Interviews

World’s Largest Street Art Museum Takes Shape in Amsterdam

Curator Peter Ernst Coolen discusses his plans for a street art museum in a former shipbuilding warehouse in north Amsterdam.

Eduardo Kobra mural on the exterior of Amsterdam's future street art museum (photo by Marco Buddingh)
Eduardo Kobra mural on the exterior of Amsterdam’s future street art museum (photo by Marco Buddingh)

On the north side of the IJ in Amsterdam stand the remnants of the Nederlandsche Dok en Scheepsbouw Maatschappij (or Netherlands Dock and Shipbuilding Company, NDSM), formerly the largest shipbuilding company in the world. After operations shut down in 1979, the area, littered with enormous warehouses, was largely abandoned until, several years ago, developers started transforming it with fancy restaurants, hotels, and bars. In one former warehouse, which has already served as an event space and indoor flea market, local curator Peter Ernst Coolen plans to create what would be the largest street art museum in the world, a nod to all the graffiti and tags that used to cover the whole shipyard.

This won’t be the first street art museum in the world, Europe, or even in Amsterdam — the Street Art Museum Amsterdam, which is really more of an outdoor tour of street art than a traditional museum, has been around since 2012. But Coolen says his museum will offer a completely different experience, largely because of its enormous warehouse space. He hopes to open the new museum in summer 2018.

Interior of the NDSM warehouse (courtesy Peter Ernst Coolen)
Interior of the NDSM warehouse (courtesy Peter Ernst Coolen)

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Elena Goukassian: How and why did you decide to create this museum, and where is the collection coming from?

Peter Ernst Coolen: Two years ago I was organizing a street art festival, Kings Spray, at NDSM and this guy asked me if we were going to paint on the walls. I said yes, and he said, “Well, I’m looking for street artists to make some artwork, decorate the space for events that I organize.” And then he asked me, “If I make some wooden panels, can your artists paint on these instead of the walls? And then later, after the festival, we hang them in my venue, as a sort of permanent exhibition.” I thought, well, why not?

So that’s how we started, with 10 artworks that were five meters wide (~16 feet), eight meters high (~26 feet), which are quite big. But the day after the festival, we hung these huge artworks, and it didn’t make any sense. There was no impact; it was like postcards hanging on the walls, because these walls are 24 meters high (~79 feet) and 100 meters long (~328 feet).

At the end of the day, we looked at each other and said, OK, this is not the impact that we expected, and he immediately asked me, “Well can you invite some more artists to make bigger artworks?” I did that, and over time, we made a lot of new artworks; the space was totally filling up with new art. I proposed making it into a proper exhibition, and that grew into the museum we are working on today.

I never intended to start a museum, but I was lucky to be able to work with this guy, and he also believes in the plans that I had. The artworks are coming from all over the world. I think today we have more than 100 pieces already from artists from the United States, South America, Africa, all over Europe. The only region I haven’t covered is Asia. Not yet, but we’re working on it.

EG: Where do you find all of these artists? And do they make works especially for the museum or are they pre-existing works that you collect?

PEC: Most of it is made especially for the museum. But I also have a piece by Logan Hicks that he made on a temporary wall for a construction site, and when the construction was done, the project developer donated the piece to the museum. There are some pieces that I managed to acquire from the Roskilde Festival in Denmark; last year they built some installations by Dan Leo, Phibs, and Base23. I picked up these installations from Roskilde and brought them to Amsterdam. For artworks made especially for the museum, I invite artists to come and paint in the space.

Nils Westergard working on a piece at Amsterdam's future street art museum (photo by Wolfgang Josten)
Nils Westergard working on a piece at Amsterdam’s future street art museum (photo by Wolfgang Josten)

EG: What do you imagine the museum will look like after you’re done remodeling? What’s the aesthetic going to be?

PEC: It will definitely not look like a traditional museum, so we won’t have the white walls and the white floor and the really quiet rooms. This is going to still be a warehouse. We’re looking to redefine what people expect from a museum. The NSDM building that we are in is actually one of the few legal walls in Amsterdam. When the museum is open, people will still be able to go there and paint the outside of the museum. For me, that’s very important, and I think it also sets us apart from traditional museums. I don’t think any other museum, like the Guggenheim, would appreciate it if you just show up with spray cans and paint it; but here, it will be possible.

EG: And you’ll be open to whoever coming in and making art on the wall? Or will it be curated?

PEC: We’re thinking about organizing it, but it’s also a little bit far in the future. We have to open in summer 2018. Until then, it’s a free-for-all, so everybody can just come and paint. But the walls are really high, and it’s just the bottom part that is open for everybody; the top part is going to be curated. That’s the basic idea at the moment, but I haven’t given it too much thought.

EG: The whole idea of a museum of street art seems strange, because street art is supposed to be on the street, right?

PEC: It’s an interesting question. With this museum, I think we’re as close to the street as possible, while still putting street art on another level. It’s also a matter of skill and size. We’re not showing canvases that you can put up in your living room. To give you an idea, the smallest canvas is the size of “Night Watch” by Rembrandt, and our biggest canvas is at least 12 meters wide and five meters long. We even have a 90-foot canvas. So these are proper wall-size canvases. That’s already setting it apart from what you see in a regular museum or gallery, and also the fact that we incorporate “street” in our building. The fact that it’s an old warehouse contributes to that “street” feeling. And when you’re inside, the ceiling is 24 meters high. It’s a huge space, and it doesn’t give you any idea that you’re inside. It actually looks like you’re outside because of the scale.

We’re not the first ones to put street art inside. You see a lot of galleries and big museums already embracing street art.

EG: But unlike some of these galleries and museums, you won’t tear down the wall with the piece on it and just move it into the museum.

PEC: I see a lot of that happen with the works of Banksy, for instance. That’s something that I also don’t like. I mean, it’s art made for the people, and it’s especially for the street. That’s why I invite artists to paint for the museum on location. They put that feeling in their painting. We’re not going around with the sledgehammer, breaking down walls. That’s not our style. Everything is really made for the location.

Steve Locatelli mural at Amsterdam's future street art museum (photo by Karin du Maire)
Steve Locatelli mural at Amsterdam’s future street art museum (photo by Karin du Maire)

EG: You mentioned canvases — that a lot of the works are on canvas. Will you have works directly on the walls, too? (Apart from the front wall that you already mentioned.)

PEC: Eduardo Kobra painted a mural on the outside already. And we have a lot of plans for the rest of the walls, but now we’re focusing on the inside, on the collection. Once we’re done inside, then we will go outside and do the outside of the building as well.

EG: Are there any museums you know of that already exist that are similar to what you’re planning?

PEC: I know that in Berlin, they’re starting a new museum, Urban Nation, but from what I’ve learned, it’ll be a more traditional museum and a lot smaller. In Brussels, there’s the MIMA Museum. They opened a couple of months ago. I haven’t been there yet, but they’re also not on the same scale. I think we’ll have the biggest one to date, and we’re doing it completely differently.

EG: You’re also a street artist, right?

PEC: I used to paint, but today I don’t have any time. I started in the 1980s doing graffiti, and it led to a lot of beautiful things. I’m an organizer of festivals and exhibitions and all that stuff, but I don’t get to painting a lot, so I don’t call myself an artist anymore. The art is now in curating and making an awesome collection.

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