moving targets and sitting ducks
commentary by Karin Bos
published 21 february 2008 Bohemian Aesthetic e-zine, Los Angeles
amsterdam dispatch | volume 1 • number 1
Galleries come and go in Amsterdam. Last December was a month in which many of them went. The main problem, here, is the lack of an audience and, perhaps even more so, there aren't enough serious art collectors. The Dutch prefer earning money to spending it…or so they say. Despite the difficult conditions, however, there will always be people who open galleries in Amsterdam—enthusiastic optimists intent on preventing a decomposition of the cultural landscape. One thing that plays an important role in encouraging cultural diversity in this country is the non-profit artist space, which marches to the beat of its own drummer, far less worried about making money than galleries are.
These days, a lot of those spaces are opening up in neighbourhoods previously considered un-'hip'. They're mostly located in former office buildings or operated out of repair houses. It's part of a plan to upgrade those communities that are suffering poverty-related plights (i.e. high crime rates) by inviting artists to work there. The artists attract other enterprises and the area is revitalized. City Hall recently bought several prostitution houses in the red light district in order to turn them into affordable studios for young fashion designers. Also, real-estate developers invite artists to work in their empty office buildings as part of an anti-squat policy, but the downside of that story is that such arrangements are short-term. Contracts quickly expire and artists take leave when the time comes for property is to be developed into expensive accommodations or corporate structures. Artists, here, have become victims of their own successes and of the process of urban gentrification. Once deteriorated neighbourhoods undergo dramatic renovations, property value increases, and artists have no choice but to leave their self-created hot spots, now unaffordable to them. I’ve seen this pattern in cities around the world. More and more artists have become nomads.
The two-month-old Service Garage is such a temporary artists initiative, remotely located in a former car repair station. It's a huge space where artists' studios are combined with a public exhibition area. I recently visited it to attend several lectures, and was reminded that (apparently) we should suffer for our art, because there was no heating at all. It was 40º F outdoors; indoors, it felt pretty much the same.
Sometimes, though, I stumble across a story with a happy ending. Like this one:
A space that already has proven its significance for Amsterdam is OT301. The former film academy is built on expensive ground with a nice park view. It was squatted by artists collective EHBK in 1999 and, as a result, was saved from demolition. In 2006, a non-typical Dutch thing happened and left wing politicians royally angered their colleagues on the right by valuing creativity over financial gain. City council sold the building for a friendly price to the artists collective, so OT301 now enjoys the luxury of a secure future. The building hosts several artists' studios, two concert halls, a gallery, a vegan restaurant, a cinema, a bar, a screenprint studio, dance studios, and even a health space where doctors provide free consults for illegal immigrants without insurance. There's so much going on that it has become a popular destination—without losing its ideals. A meal at the restaurant still costs only 6 euros and, for the same amount of money, one can see four bands perform and dance all night in the music studios. Amsterdam took notice and, in 2006, the EHBK collective was nominated for "Amsterdammer of the Year". Last year, this underground-slash-alternative laboratory was recognized by the establishment and awarded the prestigious Amsterdam Award for the Arts, handed out by Job Cohen, our mayor.
The strength of artists-run spaces such as OT301, as compared to commercial galleries, is their flexibility and openness. For example, the OT301 Gallery is hosting Moving Targets, this month—a nomadic artists network which organizes exhibitions and arts events at different venues. At OT301, Moving Targets presents "Sitting Duck", a group show of 12 Dutch artists on nomadism, combined with several public events, including a public editorial meeting of an arts paper. As a participant, I was offered a preview of the promising exhibition and was especially intrigued by "Find Your North Star", a small and delicate porcelain piece made by Ingrid Pasmans. It measures only 10 x 20 cm and displays a simple oval with a hole. On the porcelain, a constellation is drawn with a black glaze pencil. I was struck by the fact that a modest shape and a few lines combined with a poetic and intelligent title result in such a strong symbol for the human quest for meaning.
Perhaps it's a comfort to those artists, who are forced to pack their bags, that only in abandoned and remote areas, in the dead of night, are the stars clearly visible. Only in those places is The North Star easily found.