Specialist Art Spaces: The Power of Independence

By Anna Geurts and Adil Boughlala

Lecturer Anna Geurts and research master’s student Adil Boughlala reflect on the recent Creative Culture Talk they hosted at film theatre LUX, titled When Art Offers Space for Community. This talk was in conversation with researcher Nikita Krouwel of The Black Archives, musician k.Chi” and dancer Neema Souare of hip-hop platform The Mansion, and cultural producer Marischka Verbeek, owner of the first Dutch feminist bookshop Savannah Bay. Their guests work at some of the most important art and heritage spaces for/by/about marginalised groups in the Netherlands. Do they aspire for their art or collections to be mainstreamed?

When someone starts a small art or heritage organisation, others may think that their aim is to grow bigger and more well-known. They are expected to start off by selling one kind of book, staging one kind of music, or collecting objects created by one group of people, only in order to become mainstream in the future. They are expected to want to have more stages and welcome more guests. To want their initiative to be included in more widely known festivals. To want their minority art to be recognised as important by mainstream media, and, next, to be acquired by national museums or archives.

But perhaps this is only what the mainstream thinks?

Specialised spaces

Recently, we – a student and teacher interested in sustainable art and spatiality – led a public conversation among a small group of people working at three very different art and heritage organisations in the Netherlands. This group included the owner of a bookshop, a researcher at an archive, and a dancer and a musician at a hip-hop centre. As diverse as this group was, they also had something important in common. Each of their spaces was founded with the intention of offering a place for heritage and art objects originating in a specific marginalised group and is run by people of the same group, following the logic “for us, by us, about us” – even if others are very welcome, too.

Savannah Bay started as a women’s bookshop, selling books by and about women – with attention to other, intersecting oppressed groups – and was directed and staffed by women as well. While the shop has become more gender-inclusive over the years, it remains true to its intersectional-feminist origins.

The Black Archives house books, letters, research papers, and other objects collected by Black intellectuals and families in the Netherlands, and is run by Black archivists, curators, and organisers, with their primary target groups being Black school children and Black citizens in the Netherlands.

Hip-hop platform The Mansion was founded to encourage talented young people in the east of the Netherlands, coach them and keep them “off the street”. They are coached mostly by people who are young themselves, and active in the hip-hop scene. The coaches and organisers support each other as well so that in effect, there are no strict role demarcations. Everyone can help anyone, and anyone can start a new initiative.

In the conversation that these three organisations had, and in the lead-up when we visited them in their different locations across the country, we learnt many things about the significance of art and heritage for oppressed groups. For instance, how art and heritage can teach and comfort us, and make change possible. We learnt about the importance of having a place of our own. And, most pertinent to this article, we learnt about the internal and external struggles in the face of that eternal question: why did you create a special place for your art? Why are you separating yourself from the rest? Why are you not part of “general” art and of the “national” collections? All three places taught us something about this struggle.

Savannah Bay

In one sense, Savannah Bay did take a leap towards the mainstream in 1997, when it formally turned from a “women’s bookshop” into a “bookshop”. When this happened, some of its most loyal customers were afraid it had lost its special character. However, it kept its intersectional-feminist spirit. When entering the store, the first things Adil expected were women’s literature and trans and queer literature. Yet, right at the entrance, he was met with climate literature and books on Black and indigenous culture (the latter of which are not new, by the way). While including an ever-widening selection of works by, for, and about different groups, the shop still works hard to spotlight marginalised authors and themes to its audiences. It still sells books that you wouldn’t find in most physical bookshops.

Image 1. Bookshop Savannah Bay in Utrecht

There is another way in which Savannah Bay embraces its special position. During the evening at LUX, owner Marischka Verbeek was opposed to franchising: the bookshop works because of its rich history within the city and its close connection with its visitors. Black Archives researcher Nikita Krouwel chimed in on this, pointing out that each city has its own culture. Whether you run an archive, a bookshop, or a hip-hop platform, each city has its wants and needs, and a formula that works in Utrecht does not automatically work in Amsterdam or Nijmegen.

Finally, many heritage and art organisations depend on subsidies from municipalities and other government organisations. Without their financial support, these spaces would have to close, something which the bookshop has also almost experienced before. Despite that, Marischka Verbeek is a firm believer that the bookshop – and art and heritage organisations by/for/about marginalised groups in general – should be able to persevere without this financial support. This has everything to do with Dutch political history of the past few decades. After a period of governmental interest in gender emancipation, fuelled by the 1975 UN Women’s Year, funding for emancipatory non-profit organisations all but disappeared. Marischka Verbeek called this “the feminist winter”. She saw first-hand how women’s organisations in Utrecht that received funding from non- and anti-feminist administrators were nudged into a shared building, which was then used as a reason to decrease their funding and which, eventually, led to the disappearance of most of these organisations. While Savannah Bay remained in its place, it, too, was impacted negatively because of its dependence on these organisations as customers. In order to become and remain a physical space for individuals to connect, therefore, it is important to guard your financial independence. And so, the activities organised by the bookshop are not aimed at selling more books, but rather the other way around: books are sold so that these activities can be organised.

The Black Archives

As this suggests, one problem faced by small art spaces is their lack of resources, such as paid and trained staff, climate-controlled rooms, and digitisation facilities. This problem could be solved by merging with bigger institutions. However, merging always means submerging. In our conversations with The Black Archives, they explained that if they deposited their collections at a national archive, these would become harder to find for visitors interested in Black heritage. The collections would drown in the masses of material, not only because a national archive stores so many collections, but, more importantly, because those people managing European national archives have never been very good at constructing finding aids and key words relevant to Black cultures. Their visitors would moreover miss the guidance from collection specialists and the intellectual and emotional support that can only be offered by visitors or staff with similar experiences of racism and a history of (forced) migration. At the current Black Archives, archivists can sit down with a group of visitors, go through the items most relevant to them, and retrieve further histories through personal story-telling. In contrast, a national archive in a white-dominated country like the Netherlands may be a hostile environment where you rather not set foot at all. Lastly, part of the magic of this archive lies in what it has collected, literally. Different types of materials, such as books, posters, and music records, can be found together in one room because they used to belong to one person. This tells valuable things about the life of that person. In a national archive, those materials might become scattered and the collection as a collection may lose its meaning. All in all, a specialist archive that is mainstreamed does not only win a few things, but it also loses a lot.

Image 2. The Black Archives in Amsterdam

The Mansion

The thriving of these organisations does not only depend on the safeguarding of a space of one’s own. At first, Anna thought, after browsing the online presence of The Mansion, that their wish was for hip-hop to be heard and seen primarily in club spaces, and that therefore they choose to organise their events on the floors of a skatepark, where the difference between performers and audience is blurred; where anyone can join the jam or a spontaneous battle; and where visitors are allowed to make noise, walk in and out, or bring a drink. Yet when Anna asked the organisers of The Mansion about this, a second story surfaced. There seemed to be a certain sadness or dismay at the idea that hip-hop “belongs” in the “street” and only in the street. After all, why wouldn’t hip-hop audiences, too, want to sit in plush chairs in a heated room, where the equipment is impeccable, you can hear every vibration, and see every blink of a performer’s eye?

Image 3. Hip-hop platform The Mansion in Nijmegen

Does this mean that hip-hop should merge with the mainstream, after all? Should its content, makers, and audiences become indistinguishable from other art forms? Not necessarily. Rather, it means that hip-hop should get access to the better-funded spaces that are currently run by people who are not so into hip-hop. And it means that in those spaces, hip-hop artists should not only be invited as guests (let alone as “the diverse guest”), but as programmers, producers, and managers who, through their expertise, will be able to present the full width of dance and music styles.

We hope that the evening at LUX and this subsequent article have inspired people to visit these three spaces. What’s more, we hope they encourage people to seek out other art and heritage spaces by, for, and about marginalised groups, or even create their own.

The people in the conversation were Marischka Verbeek of Savannah Bay, Nikita Krouwel of The Black Archives, and Kachi Yip (k.Chi”) and Neema Souare of The Mansion. We also learnt from their colleagues Roche Nieuwendam, Debora Heijne, Mich Fesenmeier, Deveney Eeltink, Mira Bruggeman, Steve Baptist, Isabelle Britto, Camille Parker, and Savitri van der Velden, and postgraduate researcher Merel Van Bommel, as well as from several of the books Marischka Verbeek listed here. The wording of the ideas in this article, however, including potential mistakes, is completely our own. The evening was produced in collaboration with Pim van Dijk and Leoni Bolleboom of LUX. The Creative Culture Talks are a series by Helleke van den Braber of Radboud University’s Art and Culture Studies. Photos: Adil Boughlala and Anna Geurts.

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