B: Hendrik, thank you so much for making the time to talk with me. You're currently the Dittmer Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Art institute of Chicago, and I'd love to get started by hearing about what led you to pursue curatorial work, and how you came to focus on contemporary art specifically.
H: Even though I wasn't raised with it at all, art was always a huge interest. In high school I was busy with art classes, but not necessarily making art. More observing art. Art history had really pulled me in, and that's why I decided to study it at the University of Amsterdam. I started with seventeenth century Italian art. That's still a big love of mine: that first love that you never forget in your life. Modern and contemporary art opened up a lot of doors for me, to not only start thinking about art in our own time, or recent times, but the intersection of theory, art, and philosophy. Twentieth century art certainly embodies that kind of entanglement. The possibilities in modern and contemporary art are so expansive, I really enjoy the freedom and openness that comes with that.
B: There are a lot of avenues that lead to curatorial work. How did you begin your practice?
H: As an art historian, at least where I'm from, the Netherlands, you're not necessarily trained at all to be a curator. This is on-the-job training. I was quite lucky, my first job after graduation was at De Appel arts centre, a kind of a mid-scale institution in Amsterdam. I was hired to be the coordinator of a Curatorial Program that has been a key part of De Appel’s activities since 1993. It is an educational program for emerging curators, who were developing their practices. A very focused program that invited six people every year from literally around the world. Together with Ann Demeester, then Director of De Appel, I was responsible for the design and organization of the yearlong Curatorial Program. We organized research trips, seminars, tutorials for the participants. That was really great, because I got to see from the sidelines what they were reading, what they were doing, who they were talking to, and it was basically my first introduction (a thorough introduction) to what curatorial practice is. And that cleared the way for my choice, it set me up to think: ‘Ok, this is even more interesting, more expansive, more exciting than I could have imagined as an art historian.’
B: That's quite a way to be introduced to the field. How long did you stay in that position?
H: I ran the program for about three years, and that was really eye-opening. I mean, one reads these anthologies on curatorial practice, and that's fine, but in a way, perhaps in an old fashioned way, the idea of mentorship is really important. I've been really lucky, I've had a few really great
mentors in my life, for instance Ann Demeester, but also Ann Goldstein, then Director of the Stedelijk Museum and currently Deputy Director, Chair and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Art Institute.
B: Really? I knew you had both worked for the Stedelijk Museum, I guess it just never occurred to me you were already working together then.
H: Yes, Ann Goldstein started her tenure at the Stedelijk Museum in 2009, and together with Margriet Schavemaker (then Head of Research at the Stedelijk Museum), was the one to hire me for the position of Curator of Performance, Film and Discursive Programs in 2010. That’s how we started working together. We had a great run back in Amsterdam, and later, before I moved to Chicago, had a long conversation about what my position in her department at the Art Institute could look like, so it felt like a continuation rather than starting over, even though it was someplace new. So people like Ann Goldstein and Ann Demeester, and other people in my life, they've given me opportunities, they've given me mentorship, and guidance. Now I'm slowly coming into a phase of my career where I'm supervising internships and fellowships, and I can, hopefully, extend that same generosity to other people. I do still think this is a very much under-researched but extremely important part of curatorial practice. Every more senior curator that I speak to has had this kind of mentorship in their lives, and I think it's really interesting, because it's something you'll never read in books. It's something that just happens through the connections you make with people.
B: One of the unspoken threads keeping the art world together.
H: Absolutely. It is so meaningful.
B: It's refreshing to hear someone openly acknowledge the importance of that kind of relationship, the role it plays in having success in this field. It's wonderful, also, to hear that someone in your position is actively engaged in offering that to the next generation. Though, knowing you, I'm not at all surprised by your generosity of spirit.
H: That's very kind of you to say, thank you. I'm definitely in a place where I'm still learning as well. I don't think that will ever end, but I'm also now in a position where I can sometimes take someone under my wing, and I find it extremely rewarding… I find it to be my responsibility actually.
B: Knowing that, let's go back and talk a little bit more about your time at the Stedelijk Museum. It seems that was your first foray into a more traditional institutional setting, and your first curatorial role. What was that like for you?
H: Well, that's definitely what one could say, but it wasn't at all like that. I started at the museum at a very unique point in time. As I mentioned, Ann Goldstein had just assumed the position of Director, and the Stedelijk Museum at the time was undergoing a huge renovation and extension project. Its older, nineteenth-century building was renovated, and a massive extension was being built. The museum reopened in full in 2012. So there were these really amazing years before that, between the 2010 and 2012. Ann proposed The Temporary Stedelijk in 2010, which allowed the museum to reopen as a sort of Kunsthalle space, as it wasn't yet a fully-functiong museum. For instance, it didn't have a climate system yet, and there were certain conditions that weren't in place because of the ongoing renovations. And Ann, in what was a very visionary move said, basically, "Ok, we are a museum that at the moment is also renegotiating its relationship to the city, so we are going to do everything to a) be as open as we can and b) as outgoing as we can." The result was one year in the museum building in this Kunsthalle fashion, where exhibitions essentially operated on the same level as performances, or lectures, or multimedia projects. It was this really wild, experimental time. And the year prior the big reopening, the building could not be open at all, so we needed to reinvent The Temporary Stedelijk once more. So we decided to set up a program across Amsterdam, in collaboration with, from the top of my mind, around fifteen other institutions in the city. From very big to very small, and it really changed the perspective. In Amsterdam, the Stedelijk Museum as an institution is comparable to how the Art Institute functions in Chicago, it's in the center of the city, it's the largest institution in the city, at least in terms of contemporary art; it's the mothership. We decentralized itself through collaborations with these other institutions, and thus learned to see the museum through the eyes of the city, and its relationship to its peers and communities. It was really a fantastic time, because through these collaborations and by the museum "infiltrating" these other spaces, one could do things that would normally never seem realistic in the context of an institution. It radically changed how a museum could function in the fabric of that kind of urban space. Which is a long way to say, yes, the Stedelijk Museum is a renowned, and let's say, classical museum space, but at that moment in time, it wasn't at all. It was radically experimental, it was going into the city, it was heavily artist-centered (which has always been Ann Goldstein's and my own vision as well) so it was a space of extreme potentiality. When the grand opening came in 2012, it was a wonderful moment, but was also sort of a shocking moment, because all of a sudden you were in museum time again. Museum practice! That was such a shift for me, and it was interesting to see if we could maintain that kind of radical practice within the four walls of the museum itself. I was there until early 2015, before I moved on to be a part of the team of documenta 14, so it was a good run of three years after the museum’s reopening, and it's something I'm still happy with, that we could have such an open model that let us invite an artist and say, "here's this museum, it's yours to operate in now, and we will do everything we can to make happen what you’d like to do." I thought that was so rewarding. I have rarely worked in institutions where artists were so totally front-and-center in everything we did.
B: It's incredible to me, that there are institutions of that scale still willing to take those risks. And to be able to do it in a city where that kind of mass cross-institutional cooperation is possible, I almost can't imagine it.
H: Because it's such a different system, isn't it? I'm really happy when I do see these moments of collaboration unfold in Chicago. For instance, last year with this performance festival, Between Gestures, with a collaboration between the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Rebuild Foundation, The Dance Center at Columbia College Chicago, the Poetry Foundation, Chicago International Film Festival, and the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Cwhere they were all part of this organizational structure hosting different performances, which was initiated by the Goethe Institute and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States. That was a beautiful example, but ultimately, the funding structure between a city like Amsterdam and a city like Chicago is very different. Perhaps, I'm hoping, there will be more
opportunities in the future for that kind of collaboration here as well.
B: It seems in some ways that as the last six months have forced everyone to alter their thinking about what constitutes an event, what constitutes a program, who constitutes their audience, institutions have become more flexible, and maybe more amenable to collaboration, to working with whatever resources and partners are available to them.
H: Absolutely. I think you're 100% right. That's something that I am actively discussing with many peers in the city, how have we changed the way we work, and how do we work together, how do we move the city forward together, how do we act as, say, cultural ambassadors of a sort for this city, and be very humble and very open about that at the same time.
B: Once you left the Stedelijk Museum, you went to work on documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel. Did that experimental period at the Stedelijk Museum inform your decision to move on to something like documenta instead of pursuing a position at another museum right away?
H: That's a wonderful way to say that, really, and you're right. documenta--where to start? It was a wild and amazing experience. You're making an exhibition, in our case across two cities and quasi-simultaneously. There was an overlap of about a month between the exhibitions in Athens, Greece and Kassel, Germany. But we started with a very small team really, ten or fifteen people, who were thinking about this show in 2014, when we were working towards Adam Szymczyk's vision of documenta 14. Of course over time the team expanded, but I remember that first year really well, when that conversation was still very focused and intimate, because nothing was unthinkable. Nothing was impossible, on a curatorial level, in terms of how you might design the apparatus of the exhibition in these two cities, and in relationship to each other. After about nine months we started inviting the artists, and that of course then becomes the core of what you're doing, because you're bringing in around 175 artists, and many of them, most of them, they're making new work specific to this exhibition. You then have 175 great artistic minds putting their energy and their practices to work, and that then becomes your horizon. The experiences I had in Amsterdam, working in artist-centered institutions, and also working under a director that thought in terms of possibilities rather than existing conditions, that paved the way for the work I was doing in Athens and Kassel. It was all about not thinking about the standards of how one is supposed to do these things, but really just listening to the artists, and asking them what they want to do, and again, how can we help make that happen. It was definitely one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. There are friendships that have come out of that, with artists, and members of the team I was a part of, that are friendships for a lifetime.
B: That's so wonderful. What was it like, then, to come back to a more traditional institution like
the Art Institute of Chicago?
H: Well, the bridge was really documenta 14, because it was, by necessity, such an expansive project, it was transhistorical in many ways. You are talking about working with 175 living artists. But their work was displayed alongside hundreds, if not thousands, of historical objects. It was very much an exhibition that spanned multiple time frames, with an emphasis of course on living artists, because at the end of the day it's a contemporary art show. I found it really fascinating to experience myself, as a prelude to transitioning to the Art Institute, where, at least in my case, I'm still mostly working with living artists, but in a context that holds much broader histories. There is a kind of red thread through what I've done in the past ten years.
B: I'm interested in how that artist-forward, hybrid experimental/institutional thread relates to the emphasis you've placed on performance art since you've joined the modern and contemporary department at the Art Institute. Performance not being something that was front and center at the museum historically.
H: I think that was one of the things that I came in with. Performance, in many ways, is at the heart of my practice as a curator, even in my art history days. Performance these days has become an expanded practice. It exists in so many forms; as event, installation, exhibition.
Whether short or long duration, there's so much more to think about. And my great joy, over everything I have done so far in my life, is to invite an artist to make a new work. There is so much pleasure and so much dialogue in that, it's a space that I really enjoy working in and being in. So the new performance initiative Iterations was a great gift for me coming in. And it was a gift, literally, because the performance series was endowed by the Society for Contemporary Art, and it felt like a welcome gift. It was like being told, "ok, you're at the Art Institute, you have this background in performance, and now here's where you can do that work at the museum." And it was exciting because the museum has certainly shown performance work before, but never in, let's say, a structural way. This was a great opportunity to establish that and extend invitations to artists and say, “this is the space we have, let's take a walk through it, and tell me what gallery or interstitial space or aspect of it resonates with you, and how it connects with what you're thinking about at the moment, what you hope to do in terms of performance or installation, and we'll work very hard to make that happen.” I realize I've been part of really historical, and some might say heavy institutional structures, but where I consider myself especially lucky is where I've always entered into a space like that at a moment when it was undergoing a big change. Like I told you in Amsterdam, and with documenta 14, where every edition brings something unique, reinventing the apparatus of an exhibition within the context of that beautiful documenta history. Then with the Art Institute, when I started James Rondeau had become President and Director two or three years prior, and Ann [Goldstein] had started a year or two prior to me, Associate Curator Jordan Carter had started just a couple of months before me, Associate Curator Robyn Farrell had just assumed her new role… Across the board, there was a whole new team, with new leadership, who was ready to imagine what the Art Institute of the future could look like. And that's resulted, I think--it's really for you to say, not for me--in a very different outlook in what we have done in the past three or four years. Performance was a part
of that, and so was a new direction in acquisitions, in exhibitions, and I really feel we're going in such a great direction.
B: I couldn't agree with you more. As someone who grew up here in Chicago, and has been going to and involved with museums from a young age, I think your allegiances or at least preferences shift from time to time from one museum to another, depending on who has your attention at the moment, whose program you connect with most at the moment. And--for me at least, but I think overall--the Art Institute has really broken through in that way again in recent years.
H: That's good, I hope so.
B: I remember being, on a Thursday afternoon, the second person in line to see Anne Imhof's opening performance and installation of Sex in the summer of 2019, and thinking, this is the center of the universe right now in the art world. There isn't any place I'd rather be.
H: Can you believe that was more than a year ago? It's so crazy to think about. I'm so grateful it happened when it did, because this year it could never have. It was such an important moment for me, and I dare say, for the Art Institute, and Anne Imhof herself of course, with it being one of her first major US presentations. We worked with a team of thirty to fifty people, day and night, for four or five weeks before the performances. We had planned it for two years, and to see it come to such a culmination, to see people so sincerely excited that this was in their city, it was extraordinary, it was an extreme high for me. I remember that feeling so well, being in it and, as you said, feeling like I wouldn't want to be anywhere else at that moment. I was really happy.
B: That show really turned me into an Anne Imhof groupie that summer. How did the project come about?
H: It started as two people dreaming in a room, to be honest. I was meeting with the director of the Goethe Institute in Chicago, Petra Roggel, and she and I knew each other from the European art scene. She knew there was going to be this celebration of German-American diplomatic relationships in 2019, and we thought this would be a good opportunity to do something big, something major. She asked me who was an artist I would want to bring to Chicago, and it took me one second to say 'Anne Imhof.' That's an artist who I have long followed, admired, and selfishly really, wanted to work with, wanted to bring to Chicago because I knew the people here will appreciate it, that it will resonate with the student and faculty at the School of the Art Institute, as well as the other schools, and the in the museum, and in the broader communities here in Chicago. So it went from a single conversation in this little room to talking to James and Ann and they were both very excited by the idea, and then I reached out to Anne. She told me this could not have come at a better time for her, as she had just been invited by the Tate Modern to create a new work, and it was going to be a big one, and she said why don't we all join forces and see what we can do here. This was late 2017, and we began building a team at the Art Institute who understood and were
willing to support what this artist was doing--which is never hard at the Art Institute because it's literally full of people who love working with living artists, and who love to support the radicality of certain ideas that artists bring to the table. Anne's team was also really big, she brought fifteen performers, and an entourage of people supporting them. It was a huge production in the end. I dare say it was the biggest type of performance work the museum has shown. I hope in that way it is a pathway into the future as well.
B: I think you're right, I can't think of any performance-driven project the Art Institute--or any other museum in the city--has done, at least in my life, that would rival that project in scale or has commanded that type of absolute cultural attention. It seems like an instance of the museum working to its highest purpose.
H: You have some experience working at the Art Institute, so you know how it is. Our department [Modern and Contemporary], and many others, we work in quite a nimble fashion. Of course we need a lot of support to do that, and thankfully we are receiving such support, but it really takes a village to do it. I mean, I can stand on my head and say, "I really want to do this," but I need a lot of people to support what the artist is doing in order for it to come to fruition. I'm grateful that spirit is there right now, that everyone said, "ok, we only have a year to realize Anne Imhof’s vision, this is a massive undertaking, we're going to all work really hard, we're going to do it." And there's so much joy in it, people just want to make it happen. Anne Imhof, but also many of the Iterations commissions, in addition to many of the museum's shows actually, they're a result of that kind of labor.
B: Tell me how that process plays out with a more traditional exhibition format, as opposed to performance.
H: Take for instance, a show that's on now, on Malangatana Ngwenya, a modern artist from Mozambique. We had 35+ works shipped from Mozambique to Chicago, and that took a gigantic effort, in terms of conservation, shipping, all kinds of resources that we use to make these things happen. People of course see these works on the wall, and hopefully have an appreciation for them, but there's so much exciting and beautiful labor and love behind it, which I think is so important, and which I always try to highlight when given the opportunity. You can feel it, once you walk into that space, it lends a good feeling to it.
B: The Malangatana: Mozambique Modern show is such a striking exhibition. I'm so happy that it's on and that it's been extended now, because that was just being installed as the museum shut down back in March, wasn't it?
H: Yes, we were installing the first two weeks of March, and we almost finished it before March 13th, when the museum temporarily closed. We knew that whenever we could reopen again, we would reopen with this show. As you know, we reopened July 30th, and we had to come in the week before and it was such a remarkable feeling, honestly, because in those four or five months, so many things in the world had shifted so radically, and to come back to Malangatana's work, and reflect again on the time he made this work in, which was a time of
revolution and upheaval--very different than ours, I'm not going to compare the two--but I really understood the work on a new level. I was so thrilled we could reopen the museum on this exhibition. And the responses have been heartwarming. People are surprised they didn't know about this artist before.
B: You traveled to Mozambique in the research phase, and in the process of procuring work for this exhibition, didn't you?
H: Correct. I'm one of three curators working on this show. Felicia Mings, who is Academic Curator at the Art Institute and co-curator of the exhibition, went twice. Our Chair and Curator of Arts of Africa, Constantine Petridis, he is the third co-curator. It's a very exceptional inter-departmental collaboration. Three people with very different approaches working on one exhibition, and I think one can see that in the show itself. It comes from a very deep expertise in African art, mixed with a very strong interest in Modern art, with a very thorough research focus as well. So the three of us, together with Julie Simek, a conservator who has just been an amazing partner in this, we went to Mozambique last August, to make the final selection of works, and to meet the family and estate. The artist passed in 2011, so we were speaking mainly with his two sons, but with his widow as well. It is always necessary to see where art is made. It made so much more sense to me, being there, and understanding, just for instance, the colors in the work. The use of tone that, if you see them in Chicago, they're really striking.
But once I was there, I understood, this is the light that is here. Certain things you wouldn't understand if you weren't there. It's absolutely essential. So we went for two weeks, and then Julie went back to get the works ready for extensive travel. The paintings and drawings arrived here from Mozambique, and other parts of the world, in December. Then our Conservation team spent a good three or four months working on them, cleaning them, and basically securing these works for the next generations. This is so truly exceptional, and of course you see it in the works, they look incredible at the moment. But that's relatively invisible labor, it's not something that everyone who steps into the exhibition would necessarily know about, but it's such a big part of what the Art Institute does, and the responsibility we have towards an invited artist, especially a historical practice. This was my first time experiencing the depths of that up close at the museum, and I was blown away by it. Being a small part of a big effort, there's a beauty in it.
B: You reflected on coming back to Malangatana with fresh eyes after the shutdown. Overall, what does it feel like to be working as a curator in a major American museum at such an uncertain moment in modern history? You also spoke about your history with and attraction to institutions in transition, has that helped inform how you're handling the current circumstances?
H: My return was so shaped by finishing up the installation of Malangatana, and also working on the new Basquiat's installation with Ann. Those were two very specific things to be working on in that time. Which was great, it really allowed for--how shall I say this?--to not only think about the kind of work a museum like ours has ahead of itself, but also to immediately do it. I think that was very important to me, and I know from March until now, a lot seems to have shifted in the world, but I'm not sure that's really the right way to put it. A lot has been exposed, but those things were always there. I don't want to pretend that we've all just woken up, and now we're
starting the work. No, ever since I've been working at the Art Institute, so many people I see around me are doing the work, on a daily basis. I'm not going to say we're there yet, I think we fully acknowledge that we still have a lot of work to do, and it's never going to be finished, which is an important part to acknowledge as well. In the shows that we are making, and how we're thinking about our organization, and hopefully, how we speak to the people who walk through our doors or who want to walk through our doors in the future, there are noticeable shifts. Those are only highlighted and maximized by the world that we live in at the moment. People go to museums for very different reasons. Some see it as a refuge, where they want to think, or watch, or be silent. Some like to visit as a learning experience, seeing something they've never seen before, having their eyes opened. And for some it's a place where there is movement, where a revolution could start. It's these three modalities that we are thinking about. Our purpose is to ensure that what people see resonates with them.