The Rijkstuff

Lauren O’Neill-Butler on the opening of the Rijksmuseum

Outside the Rijksmuseum. (Photo: Lauren O'Neill-Butler)

NACHTEN WACHTEN. Until the Rijksmuseum’s official public opening/celebration this coming weekend, Amsterdammers settle for its mostly untouched neo-gothic exterior and a massive Maarten Baas–designed digital clock on it, counting down the “nights waiting.” Some ten years have passed, and several delays on the museum’s construction and planning too. Nearby, on the sprawling space known as the Museumplein, is a perhaps less catchy but more insistent promotional slogan, which will probably remain on view for longer. I amsterdam—the massive letters are fun for tourists to climb on, take pictures with. You don’t see many locals partaking.

Bypassing both phrases on an unusually frigid spring morning last Thursday, hundreds of international journalists from a buffet of publications flooded Pierre Cuypers’s 1885 building, the “National Museum of the Netherlands,” to attend a preview of the new airy renovations by Spain’s Cruz y Ortiz Arquitectos and over 8,000 objects and artworks elegantly installed in the galleries. The preview was a well-oiled machine, though some attendees wished they had come instead for the opening this Saturday—a festive program, which will include a performance with eight hundred students conceived by Dutch artist Job Koelewijn and directed by “mass choreographer” and Olympics alum Penny Jones, reportedly based on four of the museum’s major works. (Oh, and spoiler alert: I’m told that the kids will not reenact Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, 1642—the crown jewel of the collection. In case you were wondering, or wachtening.)

Bombastic opening pageantry, at this point, may or may not be well received in Amsterdam. Five years have passed since an original deadline for the museum’s opening, and the final $500 million budget raised many eyebrows—not only among the new anti-art conservative coalition in the country. Following arts budget cuts authorized over the past two years during Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s first term, the Dutch art scene has already witnessed the “violent,” as some put it, closures of beloved public organizations: the SKOR Foundation for Art and Public Domain; NIMk (Netherlands Media Art Institute); and STEIM (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music), to name a few. The mood in the city these days is fraught, and somewhat gloomy, particularly among artists. One friend described the city as a “widower” to its former art-life, unable to cope. Tourism, however, seems to be thriving, and is probably on the rise. (The Rijksmuseum’s minimuseum at the airport is also celebrating its ten-year anniversary.)

Left: Curator Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen with dealer Micheline Szwajcer. (Photo: Tomek Whitfield) Right: Art critic Robert-Jan Muller and artist Jo Baer. (Photo: Lauren O'Neill-Butler)

One of the best companions for viewing Dutch Golden Age canvases obsessed with light—the Rijksmuseum’s specialty—is a painter, and at the press preview Jo Baer marvelously shared her insights as we toured the galleries. Based in Amsterdam since 1984, Baer aptly pointed to a “raw Dutch honesty” running through the museum. “These faces look like the ones I still see on the streets!” she proclaimed about the beatific and pained visages in the medieval galleries. “They haven’t really changed.”

After lunch, we toured the seventeenth century. Avoiding “journo-art talk”—Baer’s phrase for so much of the heavy press handholding around us—we instead considered other takes on Vermeer. For instance of View of Houses in Delft, or, The Little Street, ca. 1658: “It’s a Mondrian waiting to happen,” argued Baer. Indeed, the emphasis on balance and clarity of forms, light and space pervaded all the galleries—all the way up to the third level of the museum, where post-1950 Dutch works are sequestered in two separate wings.

Left: Artist Lucy McKenzie and friends. Right: Artists Sara van der Heide and Christopher Williams with Stedelijk director Ann Goldstein. (Photos: Tomek Whitfield)

On Friday night, Lucy McKenzie opened “Something They Have to Live With,” her solo exhibition at the Stedelijk, curated by Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen. The show is installed not in its new addition—the overly disputed “bathtub”—but in a part of the older building called the Hall of Honor, a fixture among Dutch museums. (I was told these large spaces usually display “big paintings”—“mostly Baselitz” in this specific case.) Here McKenzie presents a suite of her recent works, including two impressive large canvases or “studies” of the Alhambra’s architecture. She seemed pleased. “I’m not going to paint for six months now; I’d rather write.” We wished her luck.

The Stedelijk apparently now requires RSVPs to its private openings. “They were more public and rowdy before,” noted artist James Beckett. “There were more artists who’d come.” Artist Rebecca Sakoun chimed in: “You know, I really believed that support for the arts here was true and widespread, that people were invested in supporting culture as a long-term proposition. But alas, the last government was pulled to the extreme right by a ridiculous populist with a hideous peroxide dye-job screaming about how art was the exclusive domain of the lazy, left-wing elite, and generally working people up into a frenzy.”

During the opening, I spoke again and again with locals who described a new sulk settling over Amsterdam, life after the big museum renovations, as smaller but important Dutch art institutions have disappeared or are on the verge of eventually fading away. But on the upside, I also heard about many new spaces and younger artists who have been opening projects with city (and not state) support, as well as by other means—Lost Property (financed by running a brewery that makes Butcher’s Tears beer), the Bookstore, rongwrong, Kulter., and Outpost, the last a squat in a former Thai restaurant. Amsterdam, it seems, is certainly not dead or doomed.

And across the Museumplein, the Rijksmuseum clock ticked down another day.

Left: Artist Rebecca Sakoun and dealer Wilfried Lentz. Right: Art historian Jan van Adrichem and deAteliers director Domeniek van den Boogerd. (Photos: Tomek Whitfield)

Left: BBC's Andrew Graham-Dixon. (Photo: Lauren O'Neill-Butler) Right: Charles Asprey with Stedelijk curator Leontine Coelewij and dealer Diana Stigter. (Photo: Tomek Whitfield)