Open Letter to Ann Goldstein

Steven ten Thije

Tags: Mike Kelley

/ 31.10.2013
Print

Late this Summer, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam announced the resignation of its artistic director, Ann Goldstein. She had been at the museum for three-and-a-half years, arriving during its nine-year closure and presiding over the ‘Temporary Stedelijk’ programme (2010–12) and subsequent re-opening of the museum in September 2012. She officially leaves in December 2013, and will continue to be involved in the international tour of the Mike Kelley retrospective that she organised at the museum, soon to open at MoMA PS1, New York.1

Focus on her position as ‘the first foreigner and first woman to lead the Stedelijk’2 might overlook her attempt to make the museum more accessible, and to make the museum a place for discussion of culture budget cuts in the Netherlands.3 In this open letter, Van Abbemuseum curator Steven ten Thije reflects on what her early resignation says about Dutch society’s openness to the other.

Dear Ann Goldstein,

The news of you leaving the Stedelijk Museum came to me while looking at my iPhone during an early meeting yesterday and I was sad to see it. I imagine that you had different hopes and dreams when you arrived here four years ago, but the soil in which you had to plant them had run dry of nutrition. Unfortunately your leaving doesn’t feel like the result of personal circumstances, but reflects a general and disturbing characteristic of today’s Dutch art world and Dutch politics. We seem to be utterly unable to constructively deal with different points of view, allowing an open and honest debate with positions from elsewhere.

Perhaps I didn’t ‘cheer’ about every decision you made. ­I found the dominance of US art in the ‘Hall of Honour’, on the first floor of the museum’s old wing, especially problematic. But my questions had nothing to do with the quality of those works, or with your competence, but rather my reading of those works and that particular room. My sense was that, for you, these works did not represent a nation or even ‘the West’, so much as they formed a basic artistic grammar that still provides the background against which we can understand a substantial portion of contemporary art. For me, however, this particular room was so loaded with the history of the Stedelijk as a portal to the US, that the somewhat non-reflexive reappearance of these works there felt like winding back the clock.

However, despite these doubts, I respected your sincerity, and trusted that the steps you took were carefully considered and were the beginning of a story that you were to unfold here. That we will never know where that story might have taken us is the first sense of loss that I felt after hearing of your departure.

The second loss I feel is related to a positive experience of the museum a few months ago. Old friends from high school wanted to visit the Stedelijk and because I had already visited the exhibitions extensively I took my two-year-old son with me and let him determine the pace. (I have to say that for him Mike Kelley was a pleasant surprise – even if the ‘no touching’ was difficult at times…) During that visit I was struck by a sense of generosity and hospitality that made the big museum, with its many guests, still feel like a place where a community could gather to engage with art. It is difficult to describe this atmosphere, but I felt a combination of excitement and relaxation that was very appealing. It reminded me of the open and friendly approach to different kinds of visitors that I had experienced when visiting museums in the US. Something I had begun to think of as a particularly ‘American’ way to deal with art and culture. I fear that with only three years of education, it will be difficult to let this quality take root in Dutch museums.

Thirdly I feel sad because with you, a voice leaves that participated in the current debate on how to build a new foundation for the value and potential of art within our society. It perhaps might not have been a very public or antagonistic voice, but you did explicitly aim for the museum to function as a meeting place to debate what is happening beyond its walls. You tried not to form a position, but rather a meeting place for different points of view. And I can understand that it must have felt very uncomfortable when in response to that there was so little support for your work – when, for instance, Steve McQueen’s project in the Vondelpark was closed following an unfortunate bike-accident.4

A fourth disappointment is that I have the feeling that what happened also relates to gender issues. I can’t be certain, but it seems educated Dutch men are not as enlightened as one would hope. I remember one incident from the beginning of your directorship that was quite shocking, and my sense is that the issue lingered in the background, long after the event, which must have been very unpleasant.5

But my overall disappointment about the news has to do with the fact that apparently within contemporary Netherlands there is little patience with people from abroad. Like a rabbit caught in the headlight of the economic crisis – which is perhaps even more a political crisis – it seems we can’t deal with positions or behaviours that differ from the mainstream. For your careful and considered, slow and rigorous way of developing an art historical narrative in a museum, there has been very little place in the current discourse, a discourse which still seems to echo the pop-line: I want it all, and I want it now. Of course there are different sides to what has happened and I partially know and partially can imagine that behind the scene many things have occurred that aren’t ‘fit to print’. But since I don’t doubt your sincerity, knowledge and ambition concerning your programme, I think that these things should be secondary to the main question of whether, under your direction, the museum offered a relevant contribution to the cultural life of a community. And I would full-heartedly say that it did, not least because it offered room for disagreement.

What makes me saddest however is the feeling that perhaps we are not a community at all. Somehow in our politics, both within and without the art world, a particular egocentrism is dominant that stops us from effectively benefitting from the simultaneous presence of multiple positions – something that is felt the deepest by those who have lived elsewhere most of their lives. We seem incapable of having an antagonistic but respectful debate on questions of content and are too quickly tempted to move from arguments to insults. How could art flourish in an environment with so little sensibility for one of art’s most basic characteristics – the appearance of something different and specific? I fear it will be a question we now have to face and answer without you.

My very best,

Steven

This letter was first published on Steen in de vijver (Stone in the pond) on 29 August 2013. Steen in de vijver is a blog about the relationship between art, art policy and democracy, available at http://www.steenindevijver.info/

Footnotes
  1. ‘Mike Kelley’, curated by Ann Goldstein, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 15 December 2012–1 April 2013; Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2 May–5 August 2013; MoMA PS1, New York, 13 October 2013–2 February 2014; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 23 March–28 July 2014.

  2. Judith H. Dobryznski, ‘Ann Goldstein an American in Amsterdam’, Art in America, September 2012, available at http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/ann-goldstein-an-american-in-amsterdam

  3. In June 2011 the Stedelijk Museum hosted a public meeting in response to proposed budget cuts. Ann Goldstein’s opening speech is available at http://journal.stedelijk.nl/2011/06/dutch-culture-cuts-transcript-of-ann-goldsteins-speech

  4. Steve McQueen’s Blues Before Sunrise (2012) was an intervention in the Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s largest public park: all the streetlamps in the park were altered so that they emitted a blue light instead of white. The intervention was closed early by the City of Amsterdam ‘for traffic safety reasons’. See Hans den Hartog Jager, ‘Steve McQueen’, Artforum, vol.50, no.10, Summer 2012.

  5. After Goldstein arrived in the Netherlands, NRC Handelsblad, one of the main daily newspapers, published a column by Hans den Hartog Jager commenting that the photo published with the press release was misleading because she looked young and was old. The language was supposed to be comical, but I and many others found it rude and insulting.