CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Ad Koekkoek at CODART DRIE

For an ambassador for cultural cooperation of the Netherlands, Antwerp is nearly the closest foreign city where he can exercise his ambassadorial dignity. That is to say, on the map Antwerp is in a foreign country. But to call Antwerp a foreign city is not the way I feel about the place. In Antwerp I can speak my own language, and if there is enough street noise around me, the locals to whom I speak will not even realize at first that I am a stranger in their city. More and more as time goes by, to be in Antwerp, for a Dutchman, is to be at home.

Among the cultural centers of the northern and southern Netherlands, Antwerp is more than just another place on the map. I am thinking of the remark by the artist and writer Karel van Mander, a Flemish refugee who found a new home in Haarlem. When he wrote his great Schilder-boeck in 1604, van Mander said of Antwerp “Antwerpen in onse Nederlanden schijnt oft ghelijkt een Moeder der Constenaren” – Antwerp, in our Netherlands, seems to be or resembles a Mother of Artists. Many of those artists later moved to the northern Netherlands, but many others stayed on to give shape to a new Golden Age of Flemish painting. The greatest of these was of course Peter Paul Rubens, one of the great Netherlanders of all time.

In order to help me get an impression of the spread of art from the Netherlands in the world, would you oblige me for a moment? May I ask those of you who work in museums that own paintings or oil sketches or drawings by Rubens, to please raise your hands.

Well, that is quite impressive. I am sure as well, from my own experiences as a museumgoer as well as from the materials that CODART has shown me, that the presence in your collections of work by Rubens is not an isolated phenomenon. Your museums own not only his work, but also art by many of the other artists spawned in Antwerp and the rest of the Netherlands.

In an important way, ladies and gentlemen, this makes all of you ambassadors of International Cultural Cooperation for the Netherlands. If I were empowered to do so, I would hand out badges making you deputy ambassadors of Netherlandish culture. But that is not necessary. Your membership in CODART, the international council for curators of Dutch and Flemish art, and your presence here today, shows that you are already acting in that capacity. What is more, you have been doing it for much longer than I have. Before that, I am sorry to say, we did not pay much attention to the spread of Dutch and Flemish art in the world. Perhaps we took it for granted that work by our artists, from the Middle Ages to the present day, is collected and cherished in so many countries all over the world.

Well, we no longer take it for granted. Over the past few years, the government of the Netherlands has embarked on a serious program to promote our cultural relations with the outside world. Our parliament expressed the wish that the government pay more attention to this issue, and the government has taken up the challenge, with full conviction. The main responsibility for this function lies with two Dutch ministries, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. In 1997 the two ministries joined forces in an interdepartmental committee called HGIS-Cultuur, an abbreviation I will not try to explain this morning. Think of it as a cultural interface.

It is difficult to engineer meaningful cooperation between two organizations, with such large differences as you can well imagine exist between a ministry of foreign affairs and a ministry of culture. Yet, on the whole HGIS-Cultuur has proved to be a success. It succeeded in finding good recipients for the available funds. For the time being we are able to contribute 16 million guilders a year to organizations that further our purposes.

What are those purposes? How does the Dutch government propose to improve its cultural relations with the rest of the world? In 1997 we defined various kinds of approaches: thematic and regional, grand spectacles, improvement of the diplomatic infrastructure for cultural affairs and supporting intermediate organizations capable of carrying out large-scale projects like exhibitions or performances abroad.

Our two thematic priorities were defined as follows: First of all, projects in which the Netherlands functions as an international meeting-place and sanctuary for art and culture. And secondly, projects that do justice to the phenomenon of Dutch cultural heritage abroad. Among the regional priorities are Flanders, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, the Baltic States, France, the UK, Indonesia, South-Africa and the United States.

Shortly after HGIS Cultuur was up and running, we received an application for CODART from the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage. It was one of very few proposals that dealt with the museum world, which of course interests us. The idea of giving form to the network of curators of Dutch and Flemish art was too good not to pursue. To be frank, we found ourselves wondering why this had not been done before. We also knew the institutions and persons behind the proposal to be capable and reliable. It did not take long to decide that this project was worth funding.

Our judgment has been borne out by the initial evaluations of HGIS Cultuur projects by the Arts Council, the Raad voor Cultuur. In their report on the results of HGIS projects, published last October, they delivered a positive judgment on CODART (Onbegrensd Zwaluwstaarten, blz. 32). This pleases us for more than one reason. First of all because we wish success to all the projects we fund. But also because CODART has succeeded in creating something new and valuable that meets the conditions we had framed. The Arts Council singles CODART out as the only new network that was created in the framework of HGIS Cultuur. From the list of participants I see that this morning people from 21 countries – most of them countries from our regional priorities – are taking part in your meetings. That is a signal of success in itself for which I congratulate all of you.

As I said before, another of the aims of HGIS Cultuur was to strengthen the cultural function of the Dutch diplomatic service. This part of our program is also well underway. The status of the cultural attachés in several major centers has been elevated, giving these functionaries more clout at their respective posts. Funds for paying for trips by artists and cultural groups have been expanded. In the past year, CODART has made good use of these possibilities, especially in its contacts with the Netherlands embassies in Moscow and Berlin and with the consulates-general in St. Petersburg and Antwerp. In turn, CODART is helping the diplomatic service to improve its contacts in the museum world. We hope that the ties thus established will become stronger in the years to come.

Speaking of the years to come, they may not be as unproblematic for bodies like CODART as have been the past two years. T be clear, the new budget for HGIS Cultuur is reserved for new projects. CODART, which aims to become a standing institution, will have to look for more structural funding. The first source for such funding is an instrument known as the Kunstenplan, the four-year Arts Plan for the years 2001-2004. The government has concentrated nearly all of its subsidies for the arts in this plan. The amount of money available is much larger than in HGIS. In the coming four years, the government will disburse nearly half a billion guilders on the arts. This certainly is real money. However, the number of applicants has also risen sharply: 734 as against 473 who applied four years ago. CODART is one of the 450 new applicants for funding under the Arts Plan.

The challenge that CODART faces is not just a challenge to get a share of the pie of the Arts Plan. It is also a challenge to consolidate its international position. If the network is as vital as it seems to be, then there is certainly a way to share the burden of its costs with other partners. The first partner to whom CODART is turning is the Flemish Community. As you know from the program, the closing session of your congress is devoted to this question. I hope that those of you from Flanders as well as other countries will think about possibilities for getting your own countries involved in a more active role in CODART, in order to broaden the financial base of CODART. For one thing, it would strengthen CODART at home as well as abroad if it showed itself able to capture funding from other countries where Dutch and Flemish art is held. This suggestion is in line with another powerful priority of our Ministries.

A few minutes ago, I referred to Dutch cultural heritage abroad. In a general sense of the term, this concept could also be understood to cover the art in your museums. A collection of Rembrandt etchings in St. Petersburg, a Gerard Dou painting in Vaduz, a Pieter Saenredam in Boston – these are also Dutch cultural heritage abroad.

However, for policy purposes we have sharpened the definition. It is now applied only to cultural heritage in the former territories of the Dutch trading companies and other remnants of the colonial age. Not only Indonesia, but also Sri Lanka and South Africa of the former East India Company territories, and Brazil, Guyana, Surinam and – indeed – the United States of the West India Company are full of mementoes of Dutch presence. Fortifications, entire towns, shipwrecks and archives still attest to these centuries of the Dutch past. In many cases this material is not being taken care of with anything resembling the care that you bestow on your treasures of fine art.

Allow me to translate one passage from a letter on the subject from the state secretary of Foreign Affairs to the Second Chamber of Parliament, dated April 16th, 1997. Speaking of the archives of the Dutch East India Company, the state secretary wrote of Malakka: “The bulk of the archive remained in its original location, but was lost in the Second World War.” In Guyana a Dutch archive has been preserved, but until now we have not succeeded in having it microfilmed. In short, we have chosen to focus our attention on Dutch cultural heritage abroad in this sense of the word.

The term we now use for these artefacts and archivalia is “Gemeenschappelijk Cultureel Erfgoed,” Common Cultural Heritage. Even if museum holdings in developed countries do not fall under our bureaucratic definition, nonetheless the model we have developed for dealing with this heritage can be applied by extension to the fine arts as well. The state secretaries of culture and foreign affairs wrote the following concerning Common Cultural Heritage in a letter to the Second Chamber of Parliament last year: “Heavy emphasis is laid on finding a common basis for the support of activities and stimulating awareness of the importance of this material. Policy is therefore concentrated on countries where the Dutch presence had lasting significance for the local population and where it is seen as a cultural characteristic of their own. The principle of reciprocity gives this program a special character of its own.”

Rehearsing these thoughts in your presence, I wonder just how special that principle is. True, the importance of a painting by Vincent van Gogh does not have to be explained to the local population of Los Angeles or Washington. Last year’s exhibition, Van Gogh’s Van Goghs, was visited in those two cities by more than a million Americans. Nonetheless, this does not mean that Americans or Swedes or Russians do not view their Dutch art as a cultural characteristic of their own. I mention Sweden with reference to last year’s exhibition of sculpture by Adriaen de Vries. His statues in the garden of Drotningholm are certainly a characteristic element of Swedish cultural heritage, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that they were war booty from the Thirty Years War. Last year we were certainly able to rouse warm feelings of reciprocity in mounting the Adriaen de Vries exhibition in Stockholm, the National Gallery and the Getty Museum, which prides itself on the acquisition of a fine piece by the master. Now he is also part of the culture of Los Angeles. This is a feeling we want to build on, no matter how rich or poor or educated or undeveloped our partner may be. Partnership and reciprocity: those are the key concepts.

The partnership on which you are entering today with Spain comes at a good moment. Two years ago we celebrated the Treaty of Münster, at which Spain and the Netherlands buried the hatchet after 80 years of war. In the past few years exhibitions have been devoted to various aspects of the political and cultural relations between the Netherlands and Spain. In the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam there was a magnificent exhibition on King Phillip II. It was followed by exhibitions in Brussels and Madrid on the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, who ruled over the southern Netherlands. This year of course is the year of Charles V, with exhibitions all over Europe. The theme of your conference is therefore very timely. I look forward to listening with you to the lectures by Prof. Blockmans and by the curators from the Prado Museum whom you have invited to speak.

In closing, allow me to point out a feature of CODART that seldom receives sufficient attention. We are used to thinking of the organization as a counsel of international, that is to say foreign curators of Dutch and Flemish art. Yet, it strikes me in looking at the list of participants in CODART DRIE that the largest group is from the Netherlands. Indeed, what would CODART be without them? Colleagues who come from abroad to CODART meetings in March each year would feel strange indeed if they did not meet here with the curators of collections in the Netherlands. If we speak of reciprocity, they are the first group that is being asked to extend themselves. That they have done so in such large numbers, coming to the foreign city of Antwerp to meet their fellow curators from 20 other lands, is an excellent sign. And it gives an ambassador for cultural cooperation of the Netherlands all the more the feeling of being home abroad.

Looking forward to seeing you in your many distinguished museums, I take pleasure in wishing you a stimulating and enjoyable two days.