White Balls on Walls
(Netherlands, 90 min)
Dir. Sarah Vos
Programme: Artscapes (North American Premiere)
White Balls on Walls is essential viewing not only for those who care about art and cultural institutions, but for anyone interested in the vital changes happening within contemporary society today. Director Sarah Vos presents a revealing look at how one institution tries to rectify historic injustices by diversifying and expanding its characterization of modern art. What begins as a deceptively straightforward behind the scenes doc becomes a compelling record of a difficult but necessary transformation.
In 2019, when Vos began filming, more than 90 percent of the work at the Stedelijk, Amsterdam’s Museum of Contemporary Art, was made by white men. The museum’s director, Rein Wolfs, wanted to change that and gave the filmmaker unparalleled access to staff meetings and discussions as he set about to implement his plans. It was a bold move on the part of the museum, one which Vos took full advantage of to bring out the complex nuances embedded in their multifaceted challenges.
In the subsequent film, questions like how one initiates the move toward diversity and who gets to decide, lead to deeper issues around whether one can judge artists based on skin colour and/or gender. It’s an issue of quotas really when Wolfs proposes specific strategies, one of which includes a suggestion to have 50 percent women in the collection. This is problematic alongside the goal to have a diversity of racialized artists as well. The question becomes: 50 percent of what? And how do they fit female artists of colour into these allocations? Are these categorizations arbitrary? Equally thorny issues arise when looking back in history to individual artists’ choices of titles for their work: if, for example, one male artist called his painting The Prostitutes, can the museum change it to The Sex Workers?
The discomfort and awkwardness of the predominantly white staff is palpable. Vos’ meticulous shooting strategy brilliantly captures the doubtful glances and bewildered looks of some. At times they all seem to be floundering, leading to moments where the only person of colour on the curatorial staff becomes annoyed as everyone looks to him for answers on how to proceed with each step. In utter frustration, he declares that he is not the diversity officer.
Stylistically White Balls on Walls is quite simple, a basic observational doc. But it becomes obvious that it needs to be in order to capture the subtle gradations in these ongoing conversations. Vos is nevertheless sensitive in her approach, highlighting both the dynamic between staff members and the inevitable tensions that come with such an overhaul of the collection. A formal film strategy would have gotten in the way and convoluted the issues. This is a crucial approach for such a film to work, and it makes the result profoundly effective.
White Balls on Walls does reveal the slow pace of change within the Stedelijk museum and its staff. This is satisfying to a degree. Questions still linger but that’s just the reality of the situation at this point in time. The important thing about this film is how it documents a process of engaging with these tough questions. This museum and the exhibition that they eventually mount serve as integral case studies. Vos doesn’t sugar coat the experience nor should anyone. More work is always welcome. White Balls on Walls documents a remarkable achievement, a pioneering account of an important starting point.