10 May 2020
by Jessy Koeiman

Considering that the building of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art was used formerly as a school, it is especially interesting to reconsider what learning experiences with art can be. Also relevant is to reflect on the development of arts education in general in Rotterdam, in the face of the city’s cultural diversity. Personally, I am interested in fostering a bottom-up vision in the institution through a process of collective learning. I am also interested in shifting positions, as well as in knowledge that flows. In this sense, my outlook is that institution not only “teaches” the art world about art; the institution also “learns” about the world and art from creators working in other fields and informed by expressions beyond “fine art.” In this sense, too, the institutions, creators and audiences more fluidly learn from each other. By sidestepping the teacher/student dichotomy and its associated hierarchy, multiple ideas, skillsets and knowledge are shared in and through creative environments.

Since 2018, collective learning has been a central driving force within Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, informing its transformative changes and its many public activities. When I was appointed its curator, that same Spring, I was tasked to organize programs and projects with the aim to make our institution more accessible to a public beyond its longstanding community of arts professionals. For this, I have focused on staging activities that shift boundaries, dilute hierarchies, and create communities. One such program is Sessions, events that prioritize performance-based practices, from dance to spoken work to music, practices developed outside of the realm of fine arts. Central to Sessions is that the events are staged in intimate settings that allow performers, presenters and public to connect and share their skills and talent.

I also oversee our Work Learn Project (WLP), an initiative developed with the aim to make enduring change in the institution through inclusivity and collective learning activities. This initiative was designed together with director Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy, and Yoeri Meessen, formerly at the institution. The WLP is a six-month program offered annually, since 2018, to 10-15 Rotterdamers between 17-24 years in age. The WLP participants are encouraged to meaningfully engage with a cultural institution through formative sessions and practical training. They also work at the institution in given tasks, as well as in conceptualizing and organizing public programming.

To ensure that this initiative reflects and promotes the city’s cultural diversity, we broker strategic partnerships and conduct tactical outreach for making an inclusive call for participation. Instead of a grant, the WLP participants receive a salary for their work. This is considering that both studying and organizing as part of WLP is part of their labor. This aspect of the WLP is also done to ensure participation from financially disadvantaged youth in Rotterdam. The first edition of the WLP focused on identity. It took place from 2018-2019. The WLP participants were tasked to give a name to the ground-floor gallery space of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art by the end of their six-month program. The group included Gizem Adanur, Chloé Blansjaar, Tayler Calister, Mohamed Chajid, Sjoerd van Kampen, Stijn Kemper, Eva Langstraat, Joy Ravenswaaij, and Sytze van der Wolk.

The WLP participants named this programing space MELLY, taking their inspiration from the artwork Melly Shum Hates Her Job (1990) by artist Ken Lum. This artwork is a billboard hanging in our building façade for the past thirty years. The Rotterdam-based sociologist and educator Teana Boston-Mammah, who led one of the WLP workshops and participated in public programs at MELLY, said that by “sharing their stories, the collective learning participants create a spatial possibility that reflects a desire to connect, to have power, to mend and in so doing interrogate damages done and narratives told.” This statement was included in the press release announcing the new name of the space and a poster art group exhibition organized in conjunction to its launch.

Their process of name giving and the very act of naming, which set in practice a bottom-up decision-making process, went in par with institutionally creating a more accessible and welcoming environment for the general public. The WLP participants and I work and study in MELLY. We program events and actively engage partners and groups of people there, all coming with different stories and backgrounds, all with educational and artistic motivations for further connecting and collectively learning. These kinds of exchanges have helped the institution transform and diversify from within and soon more and more outwardly.