Watch Out For Oude Kerk, The Art Gallery Within A Church

Isabelle Pitman

In spite of being Amsterdam‘s oldest religious site, the Protestant church Oude Kerk has caused art and history to collide. We catch up with Jacqueline Grandjean, director of the church, to discover how it transformed into an inspiring cultural hub by exhibiting contemporary art within the striking framework of 500-year-old gothic architecture.

Oude Kerk’s Panoramic Roof Terrace by Tatura Atzu

Tell us a little about the background of Oude Kerk. How did an exhibition space come to exist in the Old Church?

The Oude Kerk is both the oldest building in Amsterdam and amongst the newest contemporary art institutions in the Netherlands. An exhibition space rather than a collecting institution, Oude Kerk devotes its energy and resources to displaying contemporary art within the context of heritage. Every year Oude Kerk presents two major exhibitions: one exhibition around the concept of time and one exhibition on the concept of space. The last exhibition takes place from November–April and commissions one artist to make new, site-specific work. The Oude Kerk aims to inspire, to mentally reframe the commonplace in order to create new perspectives.

What are the advantages and difficulties of exhibiting in the oldest building in Amsterdam?

Oude Kerk achieves its mission by presenting a diverse program to a broad audience in a historical environment in which visitors can discover and explore the work of contemporary artists. Exhibitions at Oude Kerk are always site-specific installations. This means one should take thorough notice of possibilities and impossibilities as it comes to construction and installation. Installing a work in the old monumental structure is never easy, but maybe because it is so complicated and difficult, it makes it even more spectacular to see it, especially when you realize nothing is allowed to be attached into the building.

The artist Taturo Atzu built a panoramic roof terrace on the Oude Kerk. During Come Closer, the public program, people could enjoy a live broadcasting of Red Light Radio together with a beautiful sunset.

When did you first know you’d like to be a curator?

When I saw a work of Luciano Fontana.

Nighty Dwellings

What is your favorite Oude Kerk exhibit thus far? And why?

I think every attempt cannot exist without the previous one. As Samuel Beckett stated: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’

I am proud of presenting all the artists we presented; all shows are marked as favorite.

Can you tell us a little about the art scene in Amsterdam?

The art scene in Amsterdam is rapidly changing. We are moving towards new structures in the arts, and I predict it will be tempting to visit upcoming shows of Stedelijk, The Appel Arts Centre, young galleries such as Jeanine Hofland, Boetzelaar en Van Nispen and new project spaces such as rongwrong and Pakt. Not to forget Veem House of Performance. More is yet to come!

How do you choose which artists to work with at Oude Kerk? Do you have a variety, or do they tend to have a particular style and aesthetic?

I think we developed a sense for a typical Oude Kerk artist. Follow our program, and you will discover what I mean.

One of the Church’s Graves by Germaine Kruip

Do you believe in the white cube model’s ability to connect an audience to an artwork?

I believe in any attempt to connect audience and artwork; I think it all starts with the work itself and the open mind of the audience. However, the Oude Kerk takes art outside the white cube, making the dynamic realm of the everyday life part of the exhibitions.

Do you have a particularly unusual story or exhibit that has happened in your gallery in the past?

On one of our so called Nightly Dwellings, we left with 60 people and artist Ruchama Noorda for a nightly walk through the city. We walked in silence. People were staring at us. Asking questions: Where are you going to? We crossed the Warmoesstraat, Damrak, Prins Hendrikkade, and went back through the Beursstraat to the Dam. There, the artist gave a performance (without a permit, which is not allowed since it is in front of the Royal Palace). Coming back to the Oude Kerk for drinks, we discovered the group we left with had grown into a crowd of at least 200 people. All curious to know why.

Julianne Swartz at the Oude Kerk

What can we expect to see from Oude Kerk in the near future?

Time-based arts, performances, sound installations, two grand exhibitions a year and, of course, nightly dwellings on a regular basis. Our current exhibition features the Dutch artist Germaine Kruip. Besides new works inspired by the monumental Oude Kerk, the exhibition includes previous works that have been specially adapted for the monumental church space. For the work Oude Kerk Untitled, all artificial light sources that had been installed over the years have been removed, resulting in a blending of the everyday with the theatrical. During the exhibition, the light flowing in from outside will change drastically, with the church continually taking on another look and feel.

Which top emerging artists should we be following?

There is quite a lot of talent. Best way to follow the leaders is to connect with Rijksakademie.

What’s the best-kept secret of Amsterdam?

Garbage was not collected until recently in our neighborhood, the Red Light District.

Where else would you advise art lovers to go in Amsterdam?

Go to see the shows at Stedelijk, Appel Arts Centre and project spaces as rongwrong and Pakt. Also, do take up an Amsterdam Art Agenda that will guide you through the highlights in Amsterdam’s art.

Henry Miller wrote 11 work schedule commandments in his book, Henry Miller on Writing. Number 7 is ‘Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it’. Do you have a particular morning routine or way of working which helps you to be creative?

I meditate every morning. I could recommend you try this in the Oude Kerk once you are here. The best contemplative experience ever!
Oude Kerk is one of the winners of The Culture Trip’s The Netherlands Local Favorite 2015 Award. The Local Favorite badge is awarded to our favorite local towns, restaurants, artists, galleries, and everything in between. We are passionate about showcasing popular local talents on a global scale, so we have cultivated a carefully selected, but growing community.
Interview by Isabelle Pitman

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