Curatorial Leadership in Collections: A Place Beyond Belief, The Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven by Moira Jeffrey

Learning and development - 17 August 2018

The Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven is one of Europe’s leading collections of modern and contemporary art. Under a team lead since 2004 by Charles Esche, it is also at the frontline of reconsidering the role of the art museum in the current age.

For the Curatorial Leadership in Collections project, a visit to the Van Abbemuseum offered unparalleled access to the thinking, and rethinking, of a single art institution, in an intense two-day programme of ideas and exchanges with the Eindhoven team. As the final curatorial exchange in this 18 month action research and advocacy project it offered the opportunity for collections curators from Scotland, such as Dr Dominic Paterson from the Hunterian Art Gallery and Julie-Ann Delaney from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, to present their own thinking about collecting and curating contemporary art to colleagues from home and overseas.
For over a decade now Esche, working with figures like Chief Curator Annie Fletcher has been reshaping the museum’s mission, to one that they now describe as Decolonial and Demodern.

Research Curator, Steven ten Thije, explained to the group the questions facing the current curatorial team: “What happens to the museum during decolonialisation? What do you do with the collection? A collection is a story, owned, built for the community. We had to let go of what was very dear to us, our practice was orientated around the idea that the artist and the collection were primary and that we introduced the public to them. We can no longer be the gatekeeper in a diverse society…we need to address the colonial past, need to find our own way to talk about it and the Dutch need to find their own voice in this debate.”

2018 CLiC Eindhoven, Photo credit: Marcel de Buck

Current museum displays reject common chronological or geographical narratives. Instead under the themes Land, Home and Work – artworks are displayed in a new sequence of ‘atmosphere rooms’ for the present and a special setting by Istanbul artists and designers Can and Asli Altay, reminiscent of the metal racks of museum storage. Indeed the archive serves as a useful model for the museum, where art works are seen as archive items like any other rather than objects with unusual status. As a result, the museums supports its constituents to access and handle artworks, and has a loans policy that intentionally encourages ambitious projects like the artist Khaled Hourani’s Picasso in Palestine project in 2011, which saw the Van Abbemuseum break traditional protocols around lending risk and help Hourani exhibit it’s world famous Picasso painting Buste de Femme (1943) in Ramallah.

Andrea Kusel is Curator of Art, Paisley Museum and Art Galleries. The Museum, which was opened in 1871, is one of Scotland’s first municipal museums. It is currently embarking on a major redevelopment: the Paisley Museum Reimagined project. As well as undergoing an architectural renovation and extension under the eminent architect Amanda Levete, the project aims for wider transformations, including the redisplay of the museum collection to make it more accessible physically, socially and intellectually. For Andrea, the visit to Eindhoven has provided a detailed example of how a leading European museum is rethinking their own mission and relationship with audiences ‘The inclusiveness and commitment to access at the Van Abbe Museum has been very informative and given essential examples to share with colleagues.’

Curatorial Leadership in Collections is delivered by SCAN, with Kirstie Skinner Director of Outset Scotland as lead consultant, and Rachael Browning Head of Programme Development, Art Fund, as adviser.

Curatorial Leadership in Collections is made possible through the generous support of Creative Scotland, Art Fund, Outset Scotland and Museums Galleries Scotland.