White Balls on Walls was a slogan of the Guerrilla Girls as they protested the racism and sexism in the art world. The time was 1985. Here we are at the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam in 2019 where its director and curators are finally sitting down to address the fact that indeed most of the work in their museum is by white men. I found this documentary very irritating.
For the better part of an hour and a half, the (largely white) curator/administrator group of the museum agonize and pull apart the various “problems” involved with bringing fine-art diversity to their institution. They talk about gender, they talk about terminology, they talk about the colonial past of the Netherlands. But what they largely, don’t talk about is how to share power. Because diversity often means stepping aside and bringing others in, the others who have been steadfastly and deliberately excluded. That’s the one subject that the curator group has the most trouble dealing with. Truth be told, you could actually sense the fear in their demeanor and words that incorporating diversity into the museum’s program may at some point result in the loss of their plush jobs.
So, through a series of hair-splitting discussions, they address the issue of diversity and take it to the absurd. As they are preparing to integrate the work of blacks and women into an upcoming exhibition, they address issues that were never addressed when they were showing white artists. They discuss whether they can use the titles used by artists if they could be found offensive. They wonder whether the artists had permission to paint the figures and whether they should show nude paintings of young children. They point out a room is going to have works by just white artists but the formula is offset in favor of diversity by pointing out that some of the artists are women. How much of the museum should be devoted to diversity. Fifty percent? Will that leave room to continue to show artists like Picasso? And then if you bring in the LGBTQIA issue, being diverse and politically correct is a very complicated issue. I see what you are doing. You are trying to show how complex doing diversity is and therefore I wonder how you will sustain it in the long run.
You want to be patted on the back for including the work of El Anatsui, a sculptor from Ghana. I discovered his work in 2016 at the 52nd Venice Biennale when Palazzo Fortuny’s façade was draped by one of his immense, captivating bottle cap tapestries. I loved the work and then subsequently found out he is a black artist from Ghana. Not the other way round. A woman curator is explaining that even though they have work by women in their storage so few are actually shown to the public. Why? Because she was taught to appreciate the art of the iconic artists of western art. Sorry, that doesn’t resonate with me. Where have you been in the last decades? As a woman, you never felt the injustice done to women artists?
I was perplexed at them wondering whether it was okay to juxtapose the works of nonwhite artists in some galleries with the works of two white artists in other galleries. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde were indeed white but they were also labeled by the Nazis as degenerate artists. Their works were confiscated and removed from museums. Kirchner committed suicide. Nolde was a Nazi sympathizer but despite that, a large amount of his work was confiscated by the Nazis and he was not spared the title of degenerate artist. They were also victimized for being artists so why would there be a problem to show them next to other artists who were excluded for race or gender? Again, absurd.
At the end of the documentary, I wanted to throw something at the screen. Dudes, you don’t talk diversity. You just do it.