Collective Loopholes

I've participated in the show Collective Loopholes / Verzamelde Maazen which ran at Museum IJsselstein between June 5th and September 26th, 2021. The two works that I contributed were dedicated to the largely unremunerated staff of Museum IJsselstein and referencing the museum’s identity in transition. They consist of a series of pins that will be gifted to the volunteer staff and overlapping of the museum’s last two visual identities.

With the occasion of the show, I dug into the structure and organizational history of Museum IJsselstein. I did this in conversation. I interviewed the current director, Bert Murk, and traced the transition of the museum from fully owned by the city to its latest and also current version - autonomous from the city's governance, yet still subsidized by the city, though suffering through the infamous Dutch art budget cuts of 2012. The museum is reliant on a large volunteer base - 77 people operate unpaid, from hosts to technical assistance, to the designer - and it has as a particularity a director who recommends himself as “unpaid and fearless” ("onbezoldigd en onbevreesd"). 2021 is another year of transition. In 2020, Bert Murk negotiated a salary for an incoming museum director deciding to step down after a decade of running the museum. What the museum will transform into next remains to be decided and until that happens it's worth considering its latest incarnations and what hints they can give about the future.

The visual and conceptual contributions were accompanied by an interview that was listed in the flyer of the exhibition and that I will quote below in full.

The show was made alongside: Caz Egelie, Tim Hollander, Zwaantje Kurpershoek, Ruben Planting, Lisa Sudhibhasilp, Martha Thissen, Samantha Vlaming. The logo takeover was executed by Ronald Duikersloot. Liasons for the show's setting up have been the conservators: Amy Stenvert and Nikkie Herberigs.

Attempts at interviewing Bert Murk, director of Museum IJsselstein.

IJsselstein is a city with a population of roughly 34,000 people. It’s a city with a long history, dating back to the 14 hundreds so it’s not particularly unusual for it to also hold a city museum tracing the history of the place. What might sound a bit out of the ordinary is the fact that the city museum of IJsselstein, after moving from the attic of the municipality to the current building in the 90's, doesn’t just have on display artifacts that relate to the place, but also has broader ambitions of contributing to the living and breathing Dutch contemporary art scene. Out of ambition? Out of necessity?

2011 marked a turning point. The budget for the arts was slashed on a national level.

What that meant for the city museum of IJsselstein at the time was the risk of closing its doors. A group of entrepreneurs was mobilized on a city level and felt it their duty to take citizen action and take on the functioning of the museum, at half the subsidy, but still enough to keep things going.

One of the things that were lacking in this new configuration, by choice, was a salary for the new museum director - Bert Murk. He decided to go without it and rather than let this stand in the way of the museum operating, he embraced his precarious title - not necessarily lacking in money, but not truly interested in it either. The fact that he was unpaid - onbezoldigd - became almost an element of branding.

Murk goes as far as to explain that a paid director gets less - effort? dedication? - from those working under him, so being unpaid has contributed to him being an engine for motivating others. His position comes in stark contrast with other currently operating directors. If one is to look at the higher echelon in the field, museum directors and even art school managers tend to be remunerated at around 180,000 - 150,000 Euros per year. Of course, we can’t put the museum of the city of IJselstein on the same footing as the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. But, one is left to wonder what would happen if a large Dutch institution’s director would decide to forgo their remuneration, or at the very least equalize it with their lower-tier employees.

There’s a paradox at play. Murk’s desire to keep the museum running, a desire strong enough that makes him not want to be paid, is admirable in and of itself, but it’s also a position that allows him his independence and the supposed freedom of the museum. The thing is his independence drags along the dependence of others.

In 2012, there was also a change of name from Stadsmuseum (city museum) to Museum IJselstein (shortened, as is the tendency with internationally renowned institutions in the vein of MOCA, or MOMA, to MIJ). The museum shed its ties to the city, and in that, it gained its supposed independence.

Murk believes in art and culture, but he believes equally in not being subordinate to city governance.

How can he afford to do that?

He states that he never found money particularly interesting and made a conscious choice to not be busy with it, but understands that he is privileged to be in this position. "Independence is more between your two ears than what’s in your pocket. And I have enough in my pocket.” While he could have further focused on accumulating wealth, he decided to dedicate his time to supporting art and culture. He doesn’t though make clear what the source of his money is.

He’s a motivator.

Right now the museum also relies on the ongoing voluntary work of around 77 volunteers, work which ranges from offering advice to doing physical labour, to graphics, to hosting, and so on. They gravitate around the core of the museum staff which is made up of 4 positions (2 conservators each at 20 hours per week, 1 marketing/communication person at 16 hours, 1 employee education 20 hours per week).

The work happens organically and there’s a lot of talk of an institution which is put together based on “energy” - filling an energetic void, energy loss, energy flow, working organically to build up the staff of an institution, things “just happen” and it’s best to have “less planning and protocols”.

The discussion can turn very metaphysical very fast, but it’s grounded by the upcoming departure of Murk as director of Museum IJsselstein, or rather his stepping back from acting director to board member of the museum, from the face of the place to a position in the shadows. Before he decided to step back there was one final negotiation needed.

In 2019, before corona and in expectation of a new funding period for art institutions, a new city budget, Murk negotiated an increase in funding for Museum IJselstein - an addition of 50,000 Euros per year dedicated exclusively to a new incoming museum director.

Murk might have realized in the past 10 years that a museum needs to offer its staff more of a financial incentive. Then again, the past 10 years, following the budget cuts to the arts, have also led to a dramatic precarization of the art field, so the need to emphasize the necessity of a salary might just befit the spirit of the times.

There’s no true clarification as to how the new museum director will be appointed. There’s a mention of it happening organically, so we end up talking about energies again: "We don’t look for, but we find. If you’re well connected energetically. In a flow-state things come on your path.”

There is more clarity however when it comes to Murk’s understanding of the municipality’s role in the life of the museum. He does believe the municipality needs to take responsibility for the museum, and by responsibility, he specifically means financial responsibility.

Does Murk think the municipality should take back the museum under its wing?

“NO. Absolutely not.”

In his vision, the municipality needs to give the money but must leave the museum its autonomy. The museum must be trusted by the municipality to do its educational and community duty, and as an addition to that to support the making of contemporary art independently.

The cost of your independence in this particular configuration seems to be money.

Later on, while editing this exchange and thinking back to my talk with Bert Murk I stumbled across this quote in Victor Burgin's, “Between”, a quote that brings about the assumed position of the artist and of art:

“But isn’t art peripheral? Most artists could feel that marginality is the price of independence.

VB: There’s a position on the left in which ‘art’, indeed any form of cultural activity, is seen as ‘peripheral’ to the real world of party politics and economic class struggle. There’s a position on the right that agrees with this and welcomes it as a ‘guaranteeing the independence’ of artistic creativity. You’re then offered a choice as to which square to occupy on a checkerboard of positions - any position as long as it’s black or white. I think it’s important not to accept any games placed on this board. Cultural production, to which ‘art’ contributes, involves social relations and apparatuses and has definite societal effects. Artists are not independent - socially, economically, ideologically, politically - for all it suits some of them to pretend that they are. But neither are they ‘a cog and a screw’ in the party machine.”

It remains to be seen what the coming decade will bring in terms of how the MIJ develops, after Murk’s leave as director, what new developments will be felt within the field. One recent approach, and maybe a way to peer into the future, regards the debating of the provenance of funds within the art field and a proposition to re-nationalize museums, not as a way to curtail their independence, but as a way to preserve them as institutions for the public good.

Whether the MIJ will move in this direction, reaffirming its independence, but also municipally supported status, remains to be decided by whom will take the reigns in 2022.

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