By Peter Versteeg –
The opening images of the documentary “White Balls on Walls” show us an ivory tower: a huge building, shining white, almost sterile, a stronghold of modern art. This is an institute, a place where everything works according to its own rules without much consideration for what is going on outside. This institute, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (or Stedelijk for short), seems to want to communicate that they were unaware of their institutional bias, which caused the exclusion of works by female artists and artists of color. In “White Balls on Walls” we get a view of the diversification process Stedelijk has been going through.
Sarah Vos, the maker of this documentary, is clearly sympathetic to the idea of the diversification of organizations. She feels that her documentary shows what happens when an organization starts becoming more diverse; her position in the discussion about diversification is clear. It is therefore commendable how she manages to show how uncomfortable the process is, often to the point where one could think that maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all. Apparently, we all cringe while watching this undoing of the art hegemony, but we often cringe because of different things.
There is a lot at stake. Art has to address every group in the city, says alderwoman Touria Meliani in a conversation with Stedelijk director Rein Wolfs: “Any cultural institution that wants structural funding in this city will have to relate to all the people in this city, and that to me is diversity and inclusion.” With an implicit threat of losing municipal funding from the City council, this means diversifying the exhibited works. To achieve this, the Stedelijk intends to show more work from female artists and artists of color. In other words, the Stedelijk works on a quota of different subgroups of artists, classified according to particular identities.
We see a conversation between Remy Jungerman, a Surinamese-Dutch artist, and the director of the Stedelijk. Jungerman says that he refused to participate in a Winti ritual at an exhibition in the Tropenmuseum. No way does he want his art or his person portrayed in an ethnological fashion. The next shot shows a Surinamese indigenous ritual at the opening of a Stedelijk event. The camera focuses suggestively on the white faces and tense body postures. In order to diversify, it is apparently as difficult for a modern art museum to not fall into the trap of exoticism.
One of the key figures in the documentary is Charl Landvreugd, head of research and curatorial practice. Landvreugd has a Surinamese background and is very clear about his position at the Stedelijk, reminding the interviewer that he is not a diversity officer. He finds it disgraceful to suggest that he has this job because he is Black. Landvreugd, who holds a PhD in Curating Contemporary Art at London’s Royal College of Art, is the right man in the right place. As he says, he has imbibed contemporary art.
The film shows an uncomfortable paradox: one can never say that emancipation is the drive to show art, yet at the same time, it is clear that the motivation to emancipate something highly informs the way we present it. Identity can never be a criterion for aesthetic quality, as the above-mentioned Remy Jungerman affirms. And rightly so. Yet, the fact that his work is exhibited is also because he has become part of the diversity quota. Similarly, the ethnic identity of the head of research and curatorial practice isn’t relevant, and yet within the ivory tower of modern art, his presence stands out, and he has become his own diversity officer. The fact that the modern art museum is this stronghold of established aesthetic mores makes diversification a solution and a problem at the same time.
When recently visiting the exhibition “When Things Are Beings”, about art connecting material and immaterial worlds, it seemed to me that things were rather unbalanced. The exhibition showed predominantly artists of color, which somehow perpetuated an image of the ‘other’ as someone who is self-evidently in touch with spiritual reality. I doubt that this exoticization is the intention of the Stedelijk. It shows, foremost, that they have a long way to go and we perhaps should not be too critical of overcompensating and hypercorrect spasms. We can also be very critical about how funding is divided, but to be fair, do we know what interests were served with municipal funding of art before the diversification process started? What worries me, however, is the seemingly one-dimensional municipal view of representation in relation to the diverse population of Amsterdam. What do we mean when we say that diversity and inclusion will draw a variety of inhabitants to the museum? Surely, it cannot be that ethnic or gendered representation is the criterion here. Then identity indeed prevails over aesthetic quality, which implies that art only addresses people when they recognize themselves in a particular social-cultural manner. This clearly is a rather poor idea of what art is and what it can be. Moreover, it underestimates how people are able to experience art, and it boxes people into fixed group identities. Especially modern art should go against the grain and should be able to reveal to us the many conflicting uses of the ideas of diversity and identity.
White Balls on Walls (incl. Q&A with director Sarah Vos), seen in Het Ketelhuis, 7 February 2023.
Peter Versteeg is an anthropologist. He likes to reflect on cultural products and the things people do with them.