PRINT Summer 2021


In 2017, numerous signatories of an open letter called for the name of the Rotterdam institution formerly known as the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art to be changed. The art space was named after the street on which it was located—which itself was named after a seventeenth-century Dutch naval officer—and activists raised concerns over the title’s connection to that officer, who was an infamous agent of colonization. The questions emerged during director Defne Ayas’s tenure, as part of a community discussion around Wendelien van Oldenborgh and Lucy Cotter’s project Cinema Olanda, 2017, which represented the Netherlands at the Fifty-Seventh Venice Biennale. Ayas, together with her team and board, had announced the need to make a change. When Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy became director in 2018, she was tasked to take up the process. After three years of researching, workshopping, and strategically listening to the broader Rotterdam community, the museum officially assumed its new name, Kunstinstituut Melly, in January 2021. The unusual moniker is a nod to Melly Shum Hates Her Job, 1989, an artwork by Ken Lum that has adorned the building’s facade since its inaugural year.

Ken Lum, Melly Shum Hates Her Job, 1989, billboard. Installation view, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (now Kunstinstituut Melly), Rotterdam, 2013.

WHEN YOU ARE CHANGING the name of a thirty-year-old institution, it can’t just be symbolic. You need to make a structural intervention. In the arts, we know how to create signs and give them meaning. That’s our strength. At the same time, if you really want to tackle decolonization, you have to acknowledge that most of the symbols were and are made by people allied with hegemonic forces. We can’t merely add symbols or question those we have; we must create a context in which we shift those positions of power. You need a new and more varied perspective on the production of signs and on the way these signs are empowered.

I grew up in Mexico, where we have a very different relation to our colonial past. There, indigenous signs that spoke to another (pre-Hispanic) history had been either elevated or sublimated, first as part of the independence movement and later as a national program of the twentieth-century revolution. Here in the Netherlands, the colonial period largely happened elsewhere, geographically and discursively. Locally, many people didn’t really comprehend the Dutch empire’s effect on the countries and peoples it colonized.

When I was assigned the task of changing the name, I realized I had to know more. Where did the problems really emerge? What is the history that is really being addressed? And what is the relationship between this institution and the colonial history that is being criticized? This is an art space that is known for a commitment to radical change—which includes enlisting a new director every six years—but what became evident early on was that there were new voices, primarily in Rotterdam’s communities of color, critiquing the institution not just for its name but for its program. There was an assumption that the institution only showed artists who were firmly within the system. That’s not exactly the case, but perception can have more validity than fact. So, in the end, we had to recognize that there is a deep communication problem.

Over its three-decade history, this institution has introduced its local and international audiences to artists such as Hélio Oiticica (1992), Meschac Gaba (2001), Yto Barrada (2004), Cecilia Vicuña (2019), and so many others from outside the Western world. This was only possible because the perspectives that were coming in had a presence in and a passion for parts of the world that didn’t necessarily share the same visual language, philosophical references, or cultural influences upheld by the dominant art-historical canon. By intelligibly and historically framing these “new” figures, ideas, and conflicts, the institution was able to change the canon. However, whether by choice or external pressure, over the past decade this and other cultural institutions have sought to have an impact on a wider public sphere. A core component of this has been developing outreach programs and other modes of public engagement, all of which ultimately require different framing devices and languages.

In changing our curatorial approach and communication strategies and acknowledging wider audiences, we had to change our work culture and form a vision that accommodated many different forms of knowledge and not just those promoted by the Western canon. This is one of those situations where changing one little thing can have huge repercussions. It’s structural, but it’s not as if you have to come up with all these policy plans and make all these promises to the public.

Change doesn’t have to be revolutionary; there are many proactive, subtle ways of creating culture. For example, one of our biggest moves has been to make our ground-floor gallery admission-free and open it up to alternative programming, such as the Sessions created by our new curator of collective learning, where “learning” happens through low-key yet festive call-and-response-type events. It doesn’t matter if only ten people come, so long as something is happening. Tradition involves ritual, and, likewise, culture depends on recurrence. People feel more comfortable with a space as they become more familiar with it. It’s been so popular, in fact, that we are finding that many of our visitors never visit the exhibitions upstairs. Through March of next year, we’re hosting an initiative, “84 Steps,” named after the number of stairs that lead up to the top-floor galleries. We’ve invited a group of artists to participate, and each of them has taken a gallery to design an immersive installation for use as an activity space. It’s quite beautiful, organized a bit like a wellness center.

When I first arrived, I had wanted to convert the ground-floor gallery into a bookshop. My experience with booksellers in New York is that if you return often enough, they know the books that you read and can make more personal recommendations than some online algorithm. You keep coming back because you feel invested in an ongoing conversation. When a bookstore proved fiscally unfeasible for us, our team developed other ideas, including the Work/Learn program, a twelve-week collective-learning module for teenagers and young adults, in or out of school. We already have a college audience, but if we really want to be socially inclusive, we have to look outside our existing stakeholders. Our first program participants helped us build the initial case study for how we might create a new name, and many of them are still involved in the institution today.

We found that both our long-standing and new audiences responded to the figure of Melly Shum because it really pushed the idea of diversity. Not only diversity in terms of this or that race or this or that gender, but also in terms of class. Rotterdam is a very working-class city. The character resonated not because she “hates her job” but because Ken Lum’s statement recognizes that, as a third-generation immigrant, he only had the option of becoming an artist because his grandparents had made the sacrifice to move from China to Canada to work on the railroad. And so “Melly” became the name first of our ground-floor gallery and later of our entire institution. Even if it wasn’t originally on our short list, it was the favorite in the public forums and the advisory committees.

Throughout the entire process, community feedback was key. Decolonizing encourages new methods for listening—deep listening, strategic listening—that you can’t find in Harvard business books on negotiation. Part of deep listening is that you have to let others speak, regardless of whether you agree with them, because the point is not about agreeing or disagreeing. The point is to understand. I am hoping that the institution’s long-term audiences understand that this is a moment for new stakeholders to gain more visibility. People tend to believe that they have to identify with things for them to be meaningful, but I don’t think that’s the case. Art should be a space of confrontation.

Some people—many of whom happen to side with or benefit from dominant narratives, however consciously—might think that we are erasing history by taking on a new name. I don’t agree. With the name change, the point isn’t what is eradicated but what is created, just as with Rauschenberg’s famous 1953 Erased de Kooning Drawing. It’s a matter of which perspectives you value. The past can be written in myriad ways. We’re not erasing our history. We’re adding a new narrative.

As told to Kate Sutton.