It’s taken eight years, three architects, four governments, and three directors, but the new Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam is finally ready for action: or, that is, the renovated and expanded Stedelijk Museum is finally open to the public.
It has not been an easy ride: one construction company went bankrupt, changes in government budgets required an entire revision of the plans after work had already begun (and consequently, the resignation of one architect, requiring the search for and hiring of another), and the final cost overstepped the initial budget by 50 million euros.
And the end result?
That’s the only word that comes to mind in the face of this monstrosity, this typically narcissistic architectural disaster, in which the once grand and majestic 19th-century brick façade of Holland’s premier modern and contemporary art museum has been swallowed up by an enormous, white rectangular cube, popularly nicknamed “the bathtub,” designed by Benthem Crouwel architects. Resembling most closely the kind of failed architectural experiments that found their unfortunate way into U.S. cities in the 1960s, only to be (usually) demolished, the new wing – a kind of oversized “flying nun” — and blank entrance are something of an embarrassment in a country celebrated internationally for its design.
But there is good news: the interior remains magnificent (save for a copycat version of the escalator at the Centre Pompidou), boasting an additional – and much needed –3,400 square meters of exhibition space for the museum’s spectacular holdings – including one of the world’s largest collections of works by Kasimir Malevich; several choice Mondrians; a gorgeous selection of Arte Povera gems – particularly those by Anselm Kiefer and Jannis Kounellis; Edward Kienholz’s iconic “Beanery,”; several major canvases by Marc Chagall; and Robert Rauschenberg’s stunning and massive combine, “Charlene” (1954), which is one of the museum’s signature pieces.
But what is most notable is what you do not see: the stillness with which this reopening has been received here. Once, such an event would have been celebrated with firework displays, lengthy lead-ups in the national press, and a marketing blitz to rival the opening of a new Apple store. But that was in a different age, in a time when politicians recognized and cherished the contribution of the arts to Dutch culture, when the government was as concerned with the preservation of “quality of life” as it is now concerned about the preservation of “Dutchness” as Muslim immigrants and Dutch nationals eye one another with growing rivalry and displeasure.
That subdued response may also reflect the odd choice by the Stedelijk’s director, the American Ann Goldberg, to open the exhibition with work by Rory Pilgrim, a Brit, and not a Dutchman – something of a slap in the face of a country that prides itself on its art heritage (even as you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of artists of international caliber the Netherlands has produced in the past 50 years). This is, after all, the great Dutch museum of modern and contemporary art: shouldn’t its re-inauguration be kicked off by a Dutch artist?
And it may be for this reason that the work that the Dutch press has chosen to highlight in the run-up to the reopening is by Marlene Dumas, whom, though South African, the Dutch claim as their own: a portrait of Osama bin Laden. How that will play in this racially tense country at a time of international tensions about art, imagery, Islam, terrorism, and extremism, is difficult to predict – but it does intensify the echoes of change that have sounded across this small country in the past decade. Whether the return, now, of great contemporary art to a city that, emptied of this museum, had none, will make a difference, is impossible to predict. Will people even visit the museum, having lived without it for so long? Does the newer generation – one which has grown up without ever seeing an Andy Warhol painting, a Jeff Koons dog, a Kasimir Malevich black square – even care?
After all the struggle to build the “new Stedelijk” and see it to its reopening, Goldberg’s biggest challenges, it seems, still lie ahead.
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