Collecting Geographies: Global Programming and Museums of Modern Art


by Jelle Bouwhuis and Christel Vesters

In March 2014, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam hosted the international academic conference “Collecting Geographies: Global Programming and Museums of Modern Art.” The conference was organized in collaboration with the international partners ASCA/ACGS at the University of Amsterdam, Moderna Museet Stockholm, Folkwang Museum Essen, and the Tropenmuseum Amsterdam. Its aim was to take a closer look at new inquiries into the relationships between art institutions, globalization, and postcolonial discourse, including a critical assessment of the deployed terminology and those strategies that focus on local affinities within a larger art historical and global framework. An overwhelming number of more than 140 scholars, museum professionals, curators, and artists responded to the open call for papers, which urged a critical rethinking of many assumptions in the practice of collecting and exhibiting of so-called non-Western art, as well as the very categories of art and its institutionalizations. Eighty-one papers were selected for the conference. Eight papers are highlighted in this first issue of Stedelijk Studies.

“Collecting Geographies: Global Programming and Museums of Modern Art” presented a wide and diverse spectrum of issues and questions that underpin current discussions on global art and the Western museum of modern art—and that have, in fact, informed these discussions since the dawn of postcolonial theory. As such it also demonstrated the growing interest and multiform development in this field of research, which by now has extended into and includes areas of expertise that are not reserved for art historians only. This diversity and sprawl contributes to an increasingly diffused and fragmented field of study that by its very nature seems to resist easy categorization through existing paradigms of modern art, or methods of study, for that matter. In line with this, we have included essays from different areas of expertise, informed by theory and by practice-based research, written both by up-and-coming and established authors who approach the subject from various contexts, regions, and backgrounds; in short, the essays are diverse not only in subject matter, but also in terms of methodologies, approaches, and geo-cultural perspectives. If we would have to describe a common denominator or thread connecting this diversified field, it would be the deeply felt need most writers put forth to open up the discourse, to postpone new gestures of appropriation or canonizations, and include and accept polyphony—even to “rest at ease” in the uncategorized and undefined.

In order to get a grip on this changeable matter, for this very first issue of Stedelijk Studies, dedicated to the theme of “Collecting Geographies,” we took the Stedelijk Museum and its history as a vantage point. The Stedelijk serves as a perfect example of the institutionalization of modern art and, more specifically, of the idea of modern art that became dominant after World War II, and subsequently determined the canon of art, partly owed to the previous years of war and repression that were felt in the Netherlands as much as elsewhere in the world, and certainly in Europe. A modern art institute, like the Stedelijk, is thus understood as a case study, or model—albeit with its own specificities—against which the course and implied narrative of modern art history and the many grounds on which it is contested, as explicated in the essays presented here, can be pitted against. Only Nana Leigh addresses the Stedelijk Museum specifically, through a study of the once seminal but now almost forgotten exhibition Moderne Kunst – Nieuw en Oud (Modern Art – New and Old) in 1955, which showcased art and visual specimens from a range of geographical origins. It can be related to Jean-Hubert Martin’s much better known exhibition, Magiciens de la Terre, at the Centre Pompidou and Parc la Vilette in Paris in 1989, here revisited by Annie Cohen-Solal. Both exhibitions experienced a troubled reception, but are now, amongst others, undergoing a process of reevaluation in the context of the present debates on global art and museum practices.

One of the main critiques aired against these two exhibitions was their reiteration of a narrative of modern art in which a Western-centric idea of art prevailed. An in-depth study of these exhibitions and their modes of framing and display shows us to what extent this institutional perspective—and the underlying need to categorize modern art as modern art—determined the operations of a museum, collection, and exhibition. This holds true even today. In other words, art institutions and their acquisition and display policies, simply by existing, are instrumental in either reaffirming or opening up the canon of art in times of unstoppable globalization.

Fig. 1. Installation view “How Far How Near. The world at the Stedelijk” (Global Collaborations), 18 September 2014 – 1 February 2015. From left to right: Dorothy Akpene Amenuke, How Far How Near, 2014, Abdoulaye Konaté, Fête Africaine, 2012, Jacques Lipchitz, Figure, 1926, Vincent Vulsma, WE455 (IX), 2011. Photo: Gert-Jan van Rooij.

However, as Kitty Zijlmans acutely observes in what we dedicate as the opening essay, this “distorted view” cannot be corrected “by simply adding art from elsewhere to the existing canon or inserting them into prevalent discourses.” Paraphrasing Third Text founding editor Rasheen Araeen, Zijlmans questions the appropriation of the concept of Modernism and the subsequent definition of modern art. Zijlmans also points out that the conventional use of geography as category to order our art history and collections cannot be sustained vis-à-vis a world and society shaped by migration and new meanings of “locatedness.” Perhaps, she suggests, art histories and art collections can be rewritten as diversified networks of different positions.

Unpacking the utopian ambitions assigned to the global or universal survey museum “as a site of cross-cultural exchange that helps bring about peace and harmony,” Todd Porterfield goes back to the French Revolutionary Louvre during the 1802-03 Peace of Amiens. Porterfield demonstrates how the then (political) drive to imperialist uniformity translated into a universalism for which the museum became a key symbol, its legacies still felt today. Pondering on the irreparable clash of opposing and essentialized identities—and the unattainable ideal of uniformity or equality—Porterfield posits that the key ethical task for art history and its institutions is to recognize difference without essential otherness.

But whose task is it to rewrite art history, and to rearrange our collections and institutions? Karolina Golinowska focuses on the problems of the museum infrastructure in Poland as one of many examples of nations and regions where art institutions are much more subject to external (ideological) conditions and agendas; in this case, the building of a nation-state narrative, something more than the Stedelijk Museum ever aspired to (history, of course, still has to write the chapter on the current era of neoliberalism). Golinowska’s essay describes the struggle many museums in Poland face when trying to reposition themselves in the (art)world vis-à-vis the outdated geography of Western versus non-Western, center versus margins, post-1989.

Tina Sherwell describes the quite paradoxical situation of Palestine, a place that hardly knows any art institution but which, nevertheless—or rather, because of this—has become a target destination for international curators who hope to discover the unexpected, or at least find an art that evolves from a geopolitically contested and repressed region.

As Zijlmans pointed out in her essay, and which many of the essays reiterate, the entanglement of modern and contemporary art, along with art institutions with national narratives, is a predicament that at least partly accounts for the complexities and misunderstandings surrounding the discussions on globalization and art. If we are to reshape our institutions, is it not also time to form new parameters responsive to a new world order?

The remaining essays further explore issues of representation and art. The research of Celeste Ianniciello and Michaela Quadraro focuses on the role of museum in the age of migration, especially now that “silenced memories and subordinate lives” have become more present than ever before. If the museum would indeed insist on its traditional role of representing culture in national or local terms, and thus on qualifications that result in cultural exclusion, in what sense, then, does its soft power differ from colonialism, albeit dressed in the sheep’s clothing of the fine arts? Maria Iñigo Clavo takes this question a little further by trying to locate the artwork within a truly postcolonial worldview. If the designated institutions are affected by compromised histories that hamper a geographically unrestricted artistic freedom, where could art live on, if not located within a newly defined public sphere?

Thus, returning to our starting point, the challenges faced by any museum when dealing seriously with art in the overwhelming global perspective are only now unfolding. We are glad that we can look back on a fruitful conference as a starting point for this process, yet at the same time we are aware that this issue hardly does any justice to its scope, and to the many issues and urgent appeals that were brought to the table.

Last but not least, as the guest editors of this first issue of Stedelijk Studies, we would like to thank Margriet Schavemaker and Jeroen Sondervan for their invitation and support, along with everyone who has dedicated their time and valuable expertise in peer reviewing the selected essays. We would also like to extend our thanks to everyone involved with putting together and organizing the conference last March, especially Dorine de Bruijne and the team of the Stedelijk Museum Public Program, and, last but not least, we would like to thank our interns, Michelle Sachtler and Alexandra Ghidoarca, for their assistance in the final stages of producing this e-publication.