Will the City of Rotterdam make the world’s first Public Art Depot real?

Next May the City of Rotterdam will decide whether the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen‘s new storage building project will be approved and if this museum will become the first in the world to have its collection entirely accessible to the museum’s public.


If so, the new building – designed by MVRDV – will raise 35 meters above the ground and will consist of a rooftop garden, conference halls, exhibition spaces and, most specifically, storage facilities, the majority of which will be ready to host the currently scattered, unsafely stored and invisible Boijmans’s collection. As recently explained by director Sjarel Ex in Maastricht in occasion of the TEFAF, the Museum is planning to open up to 10 per cent of these new facilities to private collectors who besides the space would also be able to purchase conservation and shipping services provided by its expert staff.


According to Mr Ex, candidates to the new museum’s spaces will be “collections that are complementary to our own, of a high quality. And young, emerging collections that could be developed in collaboration in the next decades”.


If one consider how fundamental is becoming for a piece of art to be placed in a museum, this appears to be nothing less than a revolution. Moreover, Mr Ex clearly asserted that no restrictions will be applied to art dealers, and that  The possible conflict between public and private interests doesn’t worry him: he explained that private collectors whose artworks will be stored here are going to be selected by the museum’s curators. And it goes without saying that getting this “ticket for eternity” – that is how Ex himself called it – will not be that easy.


In regards with how these public and private combination of artworks would exactly be made public by Boijmans’s new Public Art Depot the plan is clear:


The visitor can access the roof terrace and rooftop restaurant via the coffee bar at the ground floor, and this will be free of charge. While to visit the majority of the building, as well as the education centre, the galleries, exhibition spaces and the expertise centre, the visitor can buy a ticket. When wandering around the exhibition spaces, the visitor can see the storage depots through windows but if one would like to visit the depots more in depth, guided tours will be available too.


But what if a hoard of artworks, disconnected from any exhibition context and deprived from authorial/curatorial/artistic interpretations, is only shown inside its storage site? In this case, doesn’t the hoard get reduced to a heap of fragile, rare, expensive objects whose economical importance overtakes its cultural one? If a painting doesn’t have a wall to be hung on, is there any purpose for the public to see it archived with others in an expensive facility, being pampered and worshipped for its objectquality rather that for what it might communicate? And when these facilities are open to private collections, aren’t these questions even more relevant?


Perhaps museums could work as libraries, allowing the collection to be browsed like a list of books out of which a single piece can be taken on request. But considering the physical limitations of an artwork as opposed to a book, the conservation problems and the collective experience of art museums tend to advocate, we don’t think Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen will be following this model (not to mention that if its private depot does come true, questions about the public accessibly of it should be asked). To some extent, the “library model” already exists in some museums, and if were to take the galleries London Victoria & Albert Museum dedicates to ceramic as an example, with their overwhelming heaps of objects in gigantic vitrines that can hardly be browsed and out of which no cultural content seems to come, we would say that this doesn’t seem the best way to manage a collection.


The issue we are trying to raise here has to do with the fact that a hoard of artworks, whether public or private, should not be experienced as it is – a gathering of secularised relics – but instead should be made alive and become culture through reasoned exhibitions, artistic projects, critical selections, creating flourishing cultural experiences for attentive visitors.


Knowing the quality of the cultural offer the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has got us used to, we are confident that the institution will be able to take advantage of its new facilities and seize the opportunity to use them constructively, making the encounter between collections and visitors a critical one. As Director Sjarel Ex told to CFA, “the difference between a public storage and a public depot is as big as possible. It should be a new experience, with its own presentation-form and its own source of information about the conservation process”.

April 17, 2015