The new documentary “White Balloons on the Walls” chronicles the ups and downs of the Stedelijk Museum in its quest for variety.

When filmmaker Sarah Vos began work on her documentary about the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, she intended to chronicle its early days under newly appointed director Rein Wolfs. But over the next three years, during which Vos gained access to every aspect of the museum’s operations, her cameras captured something far more important: Stedelijk’s monumental and challenging efforts to diversify staff and collections.

The resulting film, beautifully titled “White Balloons on the Walls” (after the Guerrilla Girls’ promotional poster), is that rare and insightful document of a centuries-old organization struggling and striving to meet a more inclusive era.

As we were told at the beginning of the documentary, male artists represented 96 percent of Stedelijk’s collection, just as his workplace was predominantly white. To begin to shed this stark imbalance, the museum dedicated 50 percent of its budget to acquiring works by artists of color and began to diversify its hiring methods.

These are initiatives that you may have heard about in glossy press releases. The reality we share is the stuff of endless Zoom meetings and discussions as Stedelijk employees work out—and agonize over—the finer points of inclusion. What does the term “color” mean? Should the word “prostitute” in the title of the work be replaced with “sex worker”? Will hanging black art in the same room be interpreted as creating an “African zone”? How about the Picasso problem?

It’s amazing that a museum, and even more so as legendary and revered as the Stedelijk, allows a film crew to document their candid conversations and journeys through diversity. But no, Wolfs told Artnet News, he wouldn’t call it bold.

“I think giving this access opens up the possibility of doing something like a model situation where both the successes and the failures of this whole process are shown,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is a very authentic document; it becomes very human. And I think authenticity is the vehicle by which you can learn.”

A shot from the film “White Balloons on the Walls”. Courtesy of Icarus Films.

Or, as Charl Landvrugd, the museum’s newly hired head of research and curatorial practice, puts it in the film: “It’s the pain that the white community is now experiencing that is part of the process we must expose.”

There are many other factors that influence the Stedelijk. First of all, his desire to embrace diversity followed the mayor’s directive on which the funding of the museum depends, creating a sense of urgency, as well as an atmosphere of opportunism that hangs over what is happening.

The Stetedlik is also considered the keeper of the history of Dutch Art Nouveau and contemporary art. What would it mean for a museum to rewrite the artistic canon to correct historical exceptions? First, Wolfs is leading the removal of a towering sign on the museum’s façade that once read “Meet the icons of contemporary art” – a “symbolic act” for the new director.

Curated by Beatrice von Bormann at the Stedelijk vault. A shot from the film “White Balloons on the Walls”. Courtesy of Icarus Films.

Weight lifting is carried out in the bowels of the museum. Curator Beatrice von Bormann dives into the Stedelijk vault to rediscover works by women artists including Frieda Hunziker and Else Berg (some of which were not even listed in the museum’s database) to rehang. Meanwhile, Landvrugd and members of the research team engage in a tense but candid dialogue about the canon of Western art. “You have to admit that this is already history,” said researcher Frank van Lemoyen. “One might wonder if inclusiveness is not some sort of utopia.”

“The whole process of diversity,” Wolfs reflected with some exaggeration in an interview with Artnet News, “is a process in which there are so many traps, both inside and out.”

In fact, this tension is not only present inside the Stedelijk (down to the security guard, who is baffled by the new gender-neutral toilets), but also extends to the public. Toward the end of the film, the museum opens itsKirchner and Noldean exhibition that pointedly opposes the role of colonialism in the practice of the titular expressionists – to sharp criticism from the press and visitors for its “exaggerated political correctness”.

This kind of feedback can resonate with museums around the world as they launch their own DEI efforts, and even more so at a time when art is becoming more politicized and audiences are polarizing (looking at you, Florida). For what it’s worth, according to Wolfs, the “museum of awakening” label has followed Stedelijk since filming wrapped.

Director of the Stedelijk Museum Rein Wolfs. A shot from the film “White Balloons on the Walls”. Courtesy of Icarus Films.

White Balloons on the Walls, with its unfussy editing creating uncomfortably extended scenes, essentially asserts that any push towards inclusivity remains a demanding and ongoing process. Even Wolfs himself admits that change at the Stedelijk, an institution with over 100,000 works in its collection, is likely to take decades.

“We will never achieve a perfect balance as there will always be people and groups with their own unique stories that need to be included in order to create a more accurate reflection of our society,” he admitted, and yet: “We have made huge strides in terms of being aware of our history and what we could do better in the future. Like most museums, we have a history of, shall we say, systematic isolation. Now we know, so we can make some changes.”

And this progress is not only necessary, but inevitable.

As Wolfs aptly asked in the film, “Are we supposed to be politically incorrect? It can’t be an option, right? It can’t be an option in this world, can it?

“White balls on the walls” will be shown in Cinema Forum209 W Houston St, New York, May 26

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