Rotterdam, world culture, Witte de With

On the 27th of January 2015, at the occasion of the celebration of the first 25 years of Witte de With, international center of arts in Rotterdam, as the first chairman of the board Adriaan van der Staay was asked to address the meeting. Being in Singapore at that date he gave his speech in the form of a video-recording transmitted to Rotterdam. Both the spoken video and the written text are here made available, in the original English. This personal testimony provides a look into the past of Rotterdam’s opening up to world culture and gives an evaluation of the present for future cultural policy purposes.
The recording was made in Singapore with the help of the directors of Theatre Works, Ong Keng Sen and Tay Tong, as well as the technical assistance of James Khoo, Pangolin. Recorded on the 13th of January 2015 at Theatre Works.


A personal testimony

Here, from Singapore, I hope to speak to you about Rotterdam and its culture. And about the ways its culture opened up to the world. A process of opening up that intensified nearly half a century ago, and of which the creation of Witte de With forms a part.
I will speak about this in the form of a personal testimony. I was the director of the Rotterdam Arts Foundation from 1968 to 1979. And in the nineties I became the first chairman of Witte de With.
I do not pretend to academic objectivity or a final word. I try to give evidence that may make others think.


First a word about the faraway past.
In the sixties, when I got to know Rotterdam, I was an outsider.
I knew the cultural scene in Amsterdam and in The Hague better than that of Rotterdam.
In Amsterdam I had been involved in the founding of the Sigma Center for beat culture with the actor Olivier Boelen of The Living Theater and the poet Simon Vinkenoog.
In The Hague at the Free Academy with the painter/director George Lampe I had been involved in adding what we called a cultural political wing to the Academy.  This would bring into the Academy much that was not purely visual.
In this way Provo, the protest movement, got its platform in The Hague.  This led to a better understanding of it amongst some enlightened politicians. But also the early poetry of Jules Deelder was read there by him, as was that of Gerard Reve or Johnny the Self-kicker.
But to Rotterdam I was an outsider.


Now there existed of course a Rotterdam of insiders: the well-connected and well-heeled families, the harbor barons, the enlightened protestant burghers, and not unimportantly, the trade union representatives. The alderman for culture that appointed me came from the trade union world.
They ran the city and also its culture, more for better than for worse.
After the war they had re-established the symphonic orchestra and  given it a new home, De Doelen, to perform in.
In the visual arts they ran a cultural center called the Rotterdamse Kunstkring, the Rotterdam Circle of Art-lovers, that was open to foreign art.
At the end of the sixties this bourgeois elite and the socialist leaning government of the city considered that something was still lacking as the rebuilding of the cultural infrastructure of Rotterdam was nearing its completion.
Somehow the cultural vitality of Rotterdam seemed diminished when compared with the years before the Second World War.
The quite famous tradition of literary publishing in Rotterdam had faded. Amsterdam had become the unquestioned publishing house of the new.
More and more the popular press concentrated in Amsterdam and the Hilversum media park sometimes just looked like a suburb of Amsterdam.
The lively Rotterdam film scene of the thirties, which attracted such stars as filmmaker Joris Ivens and the critic Menno Ter Braak had well nigh disappeared. The Filmliga was now reduced to a hobby for a few people on top of the Groothandelsgebouw.
Visual artists were taken seriously mainly if presented in Amsterdam. Willem Sandberg had made the Stedelijk Museum into a national showcase of the new in art.
And for instance, my first encounter with the upcoming visual talents of Rotterdam had been on the outskirts of Amsterdam, in the Mickery Theater of Ritsaert ten Cate.
Neither the Boymans Museum nor a private sponsor filled in these national functions in Rotterdam.
In other words, the world-class harbor discovered itself in danger of becoming a village on the River Maas in the field of culture.
This was partly the immediate effect of the destruction of the city centre by the bombings of the Second World War.
It was also the less visible result of the movement of the harbor away from the city towards the west caused by the impact of the shipping container.
Like New York, Rotterdam as a city had to reinvent itself after losing its harbor.
Yet, however severely these structural blows had affected the city life of Rotterdam, it had also stimulated its will to reemerge and reassert itself.
More felt than articulated, the ambition to beat Amsterdam was strong. In its competition with Amsterdam, Rotterdam had created a self-image as the city of workers. They would see themselves as doers, not talkers. Not so much as intellectuals, but as breadwinners to the nation.
This had a good side and a bad side.
The good side was that it made them dynamic. And this dynamism appealed to me.
The bad side was that it made them into perpetual underdogs. In football Feyenoord never had the idea that the national cup belonged to them by birth, unlike club Ajax of Amsterdam.


When I was called to advise the city on cultural matters in 1968, I quickly rejected all this competition with Amsterdam.
I had no stake in provincial Rotterdam. When Rotterdam defined itself as a competitor of Amsterdam I wondered, why not London or New York? Cultural quality was defined by the world, not by silly Amsterdam!
With Documenta provincial Kassel in Germany was showing that it could do a world job.
Moreover, when Rotterdam wanted to compete, it was usually in the established classical fields of art.
I wondered whether a better strategy would be to go for emerging talents. A promising strategy would be to create a home for the avant-garde, to find talents and an audience for the new.
In film for instance talent was not identical to what was commercially successful in Hollywood or given prestige by Cannes.
Hence talented cinematic underdogs from Russia, Europe, America, Asia had no natural home in the world. They could and should find a welcoming home in Rotterdam.
This focus on emerging talents should also apply to Rotterdam talents itself. Above all, local talent should not leave Rotterdam. The sure sign of a decaying political and social regime appears, when talents are leaving their country, as is the case of Russia today.
A sure sign of the vitality of a city or a country is that it becomes a magnet for talent.


The support for an alternative Rotterdam that would be both cosmopolitan and at a global edge would inevitably butt into local objections.
Sometimes mistrust would verge on the ridiculous. When I suggested turning Rotterdam into a city of dance, some feared ballet would attract gay people.
But local diffidence did not mean there existed no local talent. At the Rotterdam conservatory worked Lucas Hoving, who had made a name for himself in the New York dance scene. With his support the Rotterdam Arts Foundation organized a first Dance Festival on the streets.
And with a well-written memorandum and national opinion on our side and the help of the town hall we won.
The Rotterdam literary scene, as far as it existed, cherished fond memories of eating pea soup at the house of Anna Blaman, in the post war period considered to be a daring novelist. Though a handful of dissident poets were there, the self-image of the city as a city of workers, pointed more to prose than to poetry.
With my strong belief in poetry as the enduring voice of mankind, I nevertheless opted for poetry. I found Martin Mooy, a dedicated translator of German literature, working in a bookshop and appointed him as my literary right-hand.
Soon we would create Poetry International Rotterdam.  We first tested this so-called city of prose with a reading by the Belgian poet Hugo Claus. That night the small theatre beside the Schouwburg proved too small for the surge of interest, so we were urged to move the loudspeakers outside.
The creation of Poetry International was a formative moment. On the one hand it taught us that a temporary platform for world culture could function in Rotterdam. On the other hand the feeling among the local talents of being neglected, needed permanent care.
I think in retrospect that the macro-perspective of the festival and the micro-management of the local literary scene have reinforced each other.


In hindsight I have always opted for people over institutions, and for pioneers over managers.
When trying to use the formula of the festival to lift the Rotterdam film scene unto a world level, I therefore had to look for talent outside.
I went to Utrecht to convince Hubert Bals to transfer his ambitions to Rotterdam.  He was the organizer of a small international film festival in Utrecht. He was a figure larger than life, totally dedicated to films and chafing at the severe limits of commercial cinema. So the idea of a non-commercial festival intrigued him.
A year after, at the first night of Film International Rotterdam, the Festival was not officially opened by the alderman for culture , because in his view  there was too little attendance. The sixty or so visitors that night may have included a dozen filmmakers who were all to become international stars.
Though its successor is much bigger and changed, I am proud the Festival is still going strong.
The Rotterdamse Kunstkring came up with the idea to create an exhibition facility in the Lijnbaan to function as a bridge between the visual arts and the wider public. The city decided to transfer the operation to the Rotterdam Arts Foundation and thus myself.
Again my main contribution was to look for an inspirational curator for this new centre. Tipped by the artist Woody van Amen I went to see the Amsterdam gallery owner Felix Valk. I told him of my wish to create a wider audience for the visual avant-garde. He was bored with his commercial success, and felt sensitive to public service.
Afterwards he would program the Lijnbaancentrum, since shut down, as a visionary.  The legend of it may still inspire curators in the future.
With him at the head of the visual arts department of the Rotterdam Arts Foundation we also took over the heritage of the Lantaren, with its talent scouting gallery ‘t Venster.
We appointed Gosse Oosterhof as its curator. As Willem Sandberg once told me you have 3 types of curators, those with ears, those with eyes or those with noses. Gosse Oosterhof seemed to possess all three.
I am not trying to write history, I am only making the point that after the sixties, in the seventies, the self-image of Rotterdam began to consist of two strands, a locally based one and a global one.


When I left the Arts Foundation in 1979 to become the director of the new fangled social and cultural planning office in The Hague, I left two dreams unfinished. arts
The first was to make Rotterdam the most advanced Museum City of Europe by creating a Museum Park encompassing all culture in principle, and especially from a perspective of world culture. By its location on the riverfront, its architecture and its information technology, it could have become an arts park for the people.
This one I lost. Other ways were taken. Conservative museum directors won. A half-baked Museum Park resulted.
But I still feel this was a lost chance for Rotterdam to move beyond the building of singular museums, albeit world class, that have since been built.
The other dream was to improve the quality of Rotterdam’s architecture, both for the population and for the architects. Architecture is perhaps the most important art form to influence the quality of life of a people.
The Rotterdam Arts Foundation had started to confront local architecture with international criticism.  It organized discussions and gave utopian commissions for problematic public spaces.
Unlike the museum park, this quality improvement policy in architecture has developed well over the years with Architecture International, the National Institute for Architecture, and the wonderful Maaskant Awards.
In general in architecture the city had the courage to be ambitious and take risks in city planning. By now much international talent in architecture is based in Rotterdam.


What about the present?
We are in another century and nearly half a century away from these beginnings. International culture has taken it own course. I am not going to do more than sketch a few features of the Rotterdam situation.
The Rotterdam I worked in is nearly unrecognizable. When one enters the city from the new railway station, the railway station itself speaks of ambition, but also of recovered pride. It mentally lifts the workers of Rotterdam to another level.
Railway stations are signs of their times. They manifest the relationship of the public sector with the market, and also the meeting of the local with the global.
The 19th century railway station of Amsterdam was once a monument of fusion Dutch culture, with its catholic, protestant and bourgeois strands coming together. It also symbolizes the moment Amsterdam turned its back to the sea.
The Rotterdam station tells something else. It states as a fact that provincial Rotterdam has become global.
But this also means that all global problems manifest themselves in Rotterdam as Rotterdam problems.
One is completely obvious: the biggest buildings are not those of the city but of international or national corporations and banks. The churches, the town hall, the museums are dwarfed by the spectacle of capitalism. Neo-liberalism is triumphant and government has retreated.
Meanwhile the voice of anti-capitalism has lost conviction. Today the idea that the government is there to protect its citizens against the excesses of capitalism is seldom heard.
The destructiveness of market forces is not countered by the cultural policy of combating forgetfulness. The tendency of capitalism to monopolize the production and distribution of culture is not balanced by a conscious protection of the small and the new.
The education of youths to become citizens in a world of science and art is undermined by the idea of short-term profit.
In the reconstruction period after World War II, the lesson from the 30’s Depression about the effectiveness of policy to lift society out of poverty was still vivid. This belief in government gave cultural policy a moral backing. Today, the definition of cultural policy as a corrective to commercial culture has disappeared.
Instead the idea that cultural policy should follow, imitate and stimulate the market has won. This is not good for the citizens. Cultural policy should protect quality, memory and diversity.
And in general have a vision of an open and learning culture as its horizon.
Another change in Rotterdam is the way it has become a nexus city of a migrating world. Migration is to live in a culture without borders.
A quarter century ago, in the heart of political The Hague, the Ridderzaal, I predicted that in the future mayors of our main cities would come from our migrant populations, if only by demographic pressure. Today Rotterdam has its Ahmed Aboutaleb, born in Morocco. He is a mayor who feels comfortable to walk the streets of his migrant burgers.
From the point of cultural policy the migratory world is not something to be complacent about. If a society has no vision that replaces both the local culture of the receiving country and the local cultures of the migrants by something better, we will have failed.
We are menaced by this failure when excessive nationalisms are destroying the idea of New Europe, and the elites of democracy lack courage and vision.


I left Rotterdam to become the director of the Social and Cultural Planning Office in 1979 and took the personal vow not to meddle in Rotterdams cultural affairs again for the next ten years. With the exception of some incidental crisis management I kept that vow.
So I cannot give true testimony about the eighties and some of the  nineties of last century, when the vehicle of innovation and mondialisation of Rotterdam culture in the seventies was broken up: the Rotterdam Arts Foundation.
For the same reason I cannot judge well why the city decided to create another space for international art that would be part of the creative processes in the world. The first director, Chris Dercon, had already been appointed before I met Witte de With.
On the suggestion of Gosse Oosterhof he contacted me to chair an advisory group to guide the first steps of the new institution. I accepted. Maybe I felt the call of Rotterdam dynamism again.
In order to protect the vitality of the center it became soon advisable to give it a proper governing board, to own its workplace and in many ways to make it as independent and flexible as possible to fulfill its task.
In this task the continuous support of artists, local and world wide, has been essential.
My main criterion to join Witte de With, as always, was that I had to be convinced of the quality and talent of the staff.
The most important message of the experience of Witte de With is that people count. The director and the staff should be of genuine quality. In the world of international art, it’s not the size of the budget but the names of the gifted people associated with Witte de With that count. Chris Dercon, Bartomeu Mari, Cathérine David, Nikolaus Schafhausen and now Defne Ayas are guarantors of quality.
Together with these directors, a small staff led by Paul van Gennip has become the educational center for local and international talents.  This can be seen from the trajectories of curators and artists who have passed through Witte de With.
About the activities of Witte de With I will not speak. These activities ought to speak (and indeed do speak) for themselves.
Witte de With has been a small player in the immense field of economic and cultural shifts that I have been talking about. But it has proved itself able to function as an important link between the local and the emerging world of art.

Adriaan van der Staay
Singapore, January 2015