Suppose you’re a collector of Dutch photography, you have no kids (or they are uninterested barbarians), and you’re reaching that age when you start thinking about your legacy. Which institute would be most suitable for a donation? Which museum would be the best new home for your collection?
The Netherlands has the luxury of having not one, not two, but no fewer than four museums dedicated solely to photography. That’s an unusually large number for such a small country. A Swiss collector wanting to donate doesn’t have to think twice before turning to the Fotomuseum Winterthur; his Finnish counterpart would almost automatically decide on the Finlands Fotografiska Museum. But a Dutch collector would have to weigh the pros and cons of the Nederlands Fotomuseum, Huis Marseille, FOAM, and the Fotomuseum Den Haag. And as of last Friday the choice has become even more difficult. On that day Modern Times: Photography in the 20th Century opened in the Rijksmuseum. The exhibition marks the reopening of the Philips Wing after reconstruction, but it’s also the museum’s coming-out event as a serious collector of photography. The private donor now has five options to consider.
The photography museum is a pretty recent phenomenon; twenty years ago there were none in this country. Back then photography was not considered a fully-fledged art form, and its status in the market was marginal, comparable to that of video art today. A boom in the art market, the massive influx of new, rich collectors, and the resulting relative scarcity of blue chip artworks changed all that, and photography was quickly accepted as a bona fide medium. Prices increased quickly; in November 2005 Richard Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy) (1989) was the first photograph to cross the one million dollar threshold at auction. Fifteen works have since followed suit, with Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II holding the current record with $4,338,500.
During the 1990s photography museums popped up around the world, but what happened in The Netherlands was without precedent; within a period of four years the four photography museums all opened their doors. Huis Marseille was the first, in 1999. Two years later FOAM settled in a townhouse only a stone’s throw away. In 2002 the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag turned a former extension from the sixties into two separate museums, one for contemporary art and one for photography. Last to arrive on the scene but carrying with it the most historical baggage was the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, which incorporated the Nederlands Fotoarchief, received a major endowment from Hein Wertheimer in 2003, and moved to its present location in 2007.
FOAM, Garden Gallery 2; © Maarten Brinkgreve
Sketching the landscape of Dutch photographic institutions beyond these historical particulars takes a lot more words and is less straightforward. FOAM is by far the most active and visible of the four institutions. It has a fast-paced program, which occasionally branches out to other locations. Through a magazine, a busy activities calendar, and an art fair (Unseen), FOAM succeeds in reaching out to young photography enthusiasts and well-heeled donors alike. For a while its focus was mainly on street photography, with great solo and group shows with work by Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Mitch Epstein, Daido Moriyama, Joan Colom, and the like. Even though this week the spotlight is on Vivian Maier, FOAM seems to have moved on to other pastures: fashion photography, loosely thematic shows, the latest developments as seen through the lens of the youngest artists, and an occasional veteran like Roy Villevoye—a bit of everything really.
Valérie Belin, Still Life with Dish, 2014; Collection Huis Marseille, exhibited in de Marseillaise / fifteen years of collecting, 2014; Courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Bruxelles
Huis Marseille is less fickle in this respect. In step with its stately location, a 17th century monument, the institution operates in a more temperate manner, more museum-like. Here, long-running, full-scale presentations occupying the entire venue contrast FOAM’s two or three parallel mini-exhibitions of shorter duration. Broadly speaking, “documentary photography” is the mainstay in Huis Marseille, ranging from David Goldblatt’s intense images of contemporary South Africa to Rob Hornstra’s impressive Sochi Project. The problem with Huis Marseille is that its presentations sometimes tend towards a certain stiffness, squeezing the air out of a very lively medium.
During its early years the museum in The Hague carved out its own niche by concentrating on staged photography. Shows by Gregory Crewdson, Loretta Lux, Ruud van der Peijl, Desiree Dolron, and Erwin Olaf alternated with more historical presentations of work by Emmy Andriesse, Erwin Blumenfeld, and Gerard Fieret. The annual Zilveren Camera exhibition brings photojournalism into the museum, and portrait photography also has a slot in the program. Once again, one could argue that diversity gets in the way of distinction.
Viviane Sassen, Zone # 01 (Umbra series), 2014; © Viviane Sassen / Courtesy of the artist and Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam
The reason for this tendency towards dilution is that these three museums basically operate like “kunsthallen” (exhibiting rather than collecting institutions). Their own collections are modest—both Huis Marseille and FOAM recently showed theirs for the first time, revealing young, contemporary holdings containing a few hundred works at most. With the Nederlands Fotomuseum it’s a whole different story. The storage and restauration facilities are impressive and its collection is huge, comprising more than three millions slides, negatives, and prints. The Nederlands Fotomuseum administers the personal archives of 129 Dutch photographers. Logically this should be the national center for photography, a status the museum aspires to openly and attempted to emphasize at the 2007 reopening by publishing Dutch Eyes, a historical overview of photography in The Netherlands. The Rotterdam museum does not get its message across, though. And once again, the reason is lack of a clear profile. The exhibition program is a smorgasbord of national greats (Ad Nuis, Viviane Sassen), discoveries like Mark Cohen, art crossovers (Alfredo Jaar, David Claerbout), historical presentations (Doisneau), and popular thematic shows.
Eadweard Muybridge, Gallop; Thoroughbred Bay Horse, Bouquet, 1885–1887, Collotype, Plate from Animal Locomotion: an Electro-Photographic Investigation of Connective Phases of Animal Movements, Philadelphia, 1887; Collection Rijksmuseum
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has been collecting photography since 1975. The majority of the 140,000 prints in collection are from the 19th century, but in the last ten years, during the renovation, the scope has broadened to include 20th century and even contemporary photography. The 400 vintage prints in Modern Times are of world class quality with works by Brassaï, Man Ray, Robert Capa, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Eadweard Muybridge, Weegee, and André Kertész. Dutch photographers are strongly represented as well: Paul Huf, Cas Oorthuys, Ed van der Elsken, Emiel van Moerkerken, Gerard Fieret, and Sanne Sannes, but also contemporaries such as Henk Wildschut, Vincent Mentzel, Ad van Denderen, and Celine van Balen. The museum's latest acquisition dates from last year: a ten-part work by Viviane Sassen.
The Rijksmuseum has the best and the biggest development department of all the Dutch museums; it’s not only effective in bringing in financial donations but also estates. Add to this the higher status connected to donating to “the national museum” and it’s easy to see why a lot of photography collectors will in the future choose the Rijksmuseum as their beneficiary. This will further weaken the position of the specialized photography museums and the national photographic heritage will become even more fragmented. Unless, of course, the institutions come to a collective, non-competitive strategy and—more importantly—start making clear choices and investing in consistent, distinctive identities.
(Image at top: John Gutmann (1905–1998), Class, Olympic High Diving Champion Marjorie Gestring, Gelatin silver print, San Francisco, 1936; Collection Rijksmuseum, with the support of Baker & McKenzie Amsterdam N.V.)