11 October 2019
by Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy
At the start of my tenure at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, I was tasked to make an institutional name change. In particular this regards the colonial legacy of Dutch Naval officer Witte Corneliszoon de With (1599-1658), which was found by the institution to be in conflict with its mandate and values. You can read about the specifics here.
If you are aware of this, then you may be wondering about the status of this, or you may be curious to know what the new name will be, or why the name change is even happening at all. Allow me to begin with addressing the last of these inquiries, and eventually the others. The criteria for changing the institution's name is founded on two counts. First, the current name indicates the institution's location, but does not express the institution's vocation, which is to present contemporary art and theory. Secondly, the current name impinges upon the institution's pursuit of inclusivity, which is vital to the relevance and contribution of cultural practice in general.
The name change initiative at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art is thus designed as an opportunity to change the character of the institution. For the critiques of our institution’s name raised an existential rather than situational problem for us. Informed by larger decolonizing efforts underway in the Netherlands, the 2017 name critiques and debates brought to the surface the importance of acknowledging the multi-vocal heritage of an increasingly diverse society. The name change initiative thereby involves several structural and programmatic changes that I consider necessary to enable before even thinking or proposing a new name.
These are the actions and outcomes of this initiative that we have done, to date, at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art:
— Between September to December 2017, fifteen weekly working lunch discussions open to the general public took place at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. In these sessions the topic of changing the institution's name was debated. But more so, the debate entailed a discussion of a larger commitment in the cultural field to acknowledge and unpack Dutch colonial histories and their significance to the current expectations and obligations of cultural institutions.
— Between January to April 2018, the notes of these open lunch sessions were assessed and organized. It was imperative that basic information on how the debate of the name change unfolded be made clear and become contextualized. For this reason, a series of timelines were developed and published online. These were produced to clarify the debates and readily provide precise information. The assessments of the notes and organization of events through timelines made evident the concrete factors that would inform the articulation of an institutional vision and criteria established to reason the purpose of the name change on account of two key principles: 1) that the institution's name falls short of expressing its vocation, and 2) its current name impinges upon the institution's pursuit of inclusivity. In addition, an agenda was established to address the name change first and foremost through changes in working method and composition within the institution, rather than as a merely symbolic gesture.
— From May 2018, a new, publicly-focused and socially oriented space was opened dedicated to inclusivity and the commitment to change the way in which we work, the way in which we represent others, and the way in which we engage communities. This took place through the redesign of the institution's ground floor gallery space, its most visible and directly public point of access. Turning a so-called white cube exhibition space into a multi-use event space and bookshop, tentatively named Untitled, this gallery became the primary site of public programming at the institution. It was made open to the general public free of admission.
— In September 2018, and in tandem with the opening of Untitled came a new approach to programming, education and public engagement called Collective Learning. This was led through a long-term work-study fellowship program together with twelve diverse participants ages 17-23. Sited at Untitled, this program developed new kinds of programming such as the Sessions series, as well bringing Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art into engagement with new communities in Rotterdam. It also had the aim of learning, along with the public, about pressing concerns in culture through close engagement, which in principle involves listening and being more welcoming.
— In April 2019, the name of this new space was changed from Untitled to MELLY. This process was undertaken in collaboration with the participants of the fellowship program while their process in doing so became a case study informing the larger undertaking of the name change of the institution. After various workshops the name MELLY was selected, inspired by Ken Lum’s now icon art work Melly Shum Hates Her Job in Rotterdam. (Read details here.)
— In September 2019, the second edition of the fellowship program commenced, engaging a group of fifteen participants. The array of programs has also expanded with MELLY’s Neighbours, which connects to stakeholders in the Witte de With street itself. Engagement and learning with the immediate neighbours and urban location of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art is a crucial facet within the ongoing name change initiative.
— To develop this process, fellowship, and other informed changes accounting different perspectives at the institution, new staff have been hired, including a curator of Collective Learning. New members entered also into our Supervisory Board. These positions involved a process of job open calls considering the Code of Cultural Diversity. The latest hires were completed in September 2019. With this, a more comprehensive team task-force at the institution was formed to work on research, programs and the completion of the name change initiative.
This is where we are at the moment as it pertains the name change initiative at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. At the institution, we have learned much from this process. Among the takeaways has been learning together with the participants of the fellowship program. The inspiration and relevance of their proposed name was inspired by an image from a neighborhood icon, however anti-heroic, and from the institution's own exhibition history. The latter is important in so far a central question to the investigation in the name change initiative at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art has been how to embrace transformation and yet prevent effacing or forgetting history, including institutional memory, when changing the institution’s name.
Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam is housed in a nineteenth century building originally designed—and used for over a century—as a public school. At the time of its opening in 1990, the institution shared its building with a school. During that time while the school maintained its activities in the first floors of the building, exhibitions were simultaneously organized in the upper floors. At the relocation of the school in 1997, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art acquired the building. Most importantly, however, we didn’t fully cease the building’s intended design-goals of being a site of learning. Instead, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam has offered new pedagogies and occasions for collective learning through the arts. The name change initiative is part of this work.