The Stedelijk is back

The end of a two-decade odyssey to expand the landmark Dutch museum opens the stage for the new Stedelijk to once again bring the contemporary art discourse to the fore.

When walking under it — overlooked by the white canopy that stretches out protectively, bending as one smooth, alien body over Museumplein — you almost forget the implicit inelegance of a building that, since its conception, almost unmistakably brings to mind a bathtub. It's only missing a couple of clunky feet, peeking over the edge against the cloudy Amsterdam sky, but even this absence of irony has been targeted by some critics as a flaw.

I don't mean to say that the Stedelijk Museum extension designed by Benthem Crouwel is a total waste. For example, the base's transparency lightens its showy volume and rounds it off, welcoming the hosting square without crushing it and inviting the exploration of its ample interiors — which, by the way, sport the original back façade of the main building, both more respectable and respectful. As for its awkward shell, looks are not that crucial: the opening comes as a much-needed breath of fresh air after an excruciating period of apnea.

As an institution the Stedelijk was born from a rib of the more historical Rijksmuseum in 1874, later to earn its own building down the road — the one in sober, polite red-brick by A.W. Weissman. Exceptions made for the embarrassments of the last twenty years, which I will come to later, the museum's career has been glorious. In the early 1960s, still under the direction of the legendary Willem Sandberg (a key figure in the local cultural resistance before and during World War II), the Stedelijk hosted innovative events like the labyrinth/exhibition Dylaby by Tinguely, Spoerri & co., later showcasing avant garde groups like the Situationists, Nouveaux Réalistes, CoBrA, Zero and Nul. In particular, together with gallery/magazine Art & Project (also from Amsterdam), the museum became an important landmark for the emerging conceptual art movement. In those years, the lively exhibition program probably contributed to the creative and politically revolutionary energy that drifted through the Dutch capital, already shaken by the happenings of the artist-anarchist Provo movement. The city was an exciting place for art and a cultural hub where some pieces of history were made: it was at Amsterdam's Hilton hotel that Yoko Ono and John Lennon did their first "bed-in " in 1969, and — to stay in performance territory — it was among the canals that Marina Abramovic made the acquaintance of her future partner in art and life, Ulay, in 1975.
Top: The Stedelijk Museum façade as seen from the Museumplein (Museum Plaza). Photo by Ernst van Deursen. Above: Stedelijk Museum view of the original building (A.W. Weissman, 1895) and new building designed by Benthem Crouwel Architects. Photo by John Lewis Marshall
Top: The Stedelijk Museum façade as seen from the Museumplein (Museum Plaza). Photo by Ernst van Deursen. Above: Stedelijk Museum view of the original building (A.W. Weissman, 1895) and new building designed by Benthem Crouwel Architects. Photo by John Lewis Marshall
The plans to extend the Stedelijk were less fruitful. Since the early 1990s, the museum was the unfortunate protagonist of a two-decade odyssey which saw three architecture studios and no less than five directors as protagonists, ultimately ending with the opening of the new building by Benthem Crouwel last 23 September (a ceremony attended by Queen Beatrix herself).

The hiccups started in 1993, when the new director Rudi Fuchs found the Robert Venturi renovation project that his predecessor Wim Beeren had chosen the year before as unfit for the job. When the plan turned out to be too expensive, the Postmodernism bard was promptly put aside in favor of Álvaro Siza, but even the Portuguese architect's proposal — after a legal hitch that forced the museum to launch a new competition, resulting nonetheless with his confirmation — was eventually discarded for its oversized costs. The current project finally emerged as unanimous victor out of an all-Dutch shortlist in 2004, but — between safety issues, economic crisis and constructor bankruptcies — the opening, initially scheduled for December 2009, was repeatedly postponed, while the budget rose from 17 to 127 million euros.
Overview of the Museumplein. Counterclock-wise from top Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Stedelijk Museum, Concertgebouw. Photo by KLM Carto
Overview of the Museumplein. Counterclock-wise from top Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Stedelijk Museum, Concertgebouw. Photo by KLM Carto
In the meantime, the Stedelijk institution wandered like a tormented ghost around the city. From 2004 to 2008 its official soul was hosted by the Post CS, an uncharismatic block soberly towering over the then unripe urban fringe that stretches from Centraal Station into the Ij waterfront — now covered in shiny new architecture, including the OBA, the largest public library in Europe. After the building's demolition, as the direction moved to the depressing Sloterdijk area, the museum's program "exploded" across Amsterdam in the Stedelijk Goes to Town series, finally popping back in its old Museumplein home only to dust off the collection with a few nostalgic shows and disappear again. Meanwhile, the museum's project space SMBA (significantly founded in 1993, perhaps in order to keep up with smaller yet more flexible local endeavors) has been actively showcasing artists as Vincent Vulsma, Carlos Garaicoa and Alfredo Jaar in its modest Jordaan gallery, while running collateral projects such as BijlmAIR, an artist residency program in the up and coming Bijlmer area in the southeast of the city.
Whatever the future of art in the Dutch capital will be like, the Stedelijk has no more excuses: it will have to play its central role and bring the contemporary art discourse to the fore, keeping the high standards set by all the valuable organizations that have been active during its intermittent presence
The Stedelijk Museum façade as seen from the Van Gogh Museum. Photo by John Lewis Marshall
The Stedelijk Museum façade as seen from the Van Gogh Museum. Photo by John Lewis Marshall
If on one hand the much-anticipated completion of the Benthem Crouwel project puts an end to an embarrassing string of postponements and squandering, it represents only one of the many happenings that hit Amsterdam's cultural landscape in the past few years. Some of them are visible to the naked eye: the renovation of institutional venues like the Stedelijk and the Rijksmuseum — itself due to re-open in its entirety next year — aim at reclaiming world-class cultural destination status for the city center, while the landing of the new, space-like Eye Filmmuseum right behind Centraal Station (in the appealingly rugged and Berlinesque Noord) extends such prestige to previously untapped shores, on which rampant urbanization is increasingly clinging onto from east to west.
The Stedelijk Museum's new entrance hall. Photo by John Lewis Marshall
The Stedelijk Museum's new entrance hall. Photo by John Lewis Marshall
The least pleasant changes do not show as much to the average visitor, even though the most informed have probably heard about the drastic cuts to the culture sector that minister Halbe Zijlstra announced last year. Some of the smaller yet fundamental actors in the local contemporary discourse seem to be doing fine (for example the virtuous SMART Project Space and the historic De Appel — which has even moved to a new building right on the perimeter of the aforementioned Ij), but other excellent enterprises have already been heavily impaired by the measure. After decades of honored career, media art institute NIMk will have to close shop at the end of the year, as will SKOR , the foundation for art and the public domain, which is also forced to change form or split up in order not to disappear. It's a pity, since both are among the best Amsterdam has to offer.
The Stedelijk Museum's new entrance hall. Photo by John Lewis Marshall
The Stedelijk Museum's new entrance hall. Photo by John Lewis Marshall
I don't want to be too pessimistic now, also because the Beyond Imagination exhibition currently on show seems like a good start, but I want to add one more thing. Whatever the future of art in the Dutch capital will be like, the Stedelijk has no more excuses: it will have to play its central role and bring the contemporary art discourse to the fore, keeping the high standards set by all the valuable organizations that have been active during its intermittent presence. Apart from a high-profile museum, a city like Amsterdam deserves that as well. Nicola Bozzi (@schizocities)
Karel Appel, <em>Mural</em> (1956), in the former restaurant space of the Stedelijk Museum. Photo by John Lewis Marshall
Karel Appel, Mural (1956), in the former restaurant space of the Stedelijk Museum. Photo by John Lewis Marshall
A view of the entrance. Photo by Gert-Jan van Rooij
A view of the entrance. Photo by Gert-Jan van Rooij
The Stedelijk's escalator entrance. Photo by John Lewis Marshall
The Stedelijk's escalator entrance. Photo by John Lewis Marshall
The Stedelijk Museum's new entrance hall. Photo by John Lewis Marshall
The Stedelijk Museum's new entrance hall. Photo by John Lewis Marshall

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