘The Era When People Wore Wigs’], because that’s more appealing […] To make things pleasant is sudden death: life isn’t pleasant, education isn’t pleasant and culture isn’t pleasant. It is sensible, it is what makes us human.’

Let’s hope the reopened Stedelijk Museum will kick-start the urgent, and not always pleasant, re-education of a new generation.

A writer and curator based in the Netherlands, Maxine Kopsa is co-founding director of Kunstverein, a curatorial franchise based in Amsterdam, Milan, Italy, and New York, USA. She is a contributing editor of Metropolis M, a tutor at Werkplaats Typografie, Arnhem, the Netherlands, and leads a seminar at HEAD, Geneva, Switzerland.TIMOTHEUS VERMEULEN


P/////AKT platform for contemporary art, 2012

By the time you read this, three things will have happened. Firstly, the Stedelijk Museum will have reopened its doors; secondly, the budget of the cultural sector in Amsterdam will have been cut (admittedly, not as severely as the budgets in the provinces); and thirdly the Netherlands, once again, will have a new government. While the first and second points are discussed by the other two contributors to this city report, I would like to say a few words about the third phenomenon, i.e. the broader cultural-political reality of which the first and second points are part. For it is a markedly different reality from the one in which the Stedelijk closed its doors almost a decade ago.

At the time of writing, the liberal party (VVD) have won the election, with the social democrats (PVDA) a close second. These parties will probably form a coalition. There are other options, but they seem less likely. Ever since Geert Wilders’ populist party (PVV) was founded, Dutch politics has been more divided than anyone can remember. Few parties are willing to make the necessary concessions. Whatever shape the coalition takes, it seems destined to be shaky and unstable, less about smooth compromise than about terse exchange.

In any case, the country will most likely remain where it is now: at a point where the right and the left are pulling opposite ends of an elastic band. Neither of them wants to let go. When the right pulls, the left pulls back harder. And so they pull, harder and harder, stretching the band to its limit. The VVD, in reaction to the PVV’s previous successes, has moved ever further to the right, while the PVDA has huddled leftwards. The middle, meanwhile, has been abandoned. No one wants to stand on the sidelines, after all. Everyone wants to join the game.

Amsterdam is already governed by a coalition of PVDA and VVD, together with the left-wing Groenlinks. But the pvda is by no means as dominant as it has been in the past. Here, too, the centre has lost its appeal. Despite a swift move to the left, the party lost many of its votes in the 2010 election: a decent chunk of them to the right; a number to the more radical left. Here too, albeit on a more moderate scale, things are reconfiguring.

This political reorganization goes hand in hand with another decentralization: since the financial crisis, the middle class has been significantly eroded, leaving a gaping hole between the notorious one percent and the rest of us. Unemployment is worse than it has been in decades; many of those without work are university graduates or from the cultural sector. We were taught in school that capitalism is about progress. We asked, cleverly we thought: ‘What kind of progress?’ Or: ‘Progress for whom?’ As it turns out, we should have doubted whether there was progress at all.

Over the past two years, there have been more demonstrations in Holland than in the preceding decade. We have seen the anti-globalists and Occupy, the Pirate Party and students, artists and Pussy Riot aficionados take to the streets, both virtual and actual. I have witnessed my own students stage numerous public debates and demonstrations to protest anything from university policy to the budgets cuts. People have begun again to consider themselves citizens, part of a state, and are keen to contribute to the creation of that state. We know that it is no longer enough simply to criticize and sit back, secretly sure things will turn out all right. We know we, too, need to play our part if we want things to work.

In the cultural industries things have changed considerably as well. The cultural logic of Postmodernism has been displaced by another sensibility: metamodernism (of course, this is a global phenomenon, not just something happening in the Netherlands). In the domain of Dutch literature, writers like Joost Zwagerman and Arnon Grunberg, whose work was previously associated with irony and fatalism, have recently published novels that were praised for their sincerity and hope. Others, most famously the Flemish author David van Reybrouck, returned to the long-forgotten art of epic storytelling. In the field of fashion, designers such as Jantine van Peski and Iris van Herpen take pride not in eclectic deconstruction but in sustainability and craftsmanship. And, in the arts, we have recently witnessed the return of all the above, often in the unlikely form of Utopia. The works of artists like Persijn Broersen and Margit Lukács (whose 2010 film Mastering Bambi was screened in 2011 as part of the second ‘Temporary Stedelijk’ exhibition), or of Guido van der Werve (whose work is part of the Stedelijk’s permanent collection), Pilvi Takala and Yael Bartana (who are, respectively, Finnish and Israeli, but who live in Amsterdam) are, each in their own way, structuring their practices around Utopian ideas.

Meanwhile, museums in Amsterdam – as elsewhere – have had to negotiate their position within an expanding art world of proliferating fairs and biennials. Since 2004, a number of initiatives have popped up, including Lost Property, Kunstverein, P/////AKT and RONGWRONG: small, flexible organizations that are able to put on exhibitions, films, plays and debates that adapt to the swiftness of the times. The ‘contemporary’ can no longer be found in one place; it is something that sprawls.

When the Stedelijk closed its doors for renovation in 2003, all of this was close to inconceivable. On a national level, the centre-right Christian Democrats dominated the elections with the other centre parties second and third. In Amsterdam, the Social Democrats still had significant executive power. Dutch politics was characterized by moderation and centralization. Left and right were almost defunct as political categories. There were some radicals and populists on the horizon, but they could easily be mistaken for mirages. Financially, too, things were better (for some, at least). Although the economy was no longer as dynamic as it had been in the 1990s, it had not yet come to the grinding halt it would midway into the 2000s. In 2003, I had only taken part in a demonstration once or twice, half-heartedly. Back then, my generation (born in the early 1980s) still believed that we would have better (or in any case, richer) lives than our parents.

In 2003, the Stedelijk Museum was a leading establishment of contemporary art and culture; it was the wheel around which not just the Amsterdam art scene, but the Dutch cultural sector spun. On a global level, too, it had a good reputation. The question is: how will it adjust to today’s situation? Where will it place itself now that there is no longer a centre? How will it improve on the debates organized by the galleries and cultural institutions? How will it negotiate global and local interests? Will it go for the blockbuster retrospectives, or will it head the way of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (i.e. putting together experimental, often conceptual, shows with lesser-known artists, drawing applause from the international community while receiving criticism from local government)? I imagine it will try and do it all at once. In some ways, it will also have to pull at two ends of an elastic band: between global show-off and local obligation, between blockbuster and difficult debate, between television feature and unknown artist – like the country in general. But I’m optimistic. Let’s just hope that elastic band won’t snap.

Timotheus Vermeulen is assistant professor in Cultural Theory at the Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, where he also heads the Centre for New Aesthetics. He is founding editor of the academic arts and culture webzine Notes on Metamodernism. He lives in Dusseldorf, Germany

Issue 151

First published in Issue 151

Nov - Dec 2012
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