Regular readers of my blog at newcurator.com will understand why I’m intrigued by the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam. I found a copy of the ten-year anniversary publication, gathering together the SMBA newsletters from 1993 to 2003. This book contained a description of SMBA’s history. In 1992, Museum Fodor, a space for contemporary Amsterdam art, was closed. The building was to be the new site of the Netherlands Design Institute and is now currently occupied by FOAM. In 1993, the SMBA was founded to perform the “Fodor Function” with a fraction of the budget of the museum.
This paragraph in the introduction inspired me.
“Bureau Amsterdam, an activity of the Stedelijk Museum, will direct itself to contemporary art in Amsterdam, though not in a manner associated with museums. Bureau Amsterdam will be a lively presentation space and a spawning ground for new ideas: a laboratory and information centre.”
I have long argued the need for museums to have satellite “project spaces”. My reasons being that large institutions would struggle to be flexible and adaptive to an unforeseeable future. Understandably, there is also a level of risk that many museums would be unwilling to take. So, a smaller space to experiment in would make sense. Several times I came up against doubters saying that however nice an idea it is, it wouldn’t be sustainable. I was delighted to find out the SMBA has been going for 18 years.
I visited the SMBA to interview the current curator, Jelle Bouwhuis. Located in a former textile workshop on Rozenstraat, I opened up the large metal doors into a deep-red painted room with several sofas for Alfredo Jaar’s MARX LOUNGE. It didn’t have the atmosphere of a gallery or museum space. Instead, it felt like an indie club. A place where you’ll see the next big thing before they become huge.
Jelle’s office reminded me of those workspaces familiar to those who have worked in bars. It was small, unpretentious and unglamorous. It seemed to double as emergency storage. It contained nothing more than a desk, a computer and a few boxes. There, we spoke about what this institution actually is and how it works. I was determined to get under the skin of the SMBA to see if it really is a model for museums to experiment with their future.
Jelle was keen to point out the fundamentals of this being an alternative project space with a more ideological output. The Fodor Function of “art from Amsterdam” has been developed to reflect the post-colonial/globalised world. “It has to have an Amsterdam relation and Amsterdam should care about art in an international context and discourse,” Jelle said. I wondered just how much flexibility and autonomy Jelle had in his role.
“Absolute freedom,” he said.
Part two will appear tomorrow.