Reporting from Amsterdam — The Stedelijk Museum has a long-standing reputation in the art world for innovation. That spirit was underscored with the 2009 choice of an American as its new director: Ann Goldstein, who was then a senior curator at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Goldstein was excited by the notion of presiding over the reopening of the country's most important museum of modern and contemporary art, which had been closed for renovations since 2003. Because of delays due to governmental bureaucracy, funding issues and construction problems, the museum had presented exhibitions in satellite locations around Amsterdam between 2004 and 2008. The stately brick 19th century building in the city's museum quarter was missing out on the hordes of tourists lined up to visit its neighbors, the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum.
By the time Goldstein had moved her belongings to Amsterdam, it was clear that the museum was not going to open as planned in fall 2010. Rather than wait for a proper opening, Goldstein dipped into her experience at MOCA, where she started her career in 1985. Back then, delays in the construction of the Arata Isozaki-designed building on Grand Avenue led MOCA officials to hire architect Frank Gehry to create a temporary museum out of a Little Tokyo warehouse, what came to be known as the Temporary Contemporary. Now named the Geffen Contemporary, it has remained in use, the scale and informality of its space popular with artists and curators.
Goldstein decided to produce her own version of that operation to reintroduce the public to its long-shuttered museum. She had the old building reopened with a ticket kiosk and a cafe, and installed "temporary" art in the Stedelijk's partially renovated galleries. She calls the exhibition "Taking Place."
"It helped by doing something to learn how things get done," she says succinctly. "This has been the most important museum of contemporary art in the Netherlands. Closing it and putting the collection in storage threw the whole system off. It has been a catastrophe to have it closed for seven years, so I wanted to do anything to get it open."
After making the decision in August, Goldstein leaned on friends and professional alliances, as well as the museum staff, to put together a show in four months. "People here have strong emotional relationships with this institution," she adds. "I wanted to give the public a sense of the transition we are going through. We are between being a building and a museum. Usually, you don't see that. I wanted people to walk in and see art."
With shoulder-length raven hair and bright red lipstick, Goldstein was wrapped in layers of dark wool clothing on a chilly fall afternoon as she sat with a coffee at the museum's temporary cafe. There is a 1951 mural of primary colors and bold shapes by Dutch artist Karel Appel on one wall of what was the original Stedelijk restaurant, and a new work by conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, whose retrospective Goldstein organized in 2007, graces the opposite wall and seems to summarize her present challenge: "Scattered Matter Brought to a Known Density With the Weight of the World (cusped)."
The Stedelijk has an impressive permanent collection of 90,000 works that include European modern art and design, with many paintings by Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich as well as a large collection of contemporary art. It remains in storage since little of it could be shown without appropriate climate control. Goldstein turned that liability into an asset; she chose installations and works of art that draw attention to the architecture.
"The most beautiful museum architecture is Dutch: the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague, the Van Abbemuseum. Beautifully proportioned spaces with skylights — what are called cabinet rooms — make for a gorgeous relationship between art and architecture," she says.
The neo-Renaissance Stedelijk was designed by A.W. Weissman, Amsterdam's city architect, in 1895, but the renovated interior showcases pristine white galleries. A number of large windows, unusual in an art museum, have views of charming Amsterdam residences and canals. "They connect the museum to the world," Goldstein explains.
Once the Stedelijk's renovations are complete, translucent screens will permit the soft cool light for which Amsterdam is famous to illuminate the art. One window without a screen looks out to the construction of an adjacent contemporary building by Dutch architect Benthem Crouell. Not yet complete, it is shaped like a vessel and sheathed in a gray metallic skin. Locals call it the "bathtub." When completed, it will house contemporary art, temporary exhibitions, an extensive library, bookstore and restaurant.