Recap Amsterdam Art x ArtReview Conference 2018

Published November 28 2018

Amsterdam Art x ArtReview Conference
Thursday, November 22 2018
09.30 - 17.00  
De Nieuwe Liefde, Amsterdam
Text written by Laura van den Bergh


Reflecting on the condition of the art world shortly after the turn of the millennium, artist and art critic Rasheed Araeen emphasized that “our job should not just be the critiquing of the prevailing system, but out of this critique we must also develop a positive vision of the future”. Almost two decades later, Araeen’s compelling call for radically new thinkers, including artists, writers, philosophers, but also intellectuals, politicians and economists to set a new direction, is still echoing through the art world.

Critical artists such as Araeen have perpetually engaged with societal discourse throughout the history of Western art. Today, however, it is not only a creative expression that serves as a medium through which to reflect on the debates and disputes that occur in society. The creative industry itself has become a battleground on which social and political issues are being revealed, addressed, considered, and debated. Apart from retroactively reassessing and reformulating the narratives of what has long been considered the history of art, cultural institutions are tasked with critically reflecting on their own history, identity, intentions, location, and position within the art world. However, while an increasing number of major art institutions claim active attempts to initiate shifts towards diversity and inclusivity, an equally increasing number of critical voices assert that these shifts are not occurring on the relevant levels, at the right speed, or in an appropriately sensitive manner.

It is on this cultural battleground that the Amsterdam Art x ArtReview Conference took place. Against the historical backdrop of Amsterdam, a city shaped by international trade, colonialism, and liberalism, Amsterdam Art collaborated with ArtReview to bring together local and international specialists in the field to engage in conversation about the contemporary and future art world. Amsterdam Art is a non-profit organization whose chief aim is to actively contribute to strengthening the contemporary art scene in Amsterdam. By stimulating collaborations between different cultural initiatives and by organizing events such as the Amsterdam Art Weekend, Amsterdam Art introduces and informs people about contemporary art. The Amsterdam Art Weekend is an annual event that takes place towards the end of November. Through an extensive public program with over 100 exhibitions, performances, screenings and debates, the event serves to strengthen the contemporary art scene and to attract art professionals from all over the world to Amsterdam. Serving as a prelude to the Amsterdam Art Weekend, the conference took place at De Nieuwe Liefde in the center of Amsterdam. Over the course of the day, over twenty artists, curators, historians, patrons, scholars, collectors and professionals from all over the world took to the stage to talk about the relationship between art and power, past and future, local and global, and to articulate the new directions that Araeen aspired towards.

Upon entering the conference hall, visitors were greeted with a goodie bag containing, among other things, a complimentary copy of the most recent ArtReview issue, titled Power 100. The conference was hosted by Stephanie Afrifa, an independent curator, presenter, and art blogger. After welcoming the speakers and the audience, Afrifa encouraged everyone to step out of their comfort zone, engage in conversation with one another, and share ideas and knowledge. Caroline Vos, director of Amsterdam Art, continued in this vein by emphasizing the importance of applying knowledge and expertise in articulating sustainable solutions to the issues that we are faced with in the contemporary art world. She emphasized the importance of institutional self-reflection and stressed Amsterdam Art’s goal of organizing an Art Weekend for the entire city of Amsterdam in all its diversity. Ben Eastham, associate editor at ArtReview and ArtReview Asia, provided a final word of welcome. He explained how he gained an increasing awareness of the power structures that exist within the art world, and of how they work to determine the meaning that we give art. Referring to his background in literary studies, he stressed the importance of questioning the narrator and the narratives that are being communicated. Opening the conference on a hopeful note, Eastham expressed his confidence that the conversations organized today will lead to concrete changes in the future.

The opening column was provided by Astrid Elburg. Surinam by birth but having studied in the Netherlands, Elburg is the founder of Elburg Consultancy, a consultancy company aimed towards offering ethical, strategic and practical advice to companies. She currently holds a total of 7 board positions, among which a position on the advisory board of Atria, the institute on gender equality and women’s history, and on the supervisory board of the Amsterdam Museum Night. Elburg presented a powerful and inspirational column that refrained from turning towards the ideological. Apart from talking about her position as a Black woman in a predominantly White art world, she criticized the current tendency of some institutions to treat inclusivity as “a sort of workshop”. Referring to Einstein’s quote that “knowledge is power but imagination is everything”, she questioned why ideological political imagination doesn’t seem to permeate the walls of the art world. Elburg emphasized the value of including specialists other than gallerists, collectors and curators into the art world: “the art world needs specialists that can touch upon and represent the sign of the times”. Concluding on a hopeful note, Elburg quoted Justin Trudeau in suggesting that we should focus on moving forward inclusively: “cultural diversity is a fact, so inclusion is a choice”.

Next on the programme was a panel discussion centred on the topic of ‘Making histories: how does the past reflect the present?’. Reflecting on their individual positions and those of their respective institutions, the panel members focused on how museum programming can aid institutions in revising and reconsidering the cultural history of the location in which they are sited. The discussion was led by Victor Wang, a curator and exhibition-maker based in London. Founder of the institute of Asian performance art, Wang is currently working with the K11 Art Foundation to curate the exhibition ‘Inside China - L’intérieur du Géant’, a travelling and collaborative exhibition between Palais de Tokyo, Paris, and K11 Art Foundation. Wang initiated the discussion by quoting Alpha Konaré, a former president of Mali, who stated in 1992 that “we should kill the Western model of the museum”. For Meskerem Assegued, founder of the Zoma Museum, a museum for contemporary African art that will open in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, this statement seems more than applicable. The Zoma Museum was created over the course of twenty years with minimal funding, and has been built up of local “vernacular architecture”, which Assegued describes as “the architecture of the future”. Apart from collecting and featuring contemporary art from all over Africa, the museum hosts a library, a bakery, a kindergarten, and a café. Assegued acknowledged that the museum was the result of “many years of dreaming and many years of working”. When asked how Assegued managed to create the museum, she insisted “you just do it”.

Turning towards the next speaker, Wang posed questions of how the enduring ethno-colonial legacies of museums are influencing contemporary institutional building and how contemporary artists are dealing with this. Anthropologist and former director of Africa’95 and the Ethnographic Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Clémentine Deliss, elaborated on the complexity of the museum system, before emphasising that the main body of museum collections is locked away in the depots. Currently active as an independent curator, academic researcher and publisher, Deliss vehemently argued for a breaking down of the boundaries between academic scholarship and the museum: “it should not be possible that one discipline holds the keys to these objects”. Building on much of her earlier work, she made a case to return objects that are currently locked away in depots or ethnographic museums to their countries of origin.

The next contributor, Imara Limon, explained how her position as public programmer and curator at the Amsterdam Museum also brought about a number of distinct challenges. The Amsterdam Museum aims to represent all inhabitants of Amsterdam in all their diversity. The collection of the museum is correspondingly divergent, ranging from objects and portraits from the Golden Age that often bear connotations with colonial history, to contemporary artworks by artists based in Amsterdam. Limon described how she attempts to rewrite historical narratives through exhibitions in which historical and contemporary objects engage with each other. By incorporating both local and transcultural perspectives on the narrative of the city, a new transcultural and inclusive narrative can be created.

After bringing up the example of how curious it actually is that Van Gogh’s paintings are often presented as geographically localised rather than transculturally inspired, Wang proposed discussing the contested practice of explicitly connecting artists to their geographical origin. Straight away, Assegued asserted that artists who respond to expectations are often limited in their possibilities, and forced to perform a stereotyped role. There is little room for individual creativity or narratives within these frames, Assegued continued. She referred to a previous exhibition that she organised with a number of artists from different countries in Africa. After viewing the exhibition, several media outlets asked her “but where is Africa in the exhibition?”. Assegued countered that artists should be who they are creatively, not who they are expected to be, regardless of where they come from: “if I want to create art about the underwater or about my grandmother, I should be able to”. Another interesting example, suggested Wang, is the American artist Adrian Piper. For a 2012 piece titled Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment, Piper ‘retired from being black’, claiming that her “new racial designation will be neither black nor white but rather 6.25% grey”. Piper now refers to herself as The Artist Formerly Known as African-American, thereby challenging notions of ethnicity and stereotyping.

Deliss praised Pipers tendency to take risks and suggested that there are limited options if one wants to initiate change. Pointing towards the complimentary copies of ArtReview, Deliss proceeded to criticise the most recent Power 100 issue, stating that “this listing of individuals is exactly the opposite of the communities of trust that we are striving for”. Rather than lauding or condemning individuals, Deliss proposed we should reconsider and remediate the institutions. Museums are public places, we should repurpose them as educational spaces in which to engage in conversation with other people, art works, and objects. This would provide us with opportunities to learn and to engage, Deliss concluded. Wang touched on the notion of source communities, in which one can only speak of one’s own history and origin, before reflecting back on a conversation he had with Rasheed Araeen. Araeen confided in him that he doesn’t believe in the Contemporary because the racist legacies of Modernity have not been properly processed yet. So how do we move forward from here?

Limon pointed towards the responsibility of institutions to engage in critical self-reflection. However, she acknowledged that these processes of self-reflection also spark new questions. What can or should the role of a museum constitute? Is it necessary to include everyone? What do different programmes actually mean to different people? Rather than being committed to the constant production of exhibitions and programming, Limon suggested that museums should be more dedicated to fundamental preparatory research. This would demand a shift in power relations as museum professionals would need to step aside and observe who could also offer perspectives on art. Turning towards Assegued, Wang noted that the Zoma museum exists far away from Western institutionalism. When asked whether this changes the way that visitors engage with the art, Assegued explained that people visit the Zoma museum for all kinds of reasons. Some people come to see the buildings, others visit out of curiosity, many come to see the art, even though the museum has not even officially opened yet. Assegued described the process of having to articulate a new discipline through which to determine what constitutes as high-quality art. Research is fundamental in this, along with collaborations with artists from all over the world. This formulation of a new discipline offers exciting new opportunities and perspectives that develop as the museum does. Referring back to Konaré’s citation, Deliss concluded: “It is not really about killing the museum but about how to get rid of the body”. Rethinking and reconsidering the conditions and standards that constitute Western institutionalism indeed seems like the initial step.

Following this discussion was a keynote lecture about the research project Black Artists and Modernism by artist and writer susan pui san lok and art historian Sophie Orlando. They explained that The Black Artists and Modernism research group works towards retroactively constructing a canon of art works made by non-White artists, particularly those made Britain around the 1980s. Rather than expanding or adding to the dominant narratives, the aim is to challenge them and to reveal their incompleteness. San lok and Orlando explained that this is not an easy task, as the very premise of the project appears to be problematic. The art works are selected based on the same ethnic distinction that the project ultimately aims to contest. Regardless of this flawed method, Orlando emphasised that the project has interesting outcomes. Taking the 1984 piece Freedom and Change by Lubaina Himid as an exemplary case-study, Orlando explained how a previously marginalised art work could be considered canonical when placed in a different framework. By discussing and critically analysing several texts from museum labels, san lok proceeded to demonstrate how museums can contribute to our perception of certain artists and their art works. In the brief Q&A session, san lok emphasised how agreeable and eager most institutions had been to cooperate in this project. Many professionals had reported being shocked at the results and were prepared to take responsibility. In response to the question of when the project would reach its conclusion, Orlando and san lok agreed: their work might never be done.

After a substantial and satisfying lunch, the programme continued with another panel discussion on the topic of ‘Free exchange: how does the market effect change?’. The decentring of the art world and the restructuring of the canon are much debated and highly relevant topics in the art world at the moment. This panel focused on discussing the potential of the art market, of private foundations, and of art fairs in generating and stimulating these changes. The discussion was led by J.J. Charlesworth, professor at London’s Royal College of Art, the Royal Academy Schools and Central St Martins College, writer, art critic and senior editor at ArtReview. Charlesworth reflected briefly on the earlier criticisms of ArtReview’s Power 100 before launching into the discussion topic. He questioned whether the market can influence how art and art history is seen, written and represented, and noted that private patronage has already transformed the art world over the last decade. Referring back to a topic that was only touched upon briefly in the previous discussion, Charlesworth emphasised that, outside the Euro-West, contemporary art is not always recognised or acknowledged by the state. Privately funded platforms could be key in offering flexible and pro-active support to enable the production and enjoyment of contemporary art. Turning towards the speakers, Charlesworth invited the panel to reflect on their individual practice, experience and positions.

In her opening statement, Annette Schönholzer not only reflected on her former co-directorship of the international art fair Art Basel, but also on her embarrassment upon realising that The Kunstmuseum in Basel, one of the oldest art museums in Europe, bought its first art work by a Black artist only last year. She went on to highlight the significant role that private initiatives played in the organising of art fairs such as Art Basel Miami, and noted the impact of art fairs on the local art markets. Working at an art fair, she explained, means sitting at the centre of the art world and viewing everything through a lens of ‘what can this do for the fair’. Ultimately, it means always promoting the brand and stimulating the market. The second speaker approached the subject from a similar yet distinct angle. Valeria Napoleone is an Italian-born art patron, collector and adviser, who has dedicated herself to collecting and supporting female artists only. She argued that the art world is still predominantly focused on male artists and that “we were missing so much talent based only on gender”. Founder of the umbrella-organisation The XX Initiative, Napoleone donates works by female artists to museums, supports and organises all-female exhibitions, and stimulates the creation, publication and circulation of discourse concerning female artists.

The third and final speaker Kenny Schachter, a New York-based art critic, writer, lecturer, and curator, launched right in by stating: “the art market is a fickle and ruthless beast”. In high tempo he counted instances of blatant sexism throughout the history of art, from William Hogarth to Georg Baselitz, before arriving at his conclusion: “the art market is not racist or sexist, it is all about value and money”. Napoleone agreed, but emphasised that the art market appears to distrust women, claiming that it is especially difficult for women to navigate the art world successfully. Referring also to herself, Schönholzer highlighted the current developments in the art world that allow people to switch careers constantly. She emphasised the importance of being flexible and acknowledged the potential value of private investments. However, as private investors don’t have to operate within the same structures as museums do, they have the opportunity engage with certain controversial issues in the public sector. Schachter was quick to criticise these tendencies, stating that “private museums are curatorship with no scholarship” and often partly function as tax break for the extremely wealthy. He insisted that their collections be donated to museums, as museums are currently financially excluded from the art market.

Turning back towards Schönholzer, Charlesworth posed the question whether private initiatives also have the potential to solve some of the issues faced by museums. Schönholzer suggested that private investors should focus more on offering aid to museums, rather than contribute to the multiplicity of angles that are already being addressed. Nodding, Schachter added that initiatives like Instagram and the increasing number of art fairs have democratised the art world. He claimed that the financial struggles of the art market have always been the same, but that the tools and proportions have changed. Napoleone added that social media greatly influence the way artists can develop. Women that are recognised later in their career have more freedom to develop creatively, whereas successful artists might feel they have to create work for the market. Answering Charlesworth’s question of what kind of initiatives would positively stimulate the art world right now, Napoleone proposed that we need people that are not seduced by money but rather focused on collecting and stimulating good art. Schönholzer added that private initiatives have the potential to enable museums to do good work, rather than investing in more private initiatives. Laughing, Schachter summarised: “art and money have been in bed for over 500 years - they just don’t spend the night together”. In the brief Q&A session, the three speakers responded to a question from the audience about the potential of galleries in helping artists. Both Schönholzer and Schachter agreed that art fairs and galleries should focus on representing smaller artists, thus stimulating a move away from traditional hierarchies. The final word was held by Schönholzer who suggested to organise another panel as the newly addressed topics could offer material for a whole new discussion.

Returning to the stage, Afrifa announced that over the course of the rest of the afternoon the conference would take a turn towards the future and the idealistic. Accordingly, the ensuing Open Stage provided a platform for three young talents to present their individual initiatives towards a more inclusive art world. The first young talent was Jue Yang, an artist, playwright and writer from Shanghai who recently participated in the La Wayaka Current project. Apart from presenting on the exhibition that they organised, Yang also presented on her personal experiences and struggles with travelling on a Chinese passport. Living from one artist-in-residency fellowship to another, Yang moves all over the world in pursuit of artistic freedom. The next was Ukraine-born Hanna Yakovleva, who founded her own company in art education, called Private Art Education. Focusing mainly on the relationship between art and love, Yakovleva aspires to connect art and business. By introducing a love of art into the world of business and finance, Yakovleva aims to enrich professionals from both fields. Finally, Saba Askari discussed a case-study of two seemingly identical ancient artefacts to illustrate the often ambiguous politics of attribution. Askari explained that this case-study was part of a larger research project that recorded several cases of cultural ambiguity in ancient artefacts in an attempt to both complicate and clarify the origin of these objects.  

After the inspiring contributions of these young talents, the programme continued with another keynote lecture by Danish curator, art advisor, and former gallerist, Luise Faurschou. An independent curator and art dealer, Faurschou has advised and worked for private and public museums all over the world. She is currently director of the art advisory agency Faurschou Art Resources and was invited by the conference to speak about the Art 2030 project, which she founded in 2016. Described as “perhaps the most ambitious art project ever”, the Art 2030 project is a non-profit organisation that facilitates art initiatives -including art works, public events, art experiences, and educational activities- that are related to the United Nations Global Goals. By unifying art and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development set by the United Nations, the project aims to bring the issues addressed by the United Nations under the attention of audiences. According to Faurschou: “art has the power to make faraway issues feel closer and become relatable”. Faurschou mentioned several examples of projects organised by Art 2030, including an art installation by Ai Weiwei. The installation, titled Soleil Lavant, was constructed on the façade of the Charlottenborg Museum and consisted of over 3,500 lifejackets collected from the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos. The prominent placement and burdensome origin of the work attracted the attention of people both in- and outside the art world, and ultimately brought a renewed focus to the ongoing European migrant crisis. Faurschou also emphasised the importance of including artists in negotiations about global issues, as “artists can envision the invisible and imagine the unimaginable”.

After a brief coffee break, the final component of the programme was another panel discussion on the topic of ‘Future spaces: how to create new models?’. Approaching the subject from three distinct angels, the panel focused on discussing different artistic and curatorial strategies aimed towards changing the way that art is exhibited and distributed. Taking place at the intersection between art and activism, the discussion focused on possibilities for artist and curators to bypass or even change the infrastructures of the art world. The discussion was led by Ben Eastham, associate editor at ArtReview and ArtReview Asia. Apart from founding a London-based magazine on literature and the visual arts, called The White Review, Eastham was an associate editor of Documenta 14 in 2017. Opening the discussion, Eastham invited the speakers to explain how their individual approaches to art could have the potential to initiate a shift in the structures that exist in the art world. The first speaker was Patricia Kaersenhout, a Dutch visual artist and cultural activist of Surinam heritage. Through her work, Kaersenhout seeks to investigate notions concerning the African Diaspora and the histories of slavery, racism, feminism and sexuality. She is currently a fellow at BAK, the Base for Contemporary Art in Utrecht, and is collaborating with refugees in several projects. After introducing herself, Kaersenhout described one of her recent art installations, titled The Soul of Salt (2016). In this transcultural project, multiple stories and beliefs originating from the Caribbean to the Netherlands, were brought together in a highly symbolic mountain of salt.

The second speaker, Rafael Rozendaal, is a New York-based visual artist working with distinctly less tangible materials. Founder of open-source exhibition concept BYOB (Bring Your Own Beamer), Rozendaal was one of the first artists to work and exhibit online, using the internet as canvas, material, and exhibition space. Rozendaal was also one of the first artists to build and sell websites to art collectors, while legally ensuring that the websites remain publicly accessible. Although he initially made works that tended towards the funny, he has increasingly expelled humour from his work in striving to be taken seriously by the art world. Although most of his art works can be found on the internet, Rozendaal emphasises that “my work is not digitalised but digital”. The third and final contributor to the discussion was Karen Archey, an American art critic and former editor at E-flux Conversations, and current curator of contemporary art and time-based media at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Specialised in issues related to feminism, technology, and contemporary art, Archey has curated exhibitions in New York, Beijing, London, and Amsterdam and has contributed to numerous arts publications. Archey emphasised the difficulties of collecting and curating works that appear to be intangible, explaining that “the only tool I am connected to is my laptop”.

Kaersenhout initiated the discussion by explaining how her work functions to challenge the structures of the art world. Although her work may not appear aesthetically pleasing in the traditional sense, it functions on conceptual and tangible levels to convey and trigger emotions such as grief, mourning, and loss. Through her work, Kaersenhout explains, she wishes to create a liminal space in which people can connect and imagine new futures together. Turning towards Rozendaal, Eastham noted that these structures also exist inside individuals, influencing the way they work and create their art. Thus, a challenging of these structures would demand a real breaking free of these notions. Rozendaal agreed and explained that he strived to create his own personal space in which to work: “if I’m not invited, I will create my own exhibition”. Early in his career, he realised that his target group didn’t always correspond with the art world audience, which is why he turned to the internet in search of “youthful energy”. Continuing on the topic of audiences, Kaersenhout noted: “my art will always be read as political. I turned away from the White Cube towards the communities that found themselves represented in my work”. When Eastham asked how important it should be to make new audiences feel represented and included, Kaersenhout responded: “there are no new audiences, only neglected audiences”. Although institutions in the Netherlands are gradually taking on people of colour, these changes are only cosmetic, Kaersenhout continued. The discussion about inclusivity has only just started, and it is the task of artists to keep stimulating discomfort and discussion, and to keep the conversation going.

Archey pointed out how the curating process of the new exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum became the starting point for many unexpected perspectives. The exhibition, titled Freedom of Movement,  was initially intended to engage with the rights and possibilities of individuals to travel within a country or to go abroad, and with the metaphorical connotations in terms of social mobility. Over the course of the curating process, Archey explained, the focus shifted from thinking in terms of agency to thinking about a lack of agency and the implicit connections to notions of privilege. Power structures and freedom of movement are often determined by privilege, which in turn is influenced by factors such as race, gender, sexuality, and physical ability. Although multiple perspectives were included in the exhibition, Archey acknowledged that there are no people of colour on the team of the Stedelijk Museum. The museum claims to be striving towards diversity but “it is still a learning process”, Archey admitted. Kaersenhout interrupted, stating that “diversity is the curated experience of the Other”. Rather than striving towards a diverse team, museums should aim to be inclusive. Archey’s response could be taken as a symbolic frame for this particular discussion and the conference in general: “but what if the institutions already believe that they are thinking in the right direction?”.

As also became clear in the discussion that arose around the publishing of the Power 100 in the latest issue of ArtReview, there are many different and contrasting approaches to the challenging of power structures in the art world. ArtReview editor Eastham emphasised his belief that the Power 100 needs to be mapped out before disruption can be considered a possibility. Audience member Maria Hlavajova, director of BAK, disagreed openly, suggesting that the Power 100 functions to celebrate power and to strengthen the existing structures. Similarly, the discussion concerning the progress of incorporation or inclusion of people of colour into Dutch museums ultimately ended in Kaersenhout’s suggestion to “agree to disagree”. If one must really draw a conclusion from the discussions held today, it would be that we are standing at the starting point of a much wider discussion. Although change in the art world cannot happen overnight, conversations such as those organised today undoubtedly mark the beginning of developments towards the better and more inclusive art world that we are striving towards. With this in mind, Afrifa closed the conference by reflecting on the many ways to stimulate change in the art world that were discussed today. Although these discussions and conversations are crucial steps, she emphasised that she will continue putting in the work and invited everyone in the audience to join her. Now that the “radically new thinkers” that Araeen called for in 2000 have responded and gathered to critique the prevailing system, the first tentative steps towards developing a positive vision of the future can be taken.


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