Buro Stedelijk and its potential to operate autonomously within the Stedelijk Museum
Tosca Hellemans in conversation with Rein Wolfs, Rita Ouédraogo and Azu Nwagbogu
Tosca Hellemans in conversation with Rein Wolfs, Rita Ouédraogo and Azu Nwagbogu
April 12, 2023
Buro Stedelijk is a new experimental art space initiated by the Stedelijk Museum, in dialogue with the Rijksakademie and De Ateliers, located in the building of the Stedelijk Museum. Buro Stedelijk aims to operate as autonomously as possible and to give a fresh impetus to Amsterdam’s art scene by inspiring new perspectives, active civic participation and fostering collaboration between artists, communities, and institutions. For its first manifestation, Buro Stedelijk will officially kick off with its listening sessions, a two-day event on April 14 and 15.
In this essay, based on separate interviews with Rein Wolfs (artistic director of the Stedelijk Museum), Rita Ouédraogo and Azu Nwagbogu (curators of Buro Stedelijk), Tosca Hellemans explores how autonomously Buro Stedelijk might hope to operate, given the potential and precariousness of its unique position within the Stedelijk Museum. In February 2023, Hellemans completed a six-month internship at the Stedelijk Museum as part of her Master’s Contemporary Art History.
Soon to take its place at the renowned Museumplein: Buro Stedelijk. The experimental art space, the brainchild of the Stedelijk Museum – in dialogue with the Rijksakademie and De Ateliers – will be located not in a building of its own, but in the Stedelijk Museum itself. Buro Stedelijk aims to serve as a missing link between studio practices, (post) academies, and museums, operating as autonomously as possible. But this objective: to function without undue influence of the Stedelijk while residing in the very same building, presents a stimulating tension and evokes several questions. Will this design strengthen collaborations between these two very differently sized art institutions, or will the smaller one be engulfed and institutionalized under the pressure of its prominent location?
This essay, an outcome of separate interviews with Rein Wolfs (artistic director of the Stedelijk Museum) and newly appointed Buro Stedelijk curators: Rita Ouédraogo and Azu Nwagbogu, ruminates on the question of how autonomously Buro Stedelijk might in fact hope to operate, given the potential and the precariousness of its unique position. In order to do so, it is important to first take a look back at the road that has led to the birth of Buro Stedelijk, the precursors that came along the way, and the expectations they have created.
The controversial closure of Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (SMBA) in 2016 remains in the minds of many, stimulating curiosity as to whether Buro Stedelijk will, or will not, fulfill similar objectives. Since its opening in 1993, the experimental project space of the Stedelijk Museum on Amsterdam’s Rozenstraat aimed to present contemporary art from an Amsterdam context and was respected for its forward-thinking attitude, especially in terms of diversity and addressing post-colonial issues. However, SMBA was forced to close its doors in July of 2016 amid protest from many members of the local art scene. In addition to objections that the closure would mark yet another loss of already scarce mid-sized art institutions for the city, concerns were raised over the abrupt termination of the rental lease of the space. There were also objections to the possible relocation of an SMBA-like space to a peripheral part of Amsterdam, in line with the political agenda to culturally ‘uplift’ these areas, thus contributing to processes of gentrification. To this the new in-house location of Buro Stedelijk offers a solution. Rein Wolfs has indicated that other locations were indeed considered, but during the investigation process, the idea for an in-house location eventually came to be most appealing, as it offered the opportunity for the Stedelijk “not to supervise, but to learn from [Buro Stedelijk] and also to see it as a control action for the museum itself”. Like SMBA, Buro Stedelijk will function as a mid-size art space that aspires to experiment with new models for social discourse, with a local focus, while also maintaining an international dimension, yet the status of the established Museumplein may influence the objectives of Buro Stedelijk.
A clear analysis of the functioning of SMBA was lacking, both before and after its closure. Following the closure, the Stedelijk Museum organized a public debate in 2016, which was criticized for not addressing or reflecting on what the potential shortcomings of SMBA were that led to the choice to close the space. The debate thus, according to some, only gave the impression of engagement instead of actually involving the public in this discussion. In 2018 the Stedelijk Museum, led at the time by Acting Managing Director Jan Willem Sieburgh after the departure of Beatrix Ruf at the end of 2017, published a research report on the repositioning of SMBA, which also did not include a critical review of the activities of the space. In short, reflection was either insufficiently executed or insufficiently visible to the public. For this, current director Rein Wolfs is not at fault, however, the question remains as to whether a careful reflection on what was achieved by SMBA, and where it may have fallen short, may still be of value to Buro Stedelijk. On this matter Wolfs and the Buro Stedelijk curators have instead opted to look not to the past but to the future. As Wolfs explains, “people [working in the Stedelijk] thought then, as we think now, that we should not strive for a seamless connection with the past, but instead we should look at the needs of this new era. SMBA existed for quite a long time and the world has moved on, therefore, I think it’s very important to think about it from a perspective of tabula rasa”. For Nwagbogu, Buro Stedelijk also represents a new start: “The beauty of it is that this is supernew, there is really nothing to compare it with. We are not moving back into the SMBA space, we are going to be in the Stedelijk itself. Whereas with SMBA it had physical autonomy of its own space, the Buro is embedded within the Stedelijk and offers unique disadvantages and opportunities”.
Rein Wolfs. Photo: Boudewijn Bollmann.
The art scene is ever-changing and according to Wolfs requires constant re-evaluation: “The art scene in Amsterdam used to be simpler than it is now, in the sense of it being more clear. This also has to do with several developments that have occurred in the city. Think of de Appel relocating to a less central place, where they still are significant but in a different way. Or the arrival of Framer Framed, new initiatives in Amsterdam Noord like Nieuw Dakota, and the interesting concept of a rose is a rose is a rose; the field has been shaken up a bit and that is why we have to look at it again”.
What has remained the same is the aforementioned scarcity of mid-sized institutions in Amsterdam. Wolfs again: “I think that the scarce mid-sized institutions have disappeared and been pushed away from the city center itself. That is why I think it is important to do this here, to create an institution of this size with a clear connection to the city of Amsterdam”. Rita Ouédraogo: “There’s a gap that was created when the SMBA shut down, and a lot of mourning about this is still happening. A space that is in-between, where mid-and beginning career artist can try stuff out, where they feel there is a space for them that is serious but also accessible; that is the gap we aim to fill”.
Lesser known is that long before SMBA there was another art space, also presided over by the Stedelijk, intended to show contemporary, experimental art. Museum Fodor opened in 1863, with a collection founded by coal merchant and art collector C.J. Fodor, who bequeathed his collection to the city of Amsterdam on his death in 1860. From 1974 Museum Fodor was the financial, organizational and administrative responsibility of the Stedelijk Museum. The annual subsidy of 800.000 guilders from the municipality for the Fodor was canceled in 1993, the same year it ceased its operations with the opening of SMBA. Part of its immaterial heritage is the term Fodor function, still known to many, referring to the specific responsibility that came with the budget from the municipality of Amsterdam: supporting the local art scene. Already in the 1980s the Stedelijk Museum, as the recipient of this budget, was criticized for ‘outsourcing’ this responsibility to Fodor. After the closure of Fodor, SMBA received separate funding for this function until the Kunstenplan 2013-2016 (a quadrennial subsidy from the municipality of Amsterdam), after which its financing was assigned to the overall budget of the Stedelijk Museum. The shift was considered by some to represent a major loss of autonomy for the SMBA. With the closure in mind, additional questions arise as to the extent to which the Stedelijk Museum fulfills this local function itself, and whether the curators of Buro Stedelijk will prioritize this responsibility. On that note, is it still possible to speak of a Fodor function in an art world where the local and global are increasingly interconnected?
Rein Wolfs on these questions: “Although it is not clearly earmarked in our grants, the museum is expected to perform an ‘Amsterdam function’, and I think we also perform this function without Buro Stedelijk, time and time again. […] We have taken over some more ‘Amsterdam functions’ and we keep them less strictly separated than in the past. We reinforce this further with Buro Stedelijk. […] I think you cannot and should not work strictly locally, especially in a city like Amsterdam. […] Especially in the post-academies, such as the Rijksakademie and De Ateliers, people already enter with an international practice, but they do form a very important part of the Amsterdam art scene”. Ouédraogo also “feel[s] there is a specific responsibility [of Buro Stedelijk] to cater to the city. Partially, our budget makes us more focused on the local. Moreover, the whole idea of what Buro Stedelijk is supposed to be is something local, that amplifies the voices, discussions and people that are here”.
Rita Ouédraogo and Azu Nwagbogu. Photo: LNDWstudio.
During my conversation with Ouédraogo and Nwagbogu they expressed an affinity with ruangrupa’s horizontal way of collaboration. “We have no monopoly on knowledge”, Nwagbogu explains. The Indonesian art collective’s non-hierarchical and collective way of working (lumbung) marked an important tipping point at last year’s controversial Documenta 15. This was not due so much to its level of innovation, but because it seemed to break through the (European) artistic mainstream, disrupting the dominant “extractive, colonial, modernist mindset”, argued artist, curator and critic, Jack Segbars in his reflection on Documenta 15. That Ouédraogo and Nwagbogu are sympathetic to ruangrupa’s aims raises curiosity as to how this horizontal approach will potentially further integrate into the local art scene. Their current focus, in line with the concept of lumbung but not directly influenced by it, is on listening to the needs of the city via an open call, which will then translate into several performative discourse sessions. By listening, the curators hope to observe their position as newcomers to the city and initiate a dialogue, while trusting in the natural course of this process. As they explain, “when you do good work, when you do meaningful work, everybody can engage with it”. Much like the current approach of the Stedelijk Museum to contemporary art and design, Buro Stedelijk plans to further extend this concept of horizontality to an absolute non-hierarchy between artistic disciplines, seeking in their words, “to truly create a horizontal space that is connecting photography, design, fashion, music, and art in one experimental space”.
The budget of Buro Stedelijk mainly consists of funds from Fonds 21 and Ammodo; the Stedelijk Museum will contribute in the form of building use and security. The Stedelijk Museum will not impose any conditions and the curators will exercise full control over the artistic direction and exhibition program. The Stedelijk has established an advisory board to safeguard the governance of both Buro Stedelijk and the Stedelijk Museum. The board consists of Rubiah Balsem (director Studio Balsem, Arts & Culture Intermediary), Simnikiwe Buhlungu (artist, former resident Rijksakademie), Pauline Cunier Jardin (artist, tutor at De Ateliers), Maxine Kopsa (director De Ateliers), Emily Pethick (director Rijksakademie) and Charl Landvreugd (Head of Research and Curatorial Practice, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam). Both the advisory board and Rein Wolfs will advise the curators on the artistic course of Buro Stedelijk, but the final authority on this will lie with the curators. “In principle”, Wolfs explains, “I’m very reticent about this [interfering]. That is also my task and the advisory board must also guard against this. If they get the feeling that I’m interfering too much with what Buro Stedelijk wants to do, I’ll have to listen to that. But we are close to each other, it will not be possible to avoid everything, we have to be that honest”.
The exhibition program will officially kick-off on May 25th after the listening sessions, which will take place Mid-April, but in a way, it has already started. Daily, a series of decisions slowly shapes the course of Buro Stedelijk, ‘the dirty work’, as Ouédraogo calls it. This is a process that the curators consider to be essential for the conceptual grounding of the space. Nwagbogu believes the process in which they are situated to be ‘unprecedented’, partly due to the different backgrounds and degree of experience between him and Ouédraogo, as well as the contradiction presented by their horizontal approach in conjunction with their in-house location at the Museumplein. Trust forms the fertile ground on which Buro Stedelijk plans to grow. The curators approach the complexity concerning the autonomy of Buro Stedelijk with the same attitude. Nwagbogu explains: “It’s about a give and take, mutual respect, giving to the space, trusting each other and being encouraging. Acknowledging the gift of it. […] I find the only thing you can do to give yourself autonomy is to do good work and to be clear about what you are doing. That’s the only thing we care about. We only care about doing good work, we’re not worried about anything else. We want to do our best and we feel that’s enough for us.”
As may be expected, the start-up phase of a new art space brings challenges, it is a period that will require a great deal of coordination with the Stedelijk Museum. Time, or the lack of it, currently poses a major challenge for the curators. As Rita Ouédraogo explains: “It’s all at the same time; usually with a startup you first carve out some time for things like the website, visual identity, the space and we’re doing this at the same time with getting the program ready, doing interviews, listening to the voices in the city, meeting with all these people who want to do something in Buro Stedelijk. Doing all these things at the same time, and only having 24 hours in a day, is the most challenging part”.
Lack of time will not only be limited to the start-up phase, Ouédraogo suspects. With their intended maneuverability and speed, they also foresee a way more limited preparation time compared to the Stedelijk Museum, where exhibitions have a longer run-up. Nwagbogu also points out a possible challenge for the curators in their concept of horizontality, as this should not obstruct the responsibilities that come with their position: “The risk with the horizontal shift does not mean an abdication of knowledge, value, responsibility. The idea is to be receptive to diverse views but, as curators, we hold positions and come with a lot of experience. Like a friend of mine says: ‘you can’t bluff your way into playing the violin’, so the expectation we have of ourselves is that we bring something tangible to the conversation.”.
There are a number of benefits for the Buro in residing in the Stedelijk. Similar to other art institutions in Amsterdam, Buro Stedelijk will be surrounded by a climate that emphasizes accountability, efficiency, and a maximization of visitor numbers. Conjoined with an established institution, the question arises as to how resilient Buro Stedelijk will be in the face of these expectations. Wolfs believes their unique position within the Stedelijk to be an advantage in this regard: “Initially, they are not given the performance criteria that apply to the museum and other institutions, because they ultimately function as a project within the museum; they can take shelter at the large museum”. Likewise, there are benefits for the Stedelijk. Wolfs foresees opportunities for a more diverse program: “Buro Stedelijk can have a different credibility than we have, and therefore could sometimes work with partners with whom it is more difficult for us to work. We are interested in working with large and small, but there are quite a few smaller partners who think ‘why would I work with such a large museum’, which also has to do with power relations”. Rita Ouédraogo also sees several advantages in their connection with the Stedelijk Museum: “We’re nimble, so we can move fast. […] We literally make use of the walls of course, but also the infrastructure that is there. […] I think what is interesting of having this physical space inside the museum is that it gives a kind of authority as well, to artists and makers”.
Naturally, the in-house position of Buro Stedelijk also comes with its own set of complexities regarding autonomy. An obvious aspect is ticketing; if admission for the Stedelijk Museum (€22.50 – entrance adult) will also be the price of admission for Buro Stedelijk, its accessibility will be affected. At the same time this raises questions about the distribution of these proceeds. These are matters that still have to take shape, but the aim is that Buro Stedelijk will be accessible for free, Ouédraogo says. Ouédraogo also points to another anticipated challenge to the working process: “We can’t just give a key to somebody, as with SMBA.” Another great challenge lies in the fact that Buro Stedelijk is and remains a project of the Stedelijk Museum. As Wolfs admits, ultimate freedom is not feasible: “There is coordination about practical matters, but we try to let Buro Stedelijk do its own thing as much as possible. Naturally, this is not entirely possible because it is done as a project and not a separate foundation. […] In the end, however much freedom you want to have, you will never be able to be completely free because you have to deal with all kinds of preconditions, such as collective bargaining, legal or political issues.” As for the course of the curators, there is another tendency to reckon with. Rein Wolfs: “Today there are perhaps many more stakeholders than before and we saw that when there were quite emotional debates about the closure of SMBA. […] In Amsterdam everyone has an opinion and that is a good thing, but that can also be quite complicated if you are trying to realize your own vision.”
For Buro Stedelijk, a certain degree of uncertainty is a basic condition for experimentation. There may be an interesting discrepancy here with the Stedelijk Museum which, due to its more complex infrastructure, its collection and established position, can allow itself less uncertainty. As Rein Wolfs puts it: “In museums we always think in terms of exhibitions with a specific time period. It may well be that they [Buro Stedelijk] come up with other formats and break that up a bit. I think that would be a good idea, I think that all of us in the museum sector should and can think about new formats. But to think about this museum-wide, with also many internal stakeholders, is much more complicated than doing this with a small team.”
The conditions of the traditional exhibition format are not self-evident for the curators either: “We might not even call them exhibitions”, Nwagbogu says. And from Ouédraogo: “We want to stretch the idea of what Buro Stedelijk is, the physical space doesn’t only have to be that space. Early Buro Stedelijk manifestations will be more in the city, but it can also be online or in the form of an essay. We’re trying to stretch the conventional idea of space and the accessibility of space in different forms”.
The difference between Buro Stedelijk and the Stedelijk Museum in this respect is reminiscent of a current discussion about the gap between museums and artists in the production of exhibitions, also described in a recent essay by Jack Segbars. According to Segbars, both often have fundamentally different objectives and values. The objective of the museum for a measurable and accountable end product tends to clash with the often-uncertain creative process of artistic process. In this respect, Buro Stedelijk seems a hybrid construction, as its infrastructure is connected to an established museum, whereas its objectives seem more in line with studio practices. As such, there is a possibility that this structure may have the potential to harmonize these conflicting interests.
Most of my interview questions had the same focus: how will Buro Stedelijk justify its approach, safeguard its autonomy, and measure its success? In the light of this, the statement that stuck with me most from this series of interviews is Nwagbogu’s claim that “the only thing you can do to give yourself autonomy is to do good work”. From the perspective of dominant political demands for accountability and efficiency, just doing ‘good work’ hardly seems sufficient, or even possible. Yet Nwagbogu’s genuinely hopeful statement made me question whether my preoccupation with the independence of Buro Stedelijk and its responsibility to the local, are the most relevant concerns in an art world where boundaries have become increasingly blurred. Distinctions between artistic disciplines, the local and the global, independence and dependence, the very criteria of what constitutes an exhibition, or the overall question of what constitutes as ‘the museum’ in general are all up for debate. The question remains as to what the consequences may be of striving for measurability, especially in experimental spaces like Buro Stedelijk, in a field that requires a certain degree of immeasurableness in order to function and flourish. And naturally, questions about what exactly comprises “the good work” remain valuable and need continually to be posed. But these should not come at the cost of obstructing mutual trust or the chance for a natural progression.
In the end, the beauty in the apparent simplicity of “just doing good work” can only exist on the condition that an art institution remains transparent. With regard to Buro Stedelijk, this will have an increased need due to the complexity concerning the dependence of their position. It is a necessity of which the curators are aware. Azu Nwagbogu: “Institutions today have to be super transparent. That is something that is a very big part of my own way of working. I want to be able to do many things and that only comes from knowing that there is no opacity anywhere. Everything should be out there”. Still, the curators remain confident in their collaboration with the Stedelijk Museum, despite the inevitable difficulties to come. Nwagbogu again: “The way we are working is unprecedented, there are bound to be some initial complexities in this formulation. In the end, we are both aligned in terms of the ethics of the job”.
For now, embracing the uncertainty of the process is of paramount importance. Time will tell whether Buro Stedelijk, through its unique hybrid position, will live up to its potential to achieve a form of unity. Unity, firstly, between two very different types of art institutions, and secondly, between the often-contrasting objectives of artists and institutions. My hope is for a stimulating and transparent dialogue between the many stakeholders in this process, both inside and outside the walls of the museum.
Tosca Hellemans is a writer and Master’s student in Contemporary Art History at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She is also a contributing editor to Kunstlicht: an academic journal for art, visual culture, and architecture. As a freelance writer living in Amsterdam, Hellemans wrote several articles for online art magazine Mister Motley, which connects art to everyday life. In 2023, she completed a six-month MA internship at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
 Domeniek Ruyters, Opschaling – advies over de opvolger van het SMBA, Metropolis M (7 Aug. 2018). Available at: https://www.metropolism.com/;
Ja Ja Ja Nee Nee Nee, Diversity, criticism & the closure of SMBA. Available at: https://jajajaneeneenee.com/
 Timo Demollin, Full Disclosure, Platform BK (Jan. 2018), p. 25. Available at: https://www.platformbk.nl/
 Ibid, p. 26.
 Het Stedelijk Museum, Verslag onderzoek herpositionering Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (25 Jul. 2018). Available at: https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/
 Gemeente Amsterdam Stadsarchief, inv. 5446. Available at: https://archief.amsterdam/
 Gerda Telgenhof, ‘A’dam heeft een museum als Fodor nodig’, NRC (14 May 1992). Available at: https://www.nrc.nl/
 Angela Bartholomew, Disruptive Attitudes: Artists Counter the Art of Exhibiting in the Low Countries (1985- 1991). PhD-Thesis – Research and graduation internal, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (2021), p. 7. Available at: https://research.vu.nl/
 Timo Demollin, Full Disclosure, Platform BK (2018, Jan.), p. 23. Available at: https://www.platformbk.nl/
 Ibid, p. 25.
 Jack Segbars, Reflecting on documenta fifteen: On the threshold of revolution?, Metropolis M (13 Oct. 2022). Available at: https://www.metropolism.com/
 Jack Segbars, De Politiek van de Artistieke Arbeid, Platform BK (22 Dec. 2022). Available at: https://www.platformbk.nl/