To finally drag ourselves to the gym and to quit smoking for good this time: the season for New Year’s resolutions is upon us. But maybe it’s time for some more original resolutions, as I blogged on 5 January 2014, when I was still director of the Mondriaan Fonds, things like worry less and visit museums more often. And as an example, I mentioned visiting the Nederlands Fotomuseum. At that point, I had no inkling that in five years’ time I’d have a job as director of that same Nederlands Fotomuseum; that I’d be dedicating myself to preserving this remarkable collection of Dutch photography and to enriching it with today’s photographers and the latest techniques.
So, how’s the new job? is a question I’ve been asked frequently of late. Fantastic, thanks for asking. For starters, I’ve spoken with every one of my colleagues in the museum and what I found especially noteworthy was their involvement and expertise. That they develop their own techniques for restoring photographs, for instance, which made it possible to prevent the loss of 42,000 colour slides by Ed van der Elsken. A selection of these will be displayed next summer in the exhibition Lust for Life: Ed van der Elsken in colour.
The museum has surprised me on a number of fronts. Like the fact that visitors can order a print of nearly any photo in the collection. How often do you go to a museum and have the option to take everything you saw home with you? And the collection is much richer than I imagined, too. For instance: the famous photo of Pinochet in sunglasses, taken by Chas Gerretsen, is here in the depot. As is that picture by Koen Wessing, the one on which Alfredo Jaar based his installation Shadows, which will be on display until 12 May 2019.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that we generate a relatively large portion of our own revenue, half of it, actually, despite the standard required of museums being set at just 21 per cent. That’s partly down to the modest amount of subsidies this museum receives… which is an issue I’ll save for another day. Remarkable, too, is that a group of the museum’s ‘friends’ have pooled their own money to start an acquisition fund for us. For the past five years, the museum has lacked the funds needed to acquire any new work. Despite the fact that without new pieces, a collection is doomed to wither away. Sometime this year, we’ll announce which new acquisitions will be made in order to strengthen and update our collection.
And every day, I enjoy making my rounds of the galleries. The purpose is to ask visitors what they think. “A nice modern building,” was the opinion of two students from the Fotovakschool in Amsterdam. “He’s a great photographer, that Cas,” a woman said about the exhibition This is Cas (on display until 13 January). “He takes pictures the way I do: with humanity and directness.”
Rather than stay within the confines of our own walls, I went and spoke with people from outside the museum as well. They offered me advice, whether I asked for it or not. Film producer and Rotterdam resident In-Soo Radstake, for instance, had a recommendation: “Tell stories people can relate to; that will make your museum more accessible. And bring ordinary people with remarkable stories into the museum with the series ‘Your photo of a lifetime’.” Journalist Hanina Ajarai had advice for us: If you want to attract first-time visitors with a different cultural background, start by holding pop-up museums in places where they are.” The director of the photography school adjoining the museum told me that his students like to use our library and they’ve been asking for a new darkroom at school because they “want to work with new media”. Likewise, Anne Bloemendaal from De Kracht van Rotterdam (a contest for young photographers to record the city as they see it) has also noted a resurgence in analog photography among half of this year’s entries. “They think that’s the best way to demonstrate that you’re a true photography buff.”
Vers Beton gathered solicited and unsolicited advice for me as well, such as from the 2018 winner of De Kracht van Rotterdam 2018, Florine van Rees: “The exhibitions are always lovely and sleek in design,” she observed. “But maybe the museum should loosen up a bit and make things a little cosier, so people want to stay in the space longer.” Documentary photographer Carel van Hees recognised that sensation of distance: “It’s a bit cold and sterile at the moment, but it would be fantastic if the museum became more of a place for people to get together. If it were more pleasant to visit, and to stay awhile, it would immediately become more of a spot for good conversation or quiet reflection.” Hans Wilschut expressed a wish for the museum: “It’d be ideal if it had its own building.”
My dream for the museum is, first and foremost, that it finds a place in the hearts of everyone who lives in the Netherlands — that they come to see it as the place where their collective photographic memory is stored and brought up to date. And that they find time to visit the museum, regardless of their own cultural background. After all: photography cuts across all strata of society. I hope we’ll soon be seeing a discourse here about photography and about all the myriad subjects photographers address in their work. In short, I wish for more active engagement in Rotterdam.
And my New Year’s resolution for 2019? To stop by the Nederlands Fotomuseum every single day. And to get there by bike, so I can skip the gym.
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