At the outset of White Balls on Walls, it’s so decreed: the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam will remove the massive welcome at their entrance that reads “MEET THE ICONS OF MODERN ART.” Over the course of this Sarah Vos’ documentary, the filmmaker follows the creative team at the Stedelijk as they try to determine the answers to two questions: Who even are the icons of modern art? And who are we to say?
On its surface, White Balls on Walls is a film about the balancing act undertaken by museum director Rein Wolfs and his staff as they attempt to challenge long-paraded, Eurocentric colonial art aesthetics in favor of a more diverse and nuanced perspective. Their starting point: a museum with no work by BIPOC artists on display, and a collection where male artists outnumber female artists nine to one. Wolf’s team labors over seemingly small-scale matters, like changing the title of a painting called The Prostitutes to The Sex Workers, while confronting larger and longer-term institutional ramifications, such as the issue of quotas. The team is all in agreement that there needs to be some change. Or rather, that’s at least what they say. Many of them admit to knowing this all along, although nothing actually materialized until Amsterdam’s deputy mayor initiated a new policy that would cut Stedelijk’s funding if it didn’t develop and implement a plan to bolster its representation.
The tension of White Balls on Walls is surprisingly palpable for a documentary with a fairly rote, linear narrative and nonchalant rhythm. At one juncture, Wolfs reveals that the Stedelijk had hired Vincent Van Velsen, a new photography curator who had, only two years before, publicly eviscerated the Stedelijk and refused public contact with members of its creative team. At the end of the film, the Stedelijk showcases the works of early German expressionists like Nolde and Kirchener in juxtaposition with the art of earlier Congolese and Papua New Guinean cultures, whom the Germans engaged with as voyeurs. Sometimes, however, White Balls on Walls feels emotionally overwrought, given its setting — it was shot during the height of the pandemic — and focus on diversity and inclusion. In the first scene, for example, a montage of paintings are overlaid with a creeping score reminiscent of those in B-horror films, complete with an Yves Klein jump scare. Fortunately, these moments of atonal provocation are few and far between in a film that does its best to reserve judgment and, in the space for observation created by this reservation, allows the viewer to react themselves to the questions the film asks instead of wholly capitulating to the director’s subjective lens.
Yet it’s also that very subjectivity that ultimately makes White Balls on Walls a fascinating film; after all, the conversations among museum staff are not exactly revelatory. In an institutional context with a persistent history so steeped in racial bias and colonialism, the Stedelijk team is really just getting on each other’s shoulders to pick the low-hanging fruit. What’s more interesting is Vos’ behind-the-scenes showcase of the museum, which serves as a case study in social performance. A primary point of investigation in the film is how to balance deliberate inclusion with meritocracy, both in the interest of those losing hierarchical social capital and for those gaining it. One can’t help but wonder to what extent the team’s deliberation is guided not by the question itself, but by the presence of a camera in the room. Not just the camera, but the director — a white Dutch woman — behind it, who in one instance trains her lens on and around Dr. Charl Landvreugd, a Black man and the head of the Research & Curatorial Practice at Stedelijk, as if he were the Empire State Building in a New York-set film. Here, the viewer can’t help feeling like a voyeur, a self-congratulatory citizen sitting alongside museum staff, passively holier-than-thou.
One of the film’s more interesting characters is a security guard, who guides the camera through the labyrinth-like hallways of the museum’s underbelly to unveil a former Muslim prayer spot — a desolate corner where you are more likely to be kicked by a passerby than pray in silence — and then a present one (a room re-carpeted and painted for silent worship). The room is still isolated and hidden, but it’s there. In a later scene, the guard shows the camera the old gender-specific bathroom signs (they’ve been switched out in favor of gender-neutral bathrooms), and he flatly expresses his confusion over the change. What’s so interesting about the guard isn’t his perspective, which borders on non-existence; it’s his apathy toward the camera. He shows the viewer around as if he were giving a tour to a random guest, which distinguishes his appearance in a flourish of cutting honesty, because for so much of the film we watch the Stedelijk’s creative team go back and forth in voices that do not sound like their own.
For instance, rarely do we see the Stedelijk team express disagreement or tension, both being inevitable symptoms of transition or change. During another high point in the film, one female staff member mentions a previous effort to increase the diversity of the museum’s curatorial team (shown at the beginning of the film). This change is soon forgotten by museum staff and viewer alike, until Vos makes her first intervention on screen, à la Jean Rouch, to ask the question: what happened to that? Of course, we aren’t given an answer — it would turn too many heads. (Ironically, the notion of this change is the only proposition in the film that would substantially affect the lives of the mostly white decision-makers running the cultural institution.) The film ends with Wolfs greeting the supervisory board laughingly, noting loudly, with a big limousine smile, that they are all gray old white men.
This is not to say that the efforts at the Stedelijk were insubstantial. We watch as their Nolde-Kirchener exhibition sparks discussion and outrage in Dutch media. Making a definitive judgment would be too reductive of a conclusion for a film that subtly depicts a museum and culture in flux, as well as the performance of mostly white decision-makers on a stage directed (implicitly or not) by a white woman, as if to say: “Look at us, we’re diverse now.” Here, the expression of diversity comes before its embodiment, and its result is a curatorial output and institutional consistency that underwhelm. And so, despite over-indexed scenes and the occasional manipulative tactic, White Balls on Walls excels at leaving the viewer with a question that extends far beyond the film’s end: are we working collectively to paint a more colorful future, or is everything we are doing just motivated by money and the aesthetic performance of meaningful change?
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.