Living in Chicago, there’s little chance of avoiding public art. From murals to monuments, legs to eyeballs, the city is inundated. Though I will admit to enjoying cell phone photos in front of everyone’s favorite Bean, I still approach the debates about “Public Art” with trepidation. As cities clamor for the cultural cachet (read: cash) that comes with having an Eliasson or a Christo, dissenting voices from both local residents and art world impresarios inevitably chime in, and the issues surrounding who and what Public Art is for grow progressively murky.
To find out how the Dutch negotiate this territory, I met with Theo Tegelaers, a curator for SKOR, the Dutch Foundation for Art and Public Space. Essential to SKOR’s mission is their engagement with this debate, an interrogation of the relationship between the “social, political, and cultural” implications of bringing art into the public sphere.
Here I must make a confession: As I prepared for the interview, I naturally looked to SKOR’s website for background information. Blinded by business-centric words like “client” and “success,” I somehow convinced myself that SKOR was a group of “curators-for-hire” doing vanity projects for fiscally inclined corporations.
This was, however, a gross misjudgment.
Tegelaers explained the lengthy and intense process of considering a project. Seeking clients who are open to artwork that is innovative, provocative, and unexpected, SKOR’s small team takes on only a selection of the proposals that they receive. These “clients” are a mixture of civic organizations (often needing to fill percent-for-art obligations) and private companies. Now, in theory, working with a private company might afford more artistic freedom in the projects, as private companies are under no obligation to entertain the varied and often conflicting desires of the public. But herein lies a potential problem. One of the main questions raised about Public Art is just who the public is. Can a work where the commissioning body doesn’t consider its public even be considered Public Art?
Over the past few years, I have developed a persistent desire to live and work in the Netherlands. My fantasies of Dutch relocation have been largely indulged and inflated through publication envy, funding-for-the-arts envy, contemporary-art-institution envy, and access-to-Europe envy.The main problem with this interest, though, is that it has been nursed from afar; up until this June, I had previously only spent three days in the country.
During my next two weeks of guest blogging, I will reflect upon my recent trip to the Netherlands (May 30 – June 15, 2010), one that I embarked upon with the hope that through interviews, site visits, and bar conversations, I might come away with a deeper understanding of the functioning of and my interest in the Dutch art world (grounded in actual experiences). As I revisit that journey with you, I will discuss encounters, artworks, individuals, and institutions that served to bolster or erode my romantic vision.
It took a surprisingly short amount of time for my bubble of naiveté to burst.* Upon disembarking the plane, an artist friend welcomed me to the Netherlands by flatly stating (and I paraphrase) that there’s nothing going on with contemporary art in Amsterdam. While this was not what I was hoping to hear in the first twenty minutes, I swallowed the urge to protest and gave him a concerned and knowing nod.
(*Rest assured, it will re-inflate.)
I had anticipated this attitude—to an extent. After all, I had done my research and was well aware of consistent criticism over Amsterdam’s plague of museum closures (with both the Stedelijk Museum and the majority of the Rijksmuseum having been closed since 2003). But my list of places that were open and intriguing had steadily been growing, and like a lab technician eschewing the scientific method, I was already convinced my hypothesis was true.