Staff Shares #2
Leontine Coelewij interviewed by Valeria Mari
Leontine Coelewij interviewed by Valeria Mari
October 13, 2022
As an intern in the Stedelijk’s Research and Curatorial Practice department, Master’s student Valeria Mari researched the new vision put into practice since Rein Wolfs became director in 2019. For her research project Staff Shares: Towards a Museum of Belonging, she interviewed Curator Leontine Coelewij, Head of the Education and Inclusion department Emma Harjadi Herman, Senior Editor Gwen Parry, and Press Officer Marie-José Raven. Her questions arose from her interest in how the Stedelijk is reframing and repurposing its collection to be more inclusive of women artists, gender-diverse makers, as well as artists associated with diaspora. By doing so, she sets out to understand how the Stedelijk is changing its narrative through its research, curatorial practice, education, and publication programs. The interviews will be published weekly throughout October 2022.
VM: I would begin by asking when you started working at the Stedelijk and how curatorial practices have been developed during your time as curator.
LC: I think different elements can define someone’s curatorial practice, for instance, the place you were born and raised in, where you studied, your gender identity, and the history and collection of the institution you work for. However, you are there as a person, never as a tabula rasa. There is always a history and legacy that you are dealing with.
Different museum roles have impacted my curatorial practice. In 1990, I started working as curator at the former art institution Museum Fodor, which was mainly focused on living artists in Amsterdam and part of the city administration called Dienst Musea voor Moderne Kunst. In 1993, I initiated the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, a satellite space of the Stedelijk Museum on Rozenstraat. The space had a local function that strongly emphasized young generations of artists. My role included many studio visits, discovered emerging artists, and organized many solo and thematic shows. I also curated some site-specific projects, such as Cinema Actuel (1994) at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau and Cineac Amsterdam, Mothership Connection (1996) about Afrofuturism, and Behave! (1996) about performative practices. After my experience at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau, I became the manager of exhibitions and collections at the Stedelijk Museum in Museumplein, then curator since 2004. My current focus is on visual arts collections between 1960 and 1990, so I coordinated the new collection displays in Tomorrow is a Different Day, collection 1980–Now, and Everyday, Someday, and Other Stories, collection 1950–80, paying particular attention to the room centered around those years. I am now working on the first solo exhibition in the Netherlands of Yto Barrada with previously unseen work on display from October 22, 2022, and on the first retrospective of the work of Ana Lupas scheduled for 2024.
Curator Leontine Coelewij at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2022, in front of Elaine Sturtevant, Raysse High Voltage Painting, 1969. Photo: Maaike te Kulve.
VM: I can imagine you have been a witness and agent of many changes at the Stedelijk Museum, particularly in shaping the collection and artists’ presentations. From your curatorial perspective, what moments have brought the most significant changes to the museum in the last ten years and what have been the consequences of these changes?
LC: There have been many changes at the Stedelijk Museum in the last ten years. One of the significant changes occurred when the museum reopened in 2012. Since then, it has offered more space to welcome visitors and present the collection. Ann Goldstein was the director upon the museum’s reopening. She defined the DNA of the museum as “artist-driven”, so the artists’ thinking and theories defined the museum program. When Goldstein left a couple of years later, Beatrix Ruf took over with a dynamic program focused more on younger generations of artists, for instance, presenting artists like Avery Singer, Jana Euler, Magali Reus, and Jordan Wolfson. She decided to present the collection in the BASE (2017), the lower-level gallery, with an exhibition design by Rem Koolhaas.
Since Rein Wolfs was appointed as the new director of the Stedelijk Museum in 2019, we have been looking toward changes in society by raising questions such as, what does the world around us look like? Where are we living now? What does it mean to us? What role does rethinking the museum play? For whom do we make exhibitions? What do we want to present? Which works do we want to buy? How about the whole team of curators?
For a long time, the curatorial team was composed of a rather homogeneous group of white art historians, many of whom were born and raised in the Netherlands. During Wolfs’s first years of directorship, new curators were appointed to create a more mixed team with different backgrounds. Some of them have backgrounds as artists or designers and include that in their curatorial practices. So, I think our discussions now are more diverse that what we had in the past.
VM: You already briefly touched on a few significant points that I would love to discuss further. We learn from your words that there have been two significant turning points in the last ten years. The first was due to the reopening of the museum in 2012, which increased the exhibition space and number of visitors. The second turning point came with the arrival of Rein Wolfs, which made the museum and its collection more inclusive and diverse, also in consideration of the changes to the curatorial team that would have affected the selection of artists and how their work was presented. Could you explain more how curatorial practice has changed the museum’s narrative?
LC: I had the impression that the curatorial team had—already several years ago—felt the need to adopt a more inclusive and socially relevant acquisitions policy aligned with global changes for some time now. The idea has been there since the museum’s reopening but was not put into practice until three years ago. Looking at past acquisitions from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, we curators have noticed that the percentage of works by women artists and artists of color is deficient. It is time to change that!
Since 2020, we have ensured that at least 50 percent of the works acquired are made by artists of color. It is impossible to change the past and repair it, but we can look at our collections with a fresher and more up-to-date gaze.
Sometimes it is possible to fill those gaps in the 60s, 70s, and 80s collection, as recently happened with an extensive acquisition of Corita Kent’s works (fig. 1). She was an artist, designer, activist, and Roman Catholic nun from Los Angeles who made impressive silkscreens with political messages about equality in the 60s. She was fighting against poverty, racism, and war through a formal vocabulary that was very much inspired by pop art. Kent is a very interesting artist beloved by younger generations of artists, so we were happy to buy some works made by her and show them in the new collection display. I want to highlight that it is impossible to “repair”, but we could eventually acquire some essential works by artists of older generations.
Fig. 1: Installation view of Corita Kent works from 1967 to 1969 in “Female Sensibility?” section of Everyday, Someday, and Other Stories, collection 1950–1980, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2022. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.
VM: We get the chance to appreciate the many new acquisitions in the first two parts of the collection presentations—1980–Now and 1950–80—in which you were involved. What curatorial practice were put to use to include women artists, gender diversity, and artists associated with diaspora?
LC: The first part of the new collection presentation is Tomorrow is a Different Day, collection 1980–Now, on display from July 2021. The curatorial team had about twelve months to prepare and organize it, and I lead as coordinator. We started with the evaluation of the previous collection presentation Stedelijk BASE during Beatrix Ruf’s directorship, defining what needed to be changed according to the new museum vision, which has been moving toward diversity and inclusion of other stories instead of showing only “Western” highlights in art and design. Furthermore, the director wanted to bring back the collection presentations in the old building and leave the lower-level gallery to welcome temporary exhibitions. Then, we started discussing the collection’s structure, works to include and works that could not miss putting on display. We did extensive research about artists and art theories. We visited other international museum collection presentations, learning from that and looking for a new successful way to tell stories.
The curatorial team met Adam Szymczyk and Yvette Mutumba, appointed as curators-at-large, to discuss initial ideas for shaping concepts around the thematic structuring principle instead of specific dates. Depot visits also helped where we could dive into the collection and better define its chapters. The curatorial team regularly discussed the plans with the so-called feedback group consisting of Wolfs along with the Head of the Education and Inclusion department Emma Harjadi Herman, and Head of the Research and Curatorial Practice department Charl Landvreugd.
The same approach has been adopted for the second part of the collection presentation Everyday, Someday, and Other Stories, collection 1950–1980. As the title states, the exhibition aims to tell other stories from different perspectives. For instance, the room “Female Sensibility?” questions whether it is possible to talk about gender sensibility through female visual artists. Another example is the room “Mary Bauermeister: Avant-garde Art and Music” that talks about Fluxus from the perspective of Bauermeister, a woman artist of German origin and pillar of the Fluxus movement, usually described and studied as an all-male movement (fig. 2). Contrary to what is thought, the artist was well-known in the 60s and had her first show in 1962 at the Stedelijk. Her studio in Cologne was an important meeting place for many artists, such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Nam June Paik. It is no longer possible to overlook the valuable contribution of artists like Bauermeister. I am happy that we have two works by her in our collection so we can tell her story and share her perspective on Fluxus and contribution to developing the arts in the early 60s. The upcoming first retrospective of Ana Lupas is another example of giving justice to one of the most important artists associated with conceptual art, land art, and post-minimal practices in Eastern Europe since the late 60s. Because of her position as a woman artist working in Romania during the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu, her remarkable oeuvre has remained largely unknown in the West.
Fig. 2: “Mary Bauermeister: Avant-garde Art and Music” room in Everyday, Someday, and Other Stories, collection 1950–1980. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2022. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.
VM: This is a big step forward indeed. Are the two rooms in the collection presentation dedicated to women artists, and the retrospective you mentioned, a potential strategy for levelling the dominance of male artists within the museum display?
LC: They are part of an endless process that is up to curators to deepen and nurture. In the collection presentation, the presence of women artists is propagated throughout with works by Yayoi Kusama, Agnes Martin, Elaine Sturtevant, Jo Baer, Maria van Elk, Jacqueline de Jong, Martha Rosler, Hanne Darboven, Louwrien Wijers, Sheila Hicks, Nalini Malani, and many other amazing artists (fig. 3). We can present different viewpoints, voices, and narratives beyond what the museum public has been used to seeing so far. There are still many stories to be told behind each collection piece, which we wish to discover and make accessible.
Fig. 3: Installation view of Sheila Hicks, Trapèze de Cristobal, 1971 and Sarah Zapata, To Teach or To Assume Authority, 2018–19, in Everyday, Someday, and Other Stories, collection 1950–1980. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2022. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.
VM: Did second wave feminism from the 60s and 90s, whose pioneers denounced, among other things, the negative and inferior image of women in history and culture impact the presentation of women artists in museums, the Stedelijk in particular?
LC: Starting the collection presentation with the “Female Sensibility?” room reflects on the position of these artists in the present, especially in modern and contemporary art museums like the Stedelijk. In my opinion, this room is a way of looking back at what happened in the arts and what it meant to be a woman artist in the late 60s and early 70s. The room is a statement, a way to shed light on the fact that museums have not collected as many works by women artists as they should have done. However, we have already found great works in the collection that have been acquired in the past but never exhibited, for instance, the work of Mary Bauermeister and Lynda Benglis exhibited in the current collection for the first time. We wondered how this had been possible, but probably the time had not yet come to talk about it, and something else was prioritized. We also created monographic rooms devoted to one woman artist, such as Nalini Malani and Yayoi Kusama. So, the role of women artists within the whole display is different in each room because, I think, there is not only one way to deal with this feminist legacy.
VM: Thank you Leontine for your shares. Could you explain what is meant by diaspora and how the artists associated with it, largely excluded from the concept of modernism in the past, have had a podium in the collection of the Stedelijk?
LC: In recent years, particular attention has been paid to research and presenting artists associated with diaspora and which make up a considerable part of the museum’s collection today. “Diaspora” has been widely used to refer to a complex movement of people, goods, ideas, and cultures from their geographical origin to other places, mostly to Europe and North America, during the postcolonial period.
In the late twentieth century, the works made by artists with a migrant background have been collected and presented as “diverse” from what used to be exhibited in the Stedelijk according to the Western idea of modernism. The new museum visions toward inclusion and diversity allow a replacing of those ideas with more globally relevant narratives and acquisitions.
For instance, important research has been done about artists coming from Suriname, which was presented in the Surinamese School exhibition last year. On this occasion, we could acquire some paintings by Ron Flu, Soeki Irodikromo, and Quintus Jan Telting, and include them in the collection display. Also, in the expressive paintings’ room of the 1960s, the new acquisition of Irodikromo (fig. 4), who introduced elements from his Javanese background, can now be admired next to works by Willem de Kooning, Erwin de Vries, Jacqueline de Jong, and Constant.
Fig. 4: Soeki Irodikromo (right side), untitled, 1971, in the expressive paintings’ room of the 1960s in Everyday, Someday, Other Stories, collection 1950–1980. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2022. Photo: Peter Tijhuis.
Furthermore, I discovered in the museum depot several works by Chavalit Soemprungsuk (1939–2020), who came from Thailand to Amsterdam around 1970 and spent the rest of his life in the Netherlands. His geometric-abstract work is included in the room with minimal works by Robert Ryman, Piero Manzoni, and Jo Baer, which allows us to appreciate global forms of abstraction. In this way, we can open up the idea of modernism, which had been limited to mostly European and North American developments, and refresh the collection with a more globally updated gaze that leads the audience in many directions. For instance, the work of Yto Barrada, which will be exhibited in her solo show Yto Barrada Bad Color Combos in October 2022, could be interpreted as an attempt to subvert the international modernism of Western art perception and arrive at a more transhistorical and global view.
As part of the Stedelijk curatorial team, I want to emphasize that we have just begun this change process towards inclusive and decentralized narratives and expect to add new chapters in the coming years.
Intern Valeria Mari (left) and Curator Leontine Coelewij (right) in conversation at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2022. Photo: Maaike te Kulve.