The Depot of Boijmans Van Beuningen and its initiator Sjarel Ex (an interview)

Piero Bisello

Sjarel Ex of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen talks about what promises to change the future of museums, opening them to collectors given certain conditions.

In the last years, we have followed closely the development of an innovative and challenging project: the renovation of Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, and especially the realisation of what is branded the first publicly accessible art depot open to visitors and collectors, a landmark building currently under construction. What follows is another chapter from this series (here and here our previous episodes), an interview with Sjarel Ex, director of the museum along with Ina Klaassen (whose appointment came after this interview was conducted). In this article, Ex shares his thoughts on the costs and benefits of this striking journey, reflecting on new models for museums, dissemination of knowledge, how art is experienced, and how to proper celebrate the conclusion of big ventures like this.

Sjarel Ex. Credit Fred Ernst.

Could you please tell us a bit about your background, how you started your career in the arts, your specialisation as an art historian, and how you became the director of Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum?

Sjarel Ex: I was born in 1957, I am educated as an art historian at the University in Utrecht, specialized and involved in scientific research in the field of modernism and De Stijl, in those years connected to the VU University in Amsterdam. In 1982 I started a foundation with some friends to develop and make exhibitions in museums and in public space. In 1988, my first director job started at the Centraal Museum Utrecht, one of the youngest in the country. In 2004 I was appointed at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. So, I have been active in curating, writing, inventing, developing, managing since round and about 1982. My museum career is at this point 30 years young.

Your tenure will be remembered for the realisation of the Depot, an innovative project of public display of the otherwise hidden collection and conservation activities. What do you think the best argument is to make these things public?

Sjarel Ex: Well, I hope to be remembered in some other ways too, maybe for one of my publications and some of the ca 750 exhibitions I was involved in [laugh]. In general, transparency and curiosity in the process of making is and has always been one of my tools. As an art historian, as a freelance exhibition maker, a museum director and as a curator. A memory…my first museum show in Utrecht was Greetings from Utrecht, a show all over the place, in the offices, storages, attics and—you name it—rooms, in which I exhibited the entire staff (with group portrait photos), the building (by opening up all premises), and the collection (in all rooms). During this show in 1989, 16 artists of today (Wim Delvoye, Rob Scholte, Harald Vlugt, Guillaume Bijl among others), curated exhibition rooms and the 7 curators from the museum did likewise. It was a kind of wake up call for the rather domestic, sleepy city museum.  

In later years, in my contacts with visitors and collectors, I noticed how poor the knowledge about the field of conservation and preservation best practices was. In the art museums though, in general, over 50% of all capacity is spent to develop such professional knowledge. My inclination was that we could make people aware of heritage and how to deal with it, and spread the knowledge museums specialize in. The Depot is a podium to do this. Likewise, the contact that we make with collectors, being a host for collectors and collections in the new Depot is a form of collaboration that is fruitful in two directions.

Art handlers at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Credit Aad Hoogendoorn.

What is the main benefit for a museum goer in seeing art and activities beyond the exhibitions, which are supposed to be what a museum is about?

Sjarel Ex: The museum is the place where exhibitions are made, with an audience to examine the temporary exhibitions and the ensembles in the permanent collection. The Depot is the backstage place where all holdings are kept, secured, based and treated into eternity. Both activities are rich of knowledge and interesting, both are obvious and necessary, but our premises for the Depot functions where obsolete. So we developed this new Museum typology (Depot typology?) to legitimate an investment (in knowledge, place, money, time) in the conservation process.  

Another point is that collecting nowadays urged us to change strategies, as the competition in the market is enormous. Going to an auction to buy a piece is hazardous. This is the reason for the museum to focus on collecting collections. This is not unusual in our history of 170 years: 1800 private collectors have donated round and about 33.000 works—our collection consists of overall 151.000 works. The new Depot is facilitating this.

Business Models for Museums

Talking about business models for public museums, the construction of the Depot has also to do with increasing revenues coming from the private sector, since part of the storage space will be rented to private collectors. How much do you predict these revenues will contribute to the overall income of the museum?

Sjarel Ex: Our maximum capacity to rent space to collectors is 1900 square meters, including a Depot for small sizes where collectors pay per cubic meter. The income out of rent can become about 10% (Euro 700.000) of our annual income. The Depot will earn too from selling tickets, selling small products and merchandise, from the café, from a subsidy that the municipality donates, and from art services provided for collections that we take care off.

Do you think a public institution risks losing its autonomy if it depends on the will of individuals that can afford to sponsor it?

Sjarel Ex: A museum like the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum is subsidized for 45% by the government, 55% is our own income (tickets, donations, legacies, supportive cultural foundations, income from bookshop, restaurant, travelling exhibitions, sponsoring, etc.). We are always open to collaborate with third parties, we are very careful though and protecting our autonomy rigorously in terms of freedom of speech, freedom to show, to collect and to arrange and write and publish what we want.

The museum building in 1935. Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

The Depot under construction. Credit Ossip van Duivenbode.

Collecting and Museums Today

There seems to be a lack of role models among collectors of old masters, at least compared to the important patrons that exist in the contemporary art field—we think of names such as Prada and Pinault. For example, are there any Édouard André, Nélie Jacquemart, or Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli today (here our article on Poldi Pezzoli)?

Sjarel Ex: Oh yes, they are still with us, though much more silent and protective, anonymous if you wish.

Is Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen opening to private investors also an attempt to push for the creation of these role models?

Sjarel Ex: We notice at the moment an international attention from art museums who consider something alike. In the past years we have been doing keynote speeches all over the world, many colleagues are following the preparations, even the commercial storage market is paying attention to what is developed in Rotterdam. Working in new investment models, investing in networks and talking to private investors is what we all do, to a certain level. Our entire museum program is paid for by visitors and supporters.

The Museum and its City

Do you agree that the renovation of the old museum building, and the construction of an iconic new one are signs that Rotterdam aims at becoming a tourist destination comparable to already well known cities in Europe?

Sjarel Ex: Well, I live with hope to make Rotterdam and its sublime art collection more well-known, and accessible to anyone.  At the same time, I feel an obligation to keep this museum far away from mass-tourism. The Boijmans Van Beuningen museum, with its circuits and many sober rooms, is a journey in relative solitude, where personal experiences, beautiful light, great ensembles of old and new make visitors loose breath. My best practices are the museums that stay put, the stubborn, vulnerable vehicles of sublime moments and experiences. Of course I love the interaction with our visitors, though I prefer to think about them as individuals.

And how do you think the new Boijmans Van Beuningen will benefit the local art scene as well?

Sjarel Ex: We will share our future prosperity, an Art Museum like Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen can only exist in a town like Rotterdam if all citizens experience ownership.  

What will the opening party of Depot and the new Boijmans Van Beuningen be like?

Sjarel Ex: We prepare an “silver opening” in September 2020 in the empty Depot, a party that will last during two weekends and the week in between, in collaboration with the Rotterdam Scapino Ballet dance company, the Rotterdam Symphony orchestra and installations from artists from all over the world. The golden opening, when all works are stored and all functions are ready to start, will be performed round and about a year later in 2021. The new Boijmans will follow five years later and will become a ‘geheimtip’ that no person can resist.

November 7, 2019