Tijdschrift voor kunst en cultuur

Bringing down walls

Roel van Herpt


Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam


Contemporary art institutes in Amsterdam operate in a challenging environment. Their funding continues to be under pressure. At the same time, developments in the arts and beyond – including ever more artists moving beyond their disciplines, the seemingly endless opportunities and threats of digitization, and discussions on the role of art in society – ask institutes to reinvent themselves over and over again. In these demanding times, the larger art institutes in Amsterdam seem to become increasingly disconnected from the city and the scene they should be serving.

Given its modest size, Amsterdam is endowed with a wide variety of contemporary art institutions. Renowned institutes such as Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, de Appel arts centre, Oude Kerk, Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten, De Ateliers, and Gerrit Rietveld Academie are complemented by emerging or fringe initiatives like Looiersgracht 60, Framer Framed, W139, Veem House for Performance, Mediamatic, Kunstverein, If I Can’t Dance, and San Serriffe. This rich environment is in flux. In recent years, post-academic institutes Rijksakademie and De Ateliers have suffered from serious funding cuts. They managed to survive (at least for now), but experimental spaces like NIMk and SMART were forced to close after funds stopped supporting them. SMBA, Stedelijk Museum’s little sister dedicated to young artists, was closed as well. The management of Stedelijk Museum believes the initial purpose of SMBA – i.e. offering presentation opportunities for emerging artists – is now filled in by other venues in the city. Stedelijk Museum is contemplating a fresh start, but when, where, and how remains yet unknown. However, the most recent trouble surrounds de Appel arts center. After a period of mismanagement that led the Dutch government to the decision to cut its funding, de Appel is now facing a large-scale reorganization and an uncertain future.

While the content-heavy institutes aim to continue their programs despite shrinking budgets, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam embodies a more popular approach. The largest institute for presenting contemporary art in Amsterdam attracts the city’s rising visitor numbers with accessible exhibitions and a catchy tone of voice. The @stedelijkmuseum account on Instagram, for example, reads: “The must-see museum devoted to contemporary design and modern art. Thanks for following us!” (profile text) and “Messy weather in Amsterdam this Sunday so why not visit a museum? Grab that last chance to visit the ‘Living in the Amsterdam School’ exhibition” (post August 28 – removed later). One day earlier, journalist Jeroen Junte reviewed in De Volkskrant the other exhibition on show, ‘Dream Out Loud – Designing for tomorrow’s demands’. Although the exhibition intended to respond to societal challenges, Junte’s conclusion was that it was “lacking critical reflection” and merely showed “objects on white pedestals”. Besides organizing some smaller fringe projects, the overall strategy of Stedelijk Museum seems to be producing a user-friendly program geared towards a broad audience of visitors to the city.

Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten, another large art institute in Amsterdam, pursues a very different strategy. The institute offers two-year residencies to fifty international artists and is reputedly one of the best post-academic programs in contemporary art worldwide. Based on the premise that the artist requires a secluded space to develop and excel, the institute is closed to the public and opens up only one weekend per year during RijksakademieOPEN. It organizes additional open studios for its residents, employees, and advisors, but outsiders are not invited to these internal events. Furthermore, earlier this year the Dutch Council for Culture signaled that the institute relies heavily on its tradition and reputation and expressed its concern for a potential lack of communication and innovation. The Council also called for a closer collaboration between Rijksakademie and De Ateliers, institutes with similar goals but which already failed to merge in 2013.

Although Stedelijk Museum and Rijksakademie differ greatly in nature and approach, both institutes are becoming increasingly disengaged with the city in which they reside. Stedelijk Museum transformed from the instigator of Amsterdam’s contemporary art scene it once was, making the city internationally famous for it, into an institute focused on showing art that is easy to digest for its visitors. On the opposite end, Rijksakademie keeps its great artistic production and energy mostly to itself. Beyond art professionals, many people in Amsterdam are not familiar with the institute, nor with its high-level content.

Paradoxically or not, a more grounded and connected approach might come from an institute in crisis. On September 14, during one of his first public appearances as the new artistic director of de Appel, at an event with the ambitious title ‘What’s the Use? How can art know and change the world?’, Niels Van Tomme gave a first insight into his institutional vision. Van Tomme said he got to know de Appel as an institute with exhibitions, an archive, and a curatorial program – all interesting but mostly disconnected parts. Besides bringing the institute into a new and less expensive space, connecting the various activities is the task Van Tomme has set himself and his team. De Appel now plans to start new programs with one central question directed at artists, curators, and visitors. This question will be the point of departure for all exhibitions, events, and educational programs of the institute, thereby linking the different activities and addressing visitors and experts at the same time. Furthermore, de Appel is exploring collaborations and mutual activities with other art initiatives in Amsterdam.

The upcoming year will show whether or not de Appel gets a fair chance and the appropriate means to realize its ideas. Either way, Amsterdam deserves institutes as contemporary as the art they aim to support. This requires bringing down both the walls currently separating the larger art institutes from each other, and the walls separating their different activities. Acts of making art, experiencing art, discussing, learning, and enjoying are worthy of being connected. Especially now, in a time in which arts institutes continue to be confronted with financial uncertainty and discussions on their place in society, the city needs institutes that open up, pose questions, and engage with art professionals and the public, locals and visitors alike.

In order to realize this, art institutes need to complement a strong artistic vision with professional management that is able to organize financial support, communicative souplesse to address people in creative and intelligent ways, and a collaborative approach reaching out to other institutes and professionals in Amsterdam. This is needed soon – the scene is already leaving the city.