Jelle Bouwhuis is currently curator-at-large at the Stedelijk Museum. He has been the head of its project space, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam for ten years. In the recent past he was amongst others in charge of the “Global Collaborations” project, with collaborative exhibitions in Yogyakarta, Beirut, Belgrade or Bombay.
What is your background?
I was doing some irrelevant jobs and playing in a band until I enrolled into an art mind by studying art history at the age of 23. Art history seemed to me one of those fields of study that is not concerned with career making. But during my studies, I started to work at university for some teaching and then I turned into an art critic for a daily newspaper. Later on, I started working for marketing and public relations for art museums.
How do you perceive the role of curators and the relationship between curators and artists?
This is a difficult question… From the institutional perspective, there is a very strong separation between the two – curators have fixed paid jobs while artists do not. On the other hand, a lot of solo exhibitions of living artists are very much indebted to or practically curated by the artists themselves. Certainly in smaller institutions, the roles of curator and artist are interdependent. It is much nicer not to be fixed to a certain title and shift among the roles of curator, artist, writer, art critic. So what is a curator? It might depend on what exactly and where you are looking at. It is true that there is a trend since the 60s when curators started to assume more pivotal roles. Today many institutions are concerned about numbers, finances and branding their programs – if this is not possible with a famous artist, then perhaps a star-curator can do the job.
What is the most memorable experience during your curatorial career?
The involvement in the Global Collaborations project was a mind-blowing experience. We were collaborating with several institutions from different parts of the world, allowing us to dive into completely different contexts than ours. All of them are very energetic, idealistic, run by passionate people, who always have something to discuss. It was great that the sound institutional infrastructure from our side enabled us to set up a project like this. But while in progress, it made me aware of the extent to which larger institutions in the Netherlands and other Western European countries have become dominating themselves by economically induced, pre-formatted strategies, more concerned about how to sustain the institution rather than trying to stretch the possibilities of art. The project somehow put the possibility of a visionary emancipatory position of institutions in society – which once was the promise of modern art – back on the table by raising awareness of and constantly breaking through the monocultural bias that defines many an art institution nowadays. That has become a preoccupation of mine ever since.
As head curator of Global Collaborations, what does this project bring to the contemporary art world?
That also art institutions have to find their place in a responsible society and keep supporting artistic freedom and diversity. I guess that was the reason that my previous director at the Stedelijk, Ann Goldstein, fully endorsed this ambitious program. To profoundly address issues that haunt society today, such as multiculturalism, migration, sustainability, and collective rather than individualistic approaches. The project successfully demonstrated a collective curatorial model for small institutions to work together in dealing with these often-ignored or simply avoided challenges. To us, the project was a firm indication of the need for a more inclusive model in art institutions. On a more concrete level, our partner institutions are somehow continuing with the project even though SMBA has closed down and Global Collaborations is over. AUB Art Gallery in Beirut is the first to publish an extensive catalogue of our mutual project and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade and Clark House Initiative in Mumbai are soon to follow. I take that as a compliment!
What has SMBA achieved during the past 10 years? And why is it closing down now?
What was most dear to me, in the end, was its endowment of a kind of participatory model. Its programs were as much made by the many participants as by us – be it artists, curators, or the various visitors who gave feedbacks and who often turned into programmers themselves. It got a grassroots sensibility exploring themes of art related to society over a longer period of time. As such it offered an alternative to the mainstream of the museum and I guess the project space was meant exactly to be like that. I don’t know what the future will bring; for the moment I’m into different stuff.
Why did you travel to Israel last year to conduct research? How was the experience?
It is one of my personal research projects. One of the former directors of the Stedelijk Museum, Willem Sandberg, was seminal for the model of modern art museum we got to be familiar with after the Second World War, that is, a heart-felted interest in modernism and for avant-garde artistic movements. Through his inclusive approach, the Stedelijk became an internationally famous hotspot for the emancipation of modern and contemporary art and an epitome of embracing freedom of expression, following the repression of the German occupation of the Netherlands. After his retirement in 1963, Sandberg became the artistic chief of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. I am fascinated of this fact because the historical and social context for modern art in Israel was totally different from the one in post-war Holland. How did Sandberg’s somewhat naïve idealism function in Israel’s national museum? I think that question has become specifically relevant now Palestine also sees the proliferation of art spaces and museums.
How do you see yourself in the art world in the upcoming five years?
I am doing a research on modern and contemporary art museums and going to visit some twenty of them around the globe. I pursue an analysis and comparison across museums on what globalization means to them, how globalization has influenced the museum collections and exhibitions. It is ambitious yet also desperately needed, I think. There is the small publication “Radical Museology” by Claire Bishop (available online) in which she compares three museums that are very pronounced about their roles in society. But I will do a broader survey with a focus on globalization. Besides, I will continue writing and carrying out some freelance projects.
Which is your favorite role in the art world and gives you the most satisfaction?
If you stick too much to one role, you will not be satisfied anymore and then you will want to do something else–that is my case. I don’t know which one is my favorite… perhaps being a free and critical spirit and stay happy with that.
What is your vision for the contemporary art scene in Amsterdam, and the art world in general?
When you say “art world”, it is already incomprehensible because there are many “art worlds”. What I see in Amsterdam is that there is a split between large institutions on the one side and small or even marginal institutions on the other. Amsterdam is a very cultural place, it’s full of artists while the city also suffers from intense gentrification and speculation, which means small institutions cannot stay in the center and have to move to the periphery while the big ones attract all the resources and attention. But they are by no means representative of “the” art world. We really need to decolonize our institutions even if this means that we have to de-institutionalize our minds first. Why would a contemporary art-minded person want to depend on the traditional institutions? Especially since they’ve turned out to be pretty exclusive while today we have all the tools at our disposal to be active participants in art ourselves. If it is important for art to relate to society and life we rather connect with one another directly and re-invent ourselves as a collective. It would be great if institutions support such a tendency rather than mainly bedazzling us with the so-called “one percent” of the art world.
What do you think about the recent trend of curator becoming an increasingly popular profession?
When you say “popular”, it can mean that all people can be a curator, which is a nice idea. In the 60s/70s, it was often proclaimed that everyone could be an artist; indeed, nowadays everyone can be a curator. You have just to connect through social media, publish an e-catalogue, invite friends and ask some of them to come up with a DIY critique. More people active in this field means a higher level of inclusivity and the introduction of fresh perspectives and more cultural differences. Like punk, raï or hiphop before in the music sphere.