This is the first article in a series where art professionals discuss their position in the art world, how they got there and their responsibilities. The kick off for this series is based on a conversation with Hendrik Driessen, director of De Pont, a museum for contemporary visual art in Tilburg, the Netherlands.
It was never my goal to become a director of a museum, I did not have a set plan. Other than studying Art History, the usual route to work at a museum, I studied at an Art Academy and came to work at a museum through sheer coincidence. For my course in art appreciation I chose to do the final presentation at the Stedelijk Museum. I asked them if I could do this with the only work of Marcel Duchamp they had, La-boîte-en-valise (a suitcase full of miniatures of Duchamp’s other artworks). To my surprise they allowed it and some staff members even came to listen. Even more surprising to me was that I got a 10 (A) for my presentation and an invitation to come and work at the Stedelijk Museum for one day a week as a tour guide.
After one of my tours I was approached by Pierre Janssen, director of Museum Arnhem and in those days very well known for his talks about art on public television, who told me he had listened to me from ‘around the corner’ and, out of the blue, offered me a job as curator of public programs. I enjoyed working with him but when I was asked by the Stedelijk Museum to come back and help set up a new department for communication, I did not hesitate and took on this new challenge. A year later I became head of the department and as such member of the management team of the museum.
At the Stedelijk I was part of a group of young curators that worked on La Grande Parade, the farewell exhibition of our director, Edy de Wilde, in 1984. It was a huge success, the first real blockbuster exhibition of modern art in the Netherlands, with over 350.000 people visiting. After Edy left there was a lot to do about who would succeed him. We all hoped for Rudi Fuchs, but Wim Beeren was appointed and most of the younger curators left. My wife and I discussed going to New York, where I was offered a job at the Brooklyn Museum. When we were in the middle of this Rudi Fuchs asked me to become chief curator at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and I said yes.
Two years later Edy de Wilde, with whom I had stayed in touch, approached me because he was involved with the formation of a foundation, named after the lawyer and entrepreneur Jan de Pont and based on part of his estate. He had left his children with the wish to set up a foundation to support contemporary art. At their request I wrote a proposal which eventually led to my appointment as the founding director. At the time there was no organization, no collection, no building – just the new board, me and, last but not least, a generous endowment to finance our future activities.
In 1988 I started working for the foundation for one day a week, and in the Spring of the following year I became fully employed. Before being hired, I had brought forward to the board that to me it was important to have a space in which a future collection could be housed and exhibited. I proposed to have a building designed especially for this purpose, thinking of Donald Judd and his ideas on how art should be ideally exhibited. I envisaged a design based on a modular form so that every time there would be need for more space, the building could be extended to house the growing collection. Although the board members liked the idea, they also considered it a bit too ambitious. This is when we started talking about existing buildings and eventually our chairman, Jos de Pont, came up with the idea of having a look at an old textile mill in Tilburg, which was part of his father’s estate and which was about to end its activities.
The early years were quite difficult at times, because everything still had to be laid out from scratch. In the opinion of the board the director should propose the policy but should also be critically questioned on his ideas. I remember feeling like a voyager standing in the middle of a compass rose and for each of the 360 possible directions one could come up with a positive argumentation. I also remember thinking of a phrase from a text Rudi Fuchs had written about starting a collection, saying that the first step determines the direction, a rather ominous warning.
Over the years I have gained more confidence on the course that we have followed and the board has also given me more mandate as time went along. Since our opening in 1992, the collection has grown to include some 800 works by 80 artists and we can still function without financial support from the public sector or private sponsors. It gives us freedom to follow our own instinct and we can decide ourselves on what works to acquire, without having to explain the reasons for it to others.
The downside of this is that we cannot always pursue one of our original goals, to follow artists throughout their career because, if one has chosen well, their works become more costly to acquire and finally get out of reach. One then has to depend on the goodwill of the artists. Fortunately, it has happened quite regularly that they have helped us in acquiring their work because they appreciate our commitment. A beautiful example of such an acquisition is Anish Kapoor’s monumental sculpture Sky Mirror, which was, in part, presented by the artist on the occasion of our 25th anniversary.
Photographs: Courtesy of De Pont Museum, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Pictoright.