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Dutch Art Museum Chooses to Change Its Colonialist Name

The Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam is named for a 17th-century naval officer who worked for both the Dutch West India and the Dutch East India companies.

The exterior of the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam (photo by Fred Romero/Flickr)
The exterior of the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam (photo by Fred Romero/Flickr)

On Thursday, Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art announced that it has decided to change its name to dissociate itself from its namesake, the Dutch naval officer Witte Corneliszoon de With. As an agent of both the Dutch West India and the Dutch East India companies in the 17th century, de With led many colonial expeditions. The institution’s decision to change its name was immediately politicized, causing a flurry of controversy in the Netherlands.

In an email to Hyperallergic, the art center’s director Defne Ayas explained that the name never really fit the institution and its mission. “We were named after our location in 1990, the street in which we are situated is named after [Witte de With],” she said. “Naming art institutions after locations in a bid to affirm neutrality was a trend in those days.” So, what will Witte de With’s new name be? That remains to be seen. Ayas — whose maximum six-year term as the institution’s director is about to end — says it’ll be up to her successor to decide next year.

Abraham van Westerveld, "Witte Cornelisz. de With" (17th century) (Bonhams, via Wikimedia Commons)
Abraham van Westerveld, “Witte Cornelisz. de With” (17th century) (Bonhams, via Wikimedia Commons)

The cultural critic Egbert Alejandro Martina first brought the matter of de With’s troublesome legacy to the institution’s attention in April, Ayas explained. The issue was raised during meetings in preparation for Cinema Olanda: Platform, an exhibition concurrent with and informed by the Dutch Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, which features a project by Rotterdam-based artist Wendelien van Oldenborgh and curator Lucy Cotter. Witte de With’s parallel program includes 6 weeks of live events with artists and activists under themes including “Hidden Stories of Black Resistance in the Netherlands” and “Decolonial Options; Imagining the futurity of decolonial practice.”

The week before Platform opened, the art center posted a public acknowledgement on its website and edited its about page to address the contradiction of an institution named after a colonizer hosting a postcolonial exhibition. At first, Witte de With argued that it was important to keep its name as a reminder of colonial legacies. Changing the name would only seek to erase, rather than address, an inconvenient history. “At this point we believe that re-naming would extinguish a link to a history that needs visibility, but remain open to discussing this further,” the acknowledgement stated.

A few days later, Martina and a group of fellow artists and activists issued an open letter urging the institution’s administration to rename the institution. “Witte de With has ‘failed’ to come to terms with its own internal contradictions, and has yet to reckon with the historical figure it symbolically embodies,” the letter read. The letter added that the issue goes beyond the name of the museum or the street; it’s about a colonial legacy that’s deeply ingrained in the culture and daily life of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Europe, and the West at large.

“White art institutions, whether they carry the name of a colonizer or not, are ‘excited’ to engage with feminist, queer, Black, intersectional, and decolonial perspectives as long as these critical interventions are framed as discourses and stripped of their radical potential and praxes,” the activists wrote. Their letter concluded that the institution should not “wrestle with these questions behind closed doors. It should be transparent and accountable towards audiences and participants for how it will be working toward undoing its institutional structures.”

In response, Witte de With announced that the 12th edition of its Rotterdam Cultural Histories exhibition series would address this very issue. Witte de With; What’s in a name?  opened on the same day the art center made the announcement that its board of directors had decided to change its name.

“In light of recent national and global developments we have come to realize that the reference in our name to Witte Corneliszoon de With, and its connotations, are in conflict with the values we stand for as an institute for contemporary art and culture,” the chairman of the institution’s board, Kees Weeda, said in a statement.

Even before the final decision was made, the Dutch press was all over the story. In late August, Witte de With included a link on its “acknowledgment” page to an extensive article about the controversy in the independent weekly, De Groene Amsterdammer. After the September 7 announcement, local politicians immediately began squabbling about whether or not this was a good decision, with editorials characterizing the announcement as the institution giving in too easily to critics and being symptomatic of a general overreach in political correctness. The art center’s Facebook page even accrued a few one-star ratings in response to the announcement.

Although Ayas blames the politicized coverage of Witte de With’s decision to change its name on Holland’s upcoming local elections in March, the topic of museum decolonization is not new, not even in Dutch institutions. In 2015, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam changed the titles of artworks in its collection to omit bigoted words. More recently, the question of what to do with Confederate monuments in the US has been hotly debated and violently protested. And as many museums worldwide get serious about repatriating ill-gotten artifacts, it seems more cities and institutions are seeking to right colonial wrongs.

Witte de With; What’s in a name? continues at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (Witte de Withstraat 50, Rotterdam, the Netherlands) through December 31.

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