In December 2019, Rein Wolfs took over as director of the famous Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and quickly set about making the collection and staff more diverse and inclusive.
Along for the ride is filmmaker Sarah Vos, who for three years captured this pioneering effort by a major cultural institution to create more diversity in its halls.
His camera observed that Wolfs, former director of the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn in Germany, worked with museum staff to evaluate the scope of the collection and the exhibition concepts.
The sobering conclusion is that less than 10% of the works in the collection are by women. Works by Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC) artists are rarely seen.
The resulting documentary, “White Balls on Walls,” not only questions the level of diversity in the museum, but goes deeper to understand the function of art in society.
Museums don’t think ‘outside the box’
In the past, cultural institutions “didn’t think outside the box enough,” Wolfs told DW.
On the contrary, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam now wants to think more globally, and, for example, adapt its concept of diversity to the population structure of Amsterdam.
“In fact, we want everyone to have the opportunity to rediscover their own history and their own moments of recognition,” he said.
The discussion about a new concept raises questions: Can and should diversity be measured by words or quotas? Should the origin and gender of artists play a role in the evaluation of art?
The Stedelijk group has agreed to a quota: From 2021 to 2024, at least 50% of the acquisition budget must be spent on works by BIPOC artists. There are no fixed quotas for women’s jobs, but gender is a factor in the selection process.
In addition, there is at least one large annual exhibition of BIPOC artists or a group exhibition that addresses diversity, Wolf said.
Many voices reflect the truth
Diversity plays an inherent role in ethnological museums with artifacts and art from around the world, including the Museum of World Cultures in Frankfurt.
The museum focuses on the art of Indigenous minorities in their own countries, museum director Eva Raabe said. The works of women, children and queer people are an additional focus of the collection and exhibits.
Raabe says it’s not about specific quotas, but about the statement artists want to make with their works.
“Through their art, which is an expression of their opinions, their needs, their lives, they tell us about the reality of their lives,” he said.
By including a wide variety of perspectives, the choice is inherently diverse, he added.
Meanwhile, Berlin’s KINDL – Center for Contemporary Art is striving for a “highly diversified exhibition program,” director Kathrin Becker told DW.
“I also have a personal mission here, which I share with many colleagues in Berlin and elsewhere, and that is to reach many voices in the presentation of contemporary art,” said Becker.
Gender identity, as well as ethnicity and socioeconomic background, are important in this regard, he added.
Some artists remain skeptical
So how do artists respond to the debate about diversity in art and museums? Who can really help with quotas?
“I would almost find it insulting if the Stedelijk held an exhibition of my work just because they were looking for BIPOC artists,” said Surinamese-Dutch artist Remy Jungerman in “White Balls on Walls.”
Wolfs, however, said he was not aware of artists who did not want to show their work at the Stedelijk because of quotas.
But the museum’s director was not surprised to criticize Stedelijk’s strategy for more inclusivity, and heard accusations that the museum was putting its political agenda in front of art.
“We’re seen as ‘woke,’ and that’s a dirty word these days. We get a lot of praise, but we also get a lot of criticism,” he said. “But that’s part of this institution; we’re a museum that’s always on the front lines.”
‘You can always do more’
The museum director sees a shift towards more diversity almost everywhere, not only in museums but also in cultural policy and social activities.
Kathrin Becker of Berlin’s KINDL – Center for Contemporary Art said that museum directors are increasingly trying to counter “very Western and Eurocentric” collections with “new ideas,” including “being invite artists who do not represent Western art.”
So how can museums become more diverse?
If the diversity of the museum is ensured with quotas, achieved through dialogue with artists or carried out in several exhibitions, the awareness of the issue seems to drive the change.
As Eva Raabe of Frankfurt’s Museum of World Cultures estimated: “You can always do more to give small groups a voice.”