Embracing Transitions: A Q&A with Stedelijk Museum Director Ann Goldstein

Former Los Angeles MOCA curator Ann Goldstein is the first woman, and the first American, to helm the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam — and she is director who has reopened its doors. The venerable institution has been closed for renovation and work on an extension since 2004, but as soon as she arrived in January, Goldstein set out to give the museum back to its public. The new Stedelijk is nowhere near completion, yet for the first time in years visitors are now able to walk in and see an exhibition, the first in Goldstein’s tenure. In "Taking Place," part of the Temporary Stedelijk program, the works of luminaries such as Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, On Kawara, and Martin Kippenberger are spread throughout the building, and several galleries have been left empty so as to show off the museum’s new spaces. ARTINFO UK was in Amsterdam to meet Goldstein and discuss her vision for the Stedelijk, a place she wants "alive, active, anticipated, and artist-driven."

I was totally blown away by these empty rooms. It feels like you are encountering the museum itself, rediscovering it as if for the first time.

That was exactly the idea. It was the idea that you would be able to wander, like a flâneur, in charge of your own pace. A lot of people are very familiar with the Stedelijk, they come in with their memories. For them, it’s a process of comparing what they’ve seen before to what they encounter now. When the museum reopens, a lot of public services will be moved to the extension, but in the Temporary Stedelijk, we are using the restaurant, the auditorium, and the entrance on Paulus Potterstraat one last time. It gives people a sense of transition. The next time they’ll come in, things will have changed, but they’ll feel like they’ve participated in this process too.

The Stedelijk is a fantastically famous and long-standing institution. How do you deal with this historical weight?

The Stedelijk’s history is a history I knew before I even came to Amsterdam. Artists from L.A. had shown here in the '70s and were collected by Edy de Wilde (director of the Stedelijk from 1963 to 1985). Pontus Hulten, who was the founding director of MOCA, was very close to Willem Sandberg (director from 1945 to 1963). When I was in the process of discussing the possibility of this job, I really didn’t feel that it was such a reach because I felt that the Stedelijk Museum was part of my heritage. In many ways, it was natural to make this transition.

The exhibition "Taking Place" crystallizes this idea of transition, the museum’s but perhaps also your own.

It really does in a funny way — and this is how I work. People have been very curious about me, and some were perhaps expecting the type of director who comes in with their agenda and that’s what they are going to do. People think I’m being elusive when I talk about "the four A's": alive, active, anticipated, and artist-driven, but those are the kinds of conditions I want. I want the museum to respond to all different types of practices. I love the fact that the Stedelijk has an enormous collection of design, that it’s part of its history. I love that it has such a broad commitment to research, scholarship, and the maintenance of its collection. It’s a great moment to step in and learn by doing.

You’ve changed hats: you are first and foremost a curator, and now you are a director. How does it feel?

There’s this great moment when you remember that you used to say, "If I was the director, I would do this." Now I think, "OK, the onus is on me!" I’m here to serve the art. I’m here to justify myself to the artists and to make art available to as many people as possible. I’m a big-picture person. I feel that if you have a nice place to sit and have a cup of coffee, or a good publication, or a well-written text panel, or a well-designed poster, it all serves the purpose. I wasn’t expecting to put the curatorial hat back on as quickly as possible, but I was somehow responding to the curiosity about this foreign woman coming to this position. I felt that this was the best way for people to learn about me. I want to be judged through my work.

How will your experience at MOCA influence your directorship here in Amsterdam?

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a museum that was an extraordinary model, that was ambitious, fearless, and there to serve the artists and the art. It’s a great privilege for those of us who have left MOCA to be able to take those principles and standards elsewhere. I was also fortunate to grow up in a place that had the Temporary Contemporary, which of course was an inspiration for the Temporary Stedelijk at the Stedelijk Museum. Three years before it had its official building finished, MOCA opened in a temporary space where everything was possible. If you wanted to dig up the floor, you could dig up the floor. When the permanent building opened on Grand Avenue, the museum realized that it had to have both. I grew up in a big house, where I could think big, without the fear of things not being possible. These are two really positive inspirations.

Then, at the end of my tenure, the museum almost went bankrupt. I had to consider the possibility of the museum stopping. I had to sit with people and argue why the museum should continue and that experience affected me deeply. I come from a museum that almost disappeared to a museum that did, which is effectively what happened in Amsterdam. To hear people here telling me how frustrated and angry they have been that the museum has been closed for so long has given me great encouragement. Museums are going to be facing very profound challenges in the future — financially and otherwise. But I feel prepared for it, because when you have those challenges, you have to know who you are, and I’ve been through that. I have a really strong sense of purpose and conviction, and a fearlessness to fight for what institutions need.

In a recent Artforum article you talked about the role of the museum within the city. I was wondering if you would like to expand on this and perhaps discuss how this applies to Amsterdam?

I didn’t grow up in a family that went to museums. I knew I was interested in art but I didn’t know that the Pasadena Museum existed, and when I was in college it was closed. MOCA was founded, as a piece of paper in City Hall, the year I graduated. I only found out about it a little later, but I was really inspired to be in the museum that I didn’t have when I was a student. One thing I really enjoyed doing in L.A. was teaching in an art school. I started to have classes at the museum, sometimes taking students to show them works in storage. MOCA really became part of the lives of young artists in the city. This is a way the museum can play a role in the community.

Until the late '70s most artists moved to New York after art school. They didn’t feel that there was a structure that supported them in Los Angeles. When MOCA opened, artists started to stay. Young people think that L.A. is just this major art center and that it was always like that, but it wasn’t. Now I come here — Amsterdam is a very small city, but it’s remarkably international. There are exceptional artist residencies like the one at the Rijksakademie; there’s the curatorial program at De Appel. You have all these people, and the home for contemporary art was not open. This city has really suffered from the Stedelijk’s closure; people who have galleries and exhibition spaces have suffered because Amsterdam is not on the map anymore. The whole system is out of whack and it needs to be set back in place.