CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Celebrating Gerdien

Looking Back: The Program Committee Chairs Look Back Over the Years

March, 2019

This article was originally published on the CODART website as part of a special compilation of articles titled ‘Celebrating Gerdien’ which marked the end of Gerdien Verschoor’s directorship in 2019.

She arrived at the job interview with a broken leg. Norbert Middelkoop still remembers it well. As a member of the program committee (though not yet chair), he had a vote in the appointments committee, along with board members Wim Jacobs and Rudi Ekkart, that chose Gerdien to be CODART’s new director as from 1 June 2005. She took over from Gary Schwartz, who was stepping down after reaching retirement age. Gerdien had already taken part in a CODART study trip to Poland a year earlier. At the time, she was curator of modern art at the Museum de Fundatie in Heino. With her experience as a former cultural attaché at the Dutch Embassy in Warsaw, she helped with the preparations and opened a good many Polish doors for Gary and his associates, Wietske Donkersloot and Navany Almazan. Less than a year later, she applied for the post of director of CODART. During her term of office, she worked with six different chairs of the program committee. I asked them to recall their experiences with Gerdien and the committee. What took place during their time as chair and what did they gain from the experience?

Stephen Hartog recalls that the idea of setting up a program committee was first broached over lunch during CODART DRIE in Antwerp in March 2000. Not long afterwards, he found himself propelled into the position of chair. He was working as a curator at the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN), which was CODART’s primary cooperation partner and was later incorporated into the Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE). The others involved in that lunchtime discussion, if his memory serves him right, were Peter van den Brink, Peter Schoon, and Charles Dumas. They became the first members of the committee, along with Liesbeth Helmus, Thea Vignau-Wilberg, Julia Lloyd Williams, and Guus van den Hout. Their aim was to be active members, providing support to Gary and the bureau in proposing destinations and recruiting new members to strengthen the network. In the early years, CODART soon proved its added value. In bringing curators together, it helped to forge excellent ties, which in turn facilitated loan agreements and promoted the transfer of knowledge. As CODART organized trips abroad, the network was soon expanded and consolidated. Stephen’s recollections of Gerdien date primarily from the period after he stepped down as chair. Together they had fruitful conversations about CODART’s move from the ICN in Amsterdam to the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History in The Hague, which took place in April 2007 under Gerdien’s leadership.

Norbert Middelkoop, who was involved in CODART from the beginning, sat on the program committee from 1 March 2004 to the end of February 2010, during the last five years of which he served as chair. He took over from Stephen Hartog and was essentially Gerdien’s first program committee chair. They were in frequent contact and became close colleagues and friends, having met during the study trip to Poland in 2004. When I asked Norbert what he chiefly remembered about working with Gerdien, the first thing he thought of was the preparations for the trip to northern France in February 2006, when they visited numerous museums and had long conversations about Old Master art. “Gerdien always interpreted her role as providing a service to curators. She is extremely discrete in expressing her own views, remaining pleasantly impartial but never indifferent. Part of that was her openness to update the protocol at regular intervals. There was no need to structure the congress in the same way every year. Gerdien always listened to voices from the grassroots membership, whose views are naturally expressed through the program committee.” Another of Gerdien’s strengths, in Norbert’s view, was her ability to consolidate and expand the ties and trust of members from Eastern Europe and beyond.

Several important subjects were debated in that period: should the applied arts be included in the network? How could we encourage more Flemish members to take part in the activities? There were constant debates about the terms of membership, and the voluntary contribution was introduced. The bulk of our attention, however, always focused on the program and the geographical expansion of the network. “I had only just become a curator when CODART was founded in 1998 and I immediately felt at home here. My term as chair essentially confirmed what I already knew: that meeting up with your counterparts around the world greatly improves your daily work as a curator. You get to know each other, may even make friends, and it becomes far easier to pick up the phone and make contact, not only when you have a whole shopping list of loans that you want to discuss.”

Adriaan Waiboer was a committee member from 1 May 2009 to the end of April 2015, serving as chair for five years, from June 2010 onwards. He sees as his major achievement the thematic development of the congresses. Since the Rotterdam event in 2010, each congress has had an overarching theme. This made the congresses more focussed and content-based. Another point of emphasis in his term as chair was geographical expansion, including within the committee itself. Besides the Netherlands and Belgium, the committee had members from Ireland, Britain, and Germany. There was a renewed debate on the idea of launching a CODARTmodern, but it was decided not to pursue that path. The print edition of the Courant was replaced by the digital CODART eZine. In that period CODART stopped organizing study trips and the program committee devised shorter study seminars, under the name CODARTfocus. Adriaan also spoke of Gerdien’s efforts to devote greater attention to sculpture and the applied arts.

“I believe that Gerdien always derived great enjoyment from her job. She really regarded it as a privilege to be able to do this work.” The program committee chair and the director were engaged in constant discussions in that period, by telephone or in railway station buffets, as a result of which they would occasionally miss their train—or more than one. “The great thing about being a member or chair of the program committee is that you get to combine the serious and the enjoyable sides of our work,” said Adriaan. You have close ties with a group of curators from diverse museums from many different countries. Each of our meetings is like a mini CODART congress. “Gerdien is incredibly easy to work with. She is always open to other people’s ideas. At the same time, she knows exactly what she wants, and she is both a conceptual thinker and someone who puts ideas into practice.” What Adriaan himself got out of his time as chair? “I built up many working relationships, more than you would as a regular member, I think. And it is always a good feeling to make certain changes, to help add substance and professionalism.”

Uta Neidhardt took over from Adriaan as chair of the program committee, occupying the position from June 2015 to April 2017. She had served on the committee since 2011 and had been an active member of CODART from its earliest beginnings. In fact she feels that her involvement reaches back even further in time, since she can still clearly remember the 1997 symposium in Melbourne, Australia, where she and other Rembrandt specialists listened to Gary Schwartz as he presented his CODART idea to those who were present. As chair she found it extremely important to focus more attention on the content of the congress programs. Fewer coffee breaks, more lectures! She tried to promote this vision without ever losing her sense of humor. It is not always easy to obtain good keynote speakers, but she thinks that she succeeded in raising the standard of the content. In addition, she was particularly concerned to encourage more curators from Germany to take an active part in CODART activities, something that has been achieved in many areas. She is delighted that this year’s congress will be taking place in Berlin. She found the meetings of the program committees very inspiring. The themes discussed were always highly relevant to her everyday activities as a curator. She derived great pleasure from her working relationship with Gerdien. “I had already built up a good rapport with Gerdien before joining the program committee. We share several interests apart from CODART. The situation in Germany—both East and West—as well as literature, and my own past in the GDR.” On train journeys and evenings spent in hotel lobbies they would talk about a whole range of subjects. “I also really appreciate Gerdien’s determination to stand up for women, and it seems to me that she has made CODART even more ‘woman-friendly’ than before.” Serving as chair of the program committee meant a great deal to her, says Uta. “It was a major step forwards for me. It also strengthened my position within my own institution. It was greatly appreciated within my museum that as a curator from Dresden, I was able to reach so many colleagues. It made me more self-assured in my professional life and I look back on that period with great pleasure.”

Tico Seifert became chair of the committee in 2017. He remembers that there was much debate at the time concerning the relationship between CODART and the Friends of CODART Foundation. Since the 2013 congress in Vienna, Patrons have been admitted to the congresses to a limited extent: before then, congresses were members-only events. It is noteworthy and certainly to the credit of Gerdien, in partnership with the board of the Friends of CODART Foundation, that this was always arranged harmoniously. Tico also recalls many conversations about the congress themes, such as connoisseurship, the theme for the congress in Madrid. “It’s important to focus on what our position is, as CODART, in a discussion like that. What our objective is. Ultimately, our goal, as a committee, is to remain focused on the members, the network of curators. As the program committee, you reflect on the things that happen in the field and at the same time you want the members to take something away from a congress that will be useful to them in their own institutions. The themes we choose as a committee have a certain impact on the curators and the museums: that gives our work its significance.”

Tico describes Gerdien as a fantastic ambassador for CODART and ideally gifted in promoting curators’ needs, a quality that he sees as all the more admirable since she came into the organization in a sense “from outside.” He looks back with pleasure at his time working with Gerdien and his colleagues in the committee. The discussions about the themes and about what is important to the members widened his horizon. What really matters to us, as curators? To his great regret, Tico had to resign from the committee due to personal circumstances. The CODARTfocus that was organized in October 2018 to mark the Rembrandt exhibition in Edinburgh was a special occasion for him, and made a good end to his work on the committee and his working relationship with Gerdien.

Friso Lammertse took over from Tico as chair of the committee. He joined the committee in 2012 and shares with Gerdien a curiosity in the wider world, outside the field of art history. In consequence, the congress programs included speakers from other disciplines, such as a psychologist at the Madrid congress, who had conducted a study of connoisseurship, in consultation with Friso, especially for her lecture. Looking at things from different perspectives. It makes the discussions more interesting. Another point of agreement was on the need to highlight the subject of inclusiveness. That plan has not actually materialized as yet, but it is being discussed and it is something that Gerdien in particular was trying to place on the agenda.

Friso particularly appreciates Gerdien’s ability to always probe the depths of an issue. In her own subtle way, she keeps asking questions, forcing you to define your position better and more precisely. She has never forgotten the “why?” stage of her childhood. “She possesses wonderful, natural social skills. She listens to people in a way that encourages them to say more than they had intended. Ostensibly in the background, but without losing sight of the thread of the discussion. And later, if it turns out that some element of the plans has been changed, no one objects.”

Friso reflects that for a curator there is always a danger of losing yourself in your own niche, of focusing too narrowly on your own specific area. Thinking about possible themes and speakers helps you to appreciate the importance of CODART’s role as an umbrella organization; it encourages you to think about what you are doing, not just in your profession but also more widely about your role in society. In Friso’s view, that is what makes it so exhilarating and enjoyable to chair the program committee. “The program committee plays an important role. You can put subjects on the agenda and what you prioritize will receive attention. You take part in decisions as to which locations to visit, which is significant for those places. CODART exists to serve a large group of key actors in the world of Old Master Dutch and Flemish art, and the best way to reach that large group of people is by making your voice heard in the program committee.”

It will be clear by now that CODART is nothing without active members. It has been in part thanks to the enthusiasm of these committee chairs that Gerdien and the CODART bureau have been able to do their work so well over the years. Now, after more than thirteen years at the helm, Gerdien is leaving CODART. She will be greatly missed, not only by the members, but also, of course, by her team. On behalf of the CODART bureau, I want to thank Gerdien for all those wonderful years, and wish her every success and good fortune as she takes up new challenges.

Gary Schwartz (who can be regarded, in a sense, as the first actual program committee chair) wanted to add a few words of his own:

Gary Schwartz remembers: “I can still hear the cheers that went up when the CODART board told Wietske and Navany that the new director of CODART was going to be Gerdien. Her talk with them during the application process had set the friendly and enthusiastic tone for a working relationship that could be the envy of a CEO or director anywhere. This has proved itself over and again during the fourteen years of Gerdien’s directorship, as the team continues to outperform itself. That she is being succeeded by Maartje, from inside the team, reinforces the power of CODART as an organization. Gerdien’s dedication to CODART and her success as a director have special meaning to me, as a continuous proof of what a good idea CODART was.”

Thank you so much, Gerdien!

Maartje Beekman succeeded Gerdien Verschoor as Director of CODART in 2019.