It was an awe-inspiring spectacle to see the farmers driving their noisily roaring tractors in long caravans to The Hague in the early morning of October 1. They blocked traffic everywhere. The longest traffic jam ever didn’t bother the motorists, who got out en masse to smile and applaud the brave warriors. Warm waves of sympathy washed over the land. Long live the countryside. Hands off our farmers.
On Friday 13 March 2020, the Guggenheim Museum in New York closed its doors because of the corona crisis. The icon of the international museum world could normally count on more than a million visitors a year. Appropriately enough, this also meant the closure of ‘Countryside, a report’. In this much-discussed exhibition, Rem Koolhaas and his team focused on the extra-urban areas, apparently long-overlooked in intellectual circles, that make up 98% of the earth‘s surface, and where by 2050 only one fifth of the world’s population will be living, with the rest crammed into overcrowded cities. In the introduction to the accompanying publication, under the revealing title ‘Ignored Realm’, the exhibitors write: ‘The past two decades - or maybe the entire period since 1991 has been characterized by a complacent expectation that one kind of civilization - metropolitan, capital-oriented, agnostic, western - would remain the template for global development, possibly forever.’
June 4th 2020. In spite of the corona crisis, the Council for Culture is still giving advice to those in the basic infrastructure, ‘to provide guidance in uncertain times and to ensure that the planned program of renewal and inclusiveness continues.’ As announced in previous official recommendations and ministerial policy advisories, the money from the cultural honey pot would be distributed differently this time: less to the Randstad conurbation and more to the rest of the country. The region as a new cultural hotspot?
In the newspaper I read an interview with three top advisers of multinationals. Asked about the influence of the pandemic on boardroom discussions, they provided out a unified vision of the future. Production chains become shorter and more local. In order to reduce the recently demonstrated vulnerability related to international dependencies: there is a need for ‘shockproof supply lines’. Companies that are already committed to sustainability will soon have a head start, especially when the economy picks up again. In the future, people, including those who work for multinationals, will spend more time, more often in their own local environment. They will travel less, but in the meantime their world will become hyper-digital. This is the blueprint for the first post-corona wave of de-globalization, after decades of being at the mercy of the vagaries of an ever-expanding global market.
The importance of the local, of the region and of the periphery seems to be increasing, a development that is accelerating under the influence of the corona crisis. As the Netherlands Government Architect Floris Alkemade previously put it in his essay on the future of the Netherlands: ‘The relative freedom, radicalness and modernity of development in rural areas are proving to be important driving forces for renewal.’ He seems to mean that our world might be reinvented in the outlying areas. And that might well be possible, if only because we desperately need rural areas in order to be able to tackle the major problems that humanity is currently facing. Think, for example, of keeping our food production at a sustainable level, of absorbing sea level rises and of shaping the next energy transitions. Floris Alkemade: ‘The answers lie in the adaptability of outlying areas and outlying fringes; a new self-awareness of today’s systematically neglected peripheral areas will begin to emerge from there... .’ In short, there are many indications of the coming social, economic and cultural revaluation of the countryside.
In 2006, together with several colleagues from the museum sector, I wrote a manifesto, the Manifesto for an Enfranchised Museum. Only two of my colleagues eventually dared to sign it.. As is usually the case with manifestos, it arose from a deep frustration about the state of affairs in the Dutch museum sector. I would like to highlight two paragraphs which, in my opinion, reveal what we observed was lacking at the time:
Museums have been ‘reservations’ from time immemorial; they manifest themselves as protected zones where rare species are protected from the outside world. Traditionally, these museum-reservations have staunch ties with the prevailing social elite. The emancipation process embarked upon in the twentieth century doesn’t just tinker with elitist thinking in general, but also with the synonymous masculine ego-centrism and dominant western ethnocentrism. This is a painful but necessary process that provokes all manner of political, social and cultural confrontations. For the enfranchised anti-elitist museum, the following applies: the only way it can lay claim to a meaningful position in contemporary culture is by fundamentally reassessing its own position in the social sphere of influence. Rather than acting as traditional bulwarks of white culture, museums sensitive to current trends should also pick up on other kinds of stimuli. Because in the museum-reservation of the future there is space and freedom for anyone with an inquisitive mind, be they rich or poor, male or female, black or white.
The enfranchised museum for modern and contemporary art is no longer an awe-inspiring institution. It is not a sacred white space, kingdom, cathedral, scientific institute and certainly not a school. It is a dynamic, hybrid place where the interaction between various artistic disciplines is a binding factor and where inspiring teamwork leads to adventurous combinations of collections, presentations and happenings. This type of museum acts as a window onto a complex and colourful world, inviting the public to assume an individual, reflective position. In a gradual, shocking, confrontational or playful process of looking, thinking and processing, standpoints can be exchanged and new opinions formed. Such a museum reveals a seismographic movement with deep roots in the past and inquisitive antennae opened to the world.
At that time, we had an ideal of a cosmopolitan museum for the outspoken citizen. More room for other voices. More interaction with visitors. More attention for visual art from outside the Western discourse. A few years later, this led to the founding of Framer Framed, a travelling programme led by Josien Pieterse and Cas Bool, for which we took the initiative together with Nancy Jouwe, Kitty Zijlmans and others. The immediate motivation came from the exhibition ‘Beyond the Dutch. Indonesia, the Netherlands and the visual arts since 1900’, which I curated with Enin Supriyanto for the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, during which we were mercilessly confronted with the colonial gaze of colleagues in the museum field. Between 2009 and 2014, Framer Framed organized dozens of public programmes in Dutch museums and heritage institutions, full of critical questions about the role of cultural institutions in a globalizing society, about diversity issues, shared histories and new ways of presenting. In May 2014 Framer Framed moved into their own exhibition space in Amsterdam North and nowadays they operate from Amsterdam East as an indispensable players in the national and international arts field. It is noteworthy however, that since their establishment in the North and later in the East, they have been developing projects in collaboration with local residents, in order to directly connect the local context with the international programming.
Because of the manifesto, the exhibition Beyond the Dutch and the founding of Framer Framed, for a while I was seen within the arts field as an advocate of globalization. Although I was not always able to put this into practice, especially when my appointment as director of Museum De Lakenhal from 2009 brought with it very different challenges, I continued to follow the developments and debates closely. The Dutch museum world had to be opened up, with a view beyond the borders of Western Europe and North America. While we watched the developments at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam with sad eyes, in 2015, together with Kitty Zijlmans, Manon Braat, Nicole Roepers and Anke Bangma, I produced the exhibition ‘Global Imaginations’ in a ten thousand square meter abandoned flour factory in Leiden, for which we invited twenty artists from all continents bringing their own world view to the city. Let’s look from the outside in, we wanted to suggest - rather than the other way around.
Meanwhile, the international art world had taken off; I don’t know the official figures, but it wouldn’t surprise me if in the past ten years the number of biennials organized worldwide had doubled or perhaps even quadrupled. A new canon was rapidly emerging, with some artists from the Global South becoming extremely popular, even among Hollywood stars and other wealthy collectors. Although this only rarely became apparent in the Netherlands, the international contemporary art scene became a travelling, cosmopolitan circus with lots of bells and whistles, closely linked to the art market. A circus that has now been paralysed in one fell swoop by the corona crisis, causing well-known American art critic Jerry Saltz to sigh: ‘But I worry that such a sundering will only exacerbate the inequalities that more and more dominate this universe, with mega-galleries and art stars surviving and the gap between them and everyone else only widening. (...) Over the last decade or so, the art world in peril has seemed to lose the ability to adapt. Or, rather, it now seems able to adapt only in one way, no matter the circumstances: by growing larger and busier. Expansion and more were the answers to everything.’ This is a less than inspiring description that a significant part of the visual art discourse is at the mercy of the free market, with all the attending growth-addiction symptoms.
In the meantime we had completed the major restoration and expansion of Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden. And with King Willem Alexander festively opening the renovated museum, the long-awaited ‘Young Rembrandt’ exhibition could start in November 2019. This exhibition would have to attract a large audience in order to cover the astronomically high costs. What is there to say about it? A week or two after the exhibition ended, I put my frustration into writing once again. In the February 21st NRC
this text was published with the title ‘Stop the blockbuster addiction’. The article, which also appeared on the international forum of MuseumNext the following day, attracted an unparalleled number of views (for me) and triggered a stormy discussion in the international museum sector. This furore was all the more when barely three weeks later, all kinds of museums around the world had to close their doors because of the corona crisis. The plea for more sustainability and fewer exhibitions, and for reinterpreting our own collections to tell ‘local stories with universal expressivity’, turned out to have unintended foresight. Within a matter of weeks, as a result of the lockdown, go local
became the new credo. Last month, for example, The three directors of the Guggenheim Museums in Venice, Bilbao and New York unanimously declared in The Art Newspaper
that they would now focus on the Italians, Basques and Americans from their own neighbourhood.
The debate about the local role and orientation of museums prompted Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits to retaliate: ‘It’s especially important to open the shutters when you’re confined. Last week I had a video conference with the directors of the fifty largest museums in the world, and you can see how important it is not to close our eyes. That leads to isolationism. You feel a new regionalism in society. As museums, we shouldn’t contribute to that. Art has been international throughout the centuries. Without art in Italy, Dutch painters would never have flourished in the 17th century’. Hence the tried and true recipe for the planned ‘Caravaggio-Bernini’ blockbuster, where the Rijksmuseum plays again the popular carillon of predictable internationalism without really opening the shutters to other stories and influences. Dibbets certainly has a point, but his stance is also short-sighted: as if increased attention to local interests would by definition lead to conservatism and narrow-mindedness. Where does this fear of regionalism come from anyway? Why is the local view so easily dismissed as conservative? I would rather turn it around, for the sake of debate
: the international perspective is incorrectly perceived as open and progressive.
And so this corona time unexpectedly poses the essential question of how we attend to the local and the international, how we see the relationship between dominant metropolises and the rest. It is an interesting thought experiment to position the various players in the local, national and global museum sectors on the scale between regionalism and cosmopolitanism. We have had decades in which many museums, large and small, have operated within a relatively closed framework, sprinkling historical canonical presentations on red carpets laid out for them by others long ago, safely entrenching themselves within the well-defined, art-historical discourse of the Western European and North American perspective, with the primary aim of enticing as many visitors as possible. Are they going to play in a different key now? Meanwhile, hyper-cosmopolitanism has been celebrated worldwide in temporary hubs that moved across the globe at incredible speed, propelled by the international art market, followed by fashionable curators and hip collectors. What will be left of that now?
The cosmopolitanism that I had once so fervently desired, as advocated in the Manifesto for an Enfranchised Museum - open-minded
, polyphonic and emancipatory - has lost some of its appeal over the years due to the beautifully packaged traditionalism of most museums and the market-oriented behaviour of the international art elite. In other words: none of it had really succeeded or happened, except on a relatively small scale in specific circumstances and for a select number of people, as in the case of Framer Framed. Maybe, I realized, that’s the only way: to just make small changes that matter where you are, and to keep that up for as long as possible, instead of chasing unattainable ideals. Because of such experiences and the changes in my personal circumstances in recent years, I have become increasingly interested in what I can do in my own environment, where I am now in Leiden and its surroundings. And yes, it has to be said: the new understanding that this gave me of the local, the rural, the periphery, the region and - of course, what else? - of nature, feels like a great relief. I have discovered a new space.
The other day in De Groene Amsterdammer
I read an article by Karel Smouter about what would happen if we positioned the periphery as a ‘new Randstad’. In it, with thanks to journalist David Goodhart, he makes an apt distinction between people everywhere, for whom location is a fluid fact, and people who cannot imagine life without roots. He also writes: ‘Maybe, especially during this corona time, the marginalised roots-based people from Somewhere have something to tell the people from Anywhere. Maybe there is something of value in the culture of people who spend their entire lives in one place and keep their lives as local and small-scale as possible, rather than striving for an expansive and compelling life.’
That kind of statement makes me think. I always thought I could be anyplace, a nomad who could land anywhere. For me, this attitude to life was linked to a great curiosity about the outside world - the further, the more unfamiliar, the better. But now I know it’s different. Maybe I’m a Somewhere-person. And nobody has a patent on open mindedness. It can be anywhere. Even in your own environment, whether that happens to be the periphery or the outlying area. Right. There.
Floris Alkemade, De toekomst van Nederland. De kunst van richting te veranderen, Uitgeverij Toth, mei 2020
Wouter van Noort, ‘De coronacrisis: fast forward naar de toekomst’, in: NRC Handelsblad, 30-31 mei 2020
Michiel Kruijt en Rutger Pontzen, ‘Kunstgrepen’ (interview met Taco Dibbits), in: De Volkskrant, vrijdag 22 mei 2020
Jerry Saltz, ‘The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One Life after the coronavirus will be very different’, in: Vulture, april 2020, link: https://www.vulture.com/_pages/ck8ivxorc0000yeyerntsmxxj.html
Thomas Marks, ‘Uffizi Galleries prepare for life after lockdown’, in: Apollo Magazine, 30 april 2020, link: https://www.apollo-magazine.com/eike-schmidt-interview-reopening-uffizi-florence/
Nancy Kenney, ‘Putting our heads together: the three Guggenheim directors size up post-Covid challenges’, in: The Art Newspaper, 30 mei 2020, link: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/interview/a-little-bit-of-hope-three-guggenheim-directors-weigh-in-on-covid-19-challenges
Karel Smouter, ‘Oost-Nederland, de nieuwe Randstad. Samenleving: Het achterland als voorhoede’, in: De Groene Amsterdammer, 22 april 2020, link: https://www.groene.nl/artikel/oost-nederland-de-nieuwe-randstad?utm_source=De+Groene+Amsterdammer&utm_campaign=ed8e80e499-Wekelijks-2020-04-22&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_853cea572a-ed8e80e499-74950177
Meta Knol is director of Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden. Six years ago she and her family moved to a farm close to the city, where her husband and son now keep Lakenvelder cattle and manage thirty-six hectares of agricultural land.
Art and crisis — Thinking about art in times of corona
The arts are taking a break. Theatres, museums, concert halls and galleries are closed. To a large extent, the art that is so desperately needed right now is inaccessible. Imagine being quarantined at home without films, without books, without music.
Though we may not access the art, we can still think about it. The enforced rupture of this isolation can also be an opportune moment to reflect on and from, the arts. Every Sunday for the coming weeks we will feature new writing on the arts under quarantine. Today we have the first offering from the initiators of this series: Akiem Helmling and Christiaan Weijts.