Last December, on the occasion of the Mike Kelley opening at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, I interviewed then-Stedelijk director Ann Goldstein for the Los Angeles Times. On Wednesday, Goldstein stepped down (effective December 1st) from her position as artistic director, a title change that took place early this year when the Stedelijk named Karin van Gilst to the position of managing director. This change, which seems to have gone largely unnoticed by news organizations and would clearly be unacceptable to Goldstein, is likely to have more to do with her resignation (turned in to the Stedelijk in June) than with any immediate move to MOCA. You don’t need to resign your job, after all, in order to get your next job. That said, it’s worth re-viewing what Goldstein told me regarding MOCA at the time, in this selection from the Times story:
“The L.A. native’s art-world roots — her 20 years at MOCA — prepared her well for the Amsterdam undertaking. ‘MOCA gave me foremost a deeply rooted love and belief in the importance of museums,’ she said, ‘and it gave me a deeply rooted kind of compass of being artist-driven and artist-centered. I always feel that if you can justify your work to the artist and can cooperate with the artist in the production of their history that you can also then fulfill all the missions of an institution.’
“That isn’t always easy to do, however. If Goldstein came to a museum in crisis, she also left one in crisis. ‘One of the things I learned at MOCA,’ she said, ‘was that we had built a great museum but maybe not a great institution.’
“As for MOCA’s continuing struggles, she added carefully: ‘All I want for that museum is to thrive, be supported, be loved and cherished and nurtured and to be able to always fulfill its best potential. It’s an institution that really needs to be there. And it needs to be great. I know that there are still a lot of people inside that house that really care about it.’”
Now, as a sort of historical look at her work at the Stedelijk and what might have been had she continued there, here’s the rest of our December interview, heretofore unpublished:
BLATC: You left LA when MOCA was going through a lot of changes, and you arrived in Amsterdam when the Stedelijk was also in flux.
ANN GOLDSTEIN: Yes, I’ve always thought, Well, maybe I’m the best person or the worst person to get into this position. I’m still not sure! [laughs] Living with uncertainty has been something that has been not just at MOCA but in American culture for a long time, but it’s new here in Europe. You know, there’s a shifting in the social welfare safety nets involving entitlements that people have had. They pay significant taxes here in the Netherlands — the tax rate is up to 52% — but you see so much for you money. These people who are here having breakfast on a Monday morning are people who consider the museum a part of their lives. When I came here, [you could feel] the gap that the Stedelijk left, the anchor that was kind of not there in the Netherlands for these years. I was very impressed at the time because they really had a strong sense of collective ownership of this museum. What I want to do is shift that more toward collective responsibility as the social welfare safety nets here are getting reduced and our subsidy is getting cut starting [this] year.
But we’re off to a good start. What was really incredible was that they missed the museum, they wanted it back in their lives, and the minute it opened, they moved in. In a kind of amazing kind of way of honoring the social contract. So [it was] like they said, “I want my museum there,” and they honored it when it reopened by coming back.
Nope, by coming in the door. In Europe, most museums have had pretty much two, maybe three levels of involvement or relationships in terms of membership. They’re usually called friends, instead of members, and I’ve been trying to get the word member into it. It’s interesting because it really does have a different connotation. And maybe in the States now they’re trying to shift it more toward friends. So there are friends, and a business club – people who often are sponsored by their companies – and then corporate sponsorship. And then public foundation sponsorship, which is often money that comes from the government that you apply for, say the Mondrian Foundation, which is state sponsored. The Rembrandt Association, which is privately funded, is also a major funder. The City of Amsterdam is our primary funder so they give us – well, they have in the past been giving us — 80 percent of our subsidy, and that’s going to shift now. Of course, over the last years we weren’t fully functioning so our income opportunities were much more reduced.
The museum first closed for renovations in 2003.
Yes, and from 2004 until 2008, the museum operated this temporary space. Post CS, they called it. That concluded at the end of 2008, because at the time it was envisioned that the museum would be reopening in 2009. So it was closed down, but then there was no reopening. The city of Amsterdam is the owner of the building, also the collection, and was the commissioning client of this project. Not the museum. The museum kind of rents the building but we’re of course what brings the place alive. But the city was in charge of this construction project. They were also in charge of announcing when the museum was going to reopen.
So when I was hired in 2009, what they had said was, the museum would reopen as late as December of 2010. And when I started as director in January 2010, when I could really sit down and talk to people – not that I’m in any way an expert in building construction, but you could just look at things and see where they stand – I couldn’t imagine that the museum would open before the end of 2011 if everything went perfectly, which is unlikely to be the case. So unfortunately that was the situation. But it was really hard because there was only one question that everybody in the world would ask you, when you were the director of the Stedelijk Museum: When are you going to reopen?
Ann Goldstein, photo by Gert-Jan van Rooij
[Coming from the situation at MOCA], I had thought a lot about institutions. If the museum is the public face of the institution, and the entity that brings the institution to the public live, and is the program and the art and the education and all the life forces of the instutition on that level, then it was very interesting coming in when the museum was closed and all there was was an institution. I mean, I would say there was more than an institution, and one of the frustrating things for the staff here and for me was that there was still a museum going on. A museum’s operation can and still should be functioning during a phase of construction. You can still fulfill, and you should still try to fulfill your public contracts in ways that you might not have envisioned because you’re closed.
The museum has 90,000 works in the collection, it has a great commitment to that. It was also in the process of building a spectacularly beautiful and state-of-the-art new storage space – again the city building that for us – which was completed in 2010. And we moved the entire collection, which is a multi-year project in preparing for that. So there was a lot going on behind the scenes, a lot of activity.
The initial idea was to open [the museum], let people walk through, then close it again. I didn’t want to do that. This old building was hallowed ground for people here and I didn’t want them to walk into it empty. So I envisioned the Temporary Stedelijk that was totally inspired by the Temporary Contemporary [at MOCA] – in many ways it was like improvising a museum in an unfinished building. So it also got us started in many ways, to work with artists, to bring art into the space, to start an education program and also to start up the Temporary Stedelijk on Thursday nights.
You know, this is a community with a lot of universities, there are a lot of visiting artists through the residency programs, there’s a lot of general interest – this is a public that grew up with the Stedelijk Museum, so their knowledge about contemporary art is quite developed. I liked that there would be things that we started during the Temporary period that we could continue – co-productions and a lot in the public programs. And again, thinking about one’s responsibility when we were closed – you know, rather than say, “We’re closed, we can’t do anything,” we have to say, “Yes, we’re closed and we’re going to do this.” And also my hope for being open is that we can still instill the spirit of flexibility and improvisation. Museums are big machines and they can be hard to turn quickly, but every so often there are things that you can respond to a little more quickly. Certain types of shows have to be multi-year projects to plan and other things you can do in a way that keeps us more responsive. And one thing that I’ve tried to do here is collaborate with other organizations.
Local and international?
Locally and internationally, but there are so many organizations in Amsterdam and in the Netherlands for performance or education, you can pool money and make things happen. You can share audiences. It’s very easy for certain kinds of things, you can get an audience of 600 people here. So it’s a very engaged and demanding community.
LACMA’s Michael Govan talks a lot about trying to engage the L.A. community, to get them involved – not one of your problems.
Amsterdam is a very specific place, it’s different than Rotterdam or Eindhoven or other cities in this country. Los Angeles is a very specific place with its own very complicated institutional history, and a complicated relationship between people and institutional identification, whether it’s museums or football teams.
Working at a museum whether it be publicly funded or privately funded there’s always a sense that you have a public mission. So I knew that and I came in here with my own developed sense of that kind of mission. But coming into a place that is publicly funded, coming from a place that is privately funded, with real kind of public ownership – literally, you know, the people of Amsterdam literally have a stake in this place – and I think that was a huge milestone for me. It was very important for me to dive into that and understand that. And that was really the big difference, going from privately to publicly funded — and that sense of public ownership, which was exaggerated dramatically because of the closure and the crisis that the museum was in.
Then of course with the crisis it was a process of people saying, “Do something, get our museum back to us.” I said, “Of course, that’s what I want to do.” Then I had to understand why the museum was closed so long, why this project had gone on so long and gone awry, then it’s also a process of understanding a local culture and a combination of bad luck and delays to construction …
You were expecting to have the museum open at a certain time?
When I was appointed in June of 2009, to start in January of 2010, the understanding was that we would be open at the end of 2010. So that was a long time but it was great to have the Temporary Stedelijk period. Starting in 2010, we envisioned TS in April and we opened it in August. So we kind of whipped that thing together, and we had two phases of it, one that was more about staging works of art and one exhibition that was of Dutch-based artists, which is an annual exhibition that we do, and one that was a wonderful exhibition addressing Dutch history and political situations.
That was in phase one, and in phase two we had a little more climate control where we did things in interesting ways in relationship to the existing climate, so we could bring in collections. We literally were able to bring climate into what I always call the hall of honor, where we currently have the minimalism from the collection, close up the doors with plastic refrigerator strips and give people a room in which they could see the Matisse cut-out, Malevich, de Kooning, and so on.
And we came up with this idea: we have an incredible poster, but we couldn’t show it at that time. We have 20,000 posters in the collection. Since we couldn’t show the actual posters because the climate wasn’t appropriate, and we do have very, very careful conservators and curators here, we came up with this idea of facsimiles. Our curator of graphic design made a selection, it was kind of a history of the museum in its posters, so when people were coming in again for the first time in 7 years of not being in this building, they could start the process of reacquainting themselves. And it was so beautiful that we decided to continue it even though we can [now] show the actual posters. But that was one of the nice things that came up in this period of challenge. We wouldn’t have thought about that if we hadn’t been in this situation. There can be these moments of innovation that come out of challenge.
And that’s basically what I want for this institution, to be able to start to develop the tools and the conceptual structure to come up with more flexible and innovative ideas. The way the structure has always worked in the past is that you get your subsidy every four years, so for a four-year period you know you can plan your programs and you can execute them. And you don’t have uncertainty. So it’s a culture that’s very accustomed to planning. And of course in uncertainty the process of planning is a very different one. You come up with plan B or plan C, or you know the plans may not be fixed. So as I say this is a big shift — the subsidies are going to be cut starting in the beginning of 2013. But the process of evolving the organizations to adapt to a changing climate is going to take time. That involves how internal organizations work, it involves how fundraising needs to be developed. The American system is not perfect but it works in that structure; still, you can’t just say we’ll do it here.
You’re talking about…
Fundraising to make up for the shift in subsidies. Or make more money in other ways, you know, do more commercial things. And because the government has always taken care of the arts and education and health care and these other things, people are not accustomed to thinking philanthropically. So that will also take time.
They’re already giving a lot.
They’re giving a lot in taxes. On the other hand there was a lot contributed to the Stedelijk over the years. There is philanthropy, but you want to bring that in more. And even with members, in the Netherlands everyone can get a Museum Card, it’s like 40E a year and you get admission to all the museums for a year. You don’t really have the incentive to be a member for admission because you already have admission. And when your friend wants to come with you, they also have an admission card.
Have you considered an American Friends program?
Yes, that’s something I really want to do. I’ve been in the process of trying to organize that. And it’s great because we’ve had a lot of visitors from not just the United States but from countries closer to the Netherlands, like Belgium or Germany, those connected to contemporary art now planning to visit Amsterdam for the first time in many cases in 20 years.
And I think that is also one of the profound moments of truth coming for the museum to understand, and for the institution to understand: During these almost ten years that the museum was not really functional and diminished in its capacity to fully operate, there was the huge boom in the museum world and cultural tourism and interest in contemporary art. And so the Stedelijk coming back also means that we have to work to get people’s attention. Thankfully, Amsterdam is a city people enjoy visiting.
And I also hope that this will not only be generative for us but also for our eco system here. The Appel [Arts Center] is great, W139 is smart, these other smaller scale places, our health connects to their health. There’s a wonderful gallery community here. Great artists here, and that’s also I think our responsibility — to look out not just for ourselves but for our community. That’s why I like to collaborate, because it also gives us an opportunity to shine the light on other organizations that are doing great work. And then we can help each other in certain ways.
I’ve said this before but when I first came here for my first interview, I asked the hotel for a map because it had been four years since I’d been here. And I looked at the Mueseumplein on the map and there was the Rijks Museum and the Van Gogh Museum and then there was nothing next to the Van Gogh Museum. The Stedelijk had dropped off of the map. That was a very profound thing. So just getting the Stedelijk back in the minds of the taxi drivers, tram announcements, was important. Now it’s very clearly back and that’s a really great feeling.
— Tom Christie