Charles Esche, director of Van Abbemuseum, Netherlands

with Asha Veal Brisebois, Taykhoom Biviji

The following pages are from a Skype interview with Charles Esche, of Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Esche is a museum director and a professor of curating and contemporary art, and he’s been a biennial curator for Jakarta, São Paulo, Istanbul, Ramallah, Prishtinë, London, Ljubljana, and Gwangju. Taykhoom Biviji and I—graduate colleagues in the Arts Administration and Policy program at SAIC—prepared an interview of complementary questions last March, to engage our respective interests in the potential of biennials as a political and social force.

This conversation is divided into two parts, as part one comes from me and part two is from Taykhoom. Although constructed to be able to stand alone, parts one and two are most whole when read together. In part one I have removed my own interview questions  from the body of the text; they are available in the end notes. The goal is to present Esche’s conversation—body text and pull quotes—as though a narrative. Thus the reporting order of the questions has also been slightly edited, though I do feel successful in the goal to not disturb Esche’s voice. 


Charles Esche, director of Van Abbemuseum, Netherlands

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CHARLES ESCHE: I completely agree with you, and I think there is a kind of responsibility in a way. What the French would call the ‘public intellectual.’ Being part of that community that speaks in a way for the society. In a certain way speaks from the edge of society or speaks from the edges—the places where we understand society. We think about Foucault. This way of analyzing society by looking in the prisons, or in the madhouses. In these places is how you see how society really deals with humans. You don’t know it from the center. If you look at the oligarchs, you’re never going to learn anything about how society deals with people. You look at it from the edge. So I think that’s our job, partly to bring those ideas from the edge into the center, to reflect them back into the center. I’d agree. But many curators don’t see it as their job. It’s something which is again this idea of the stretch of the term ‘curator.’

There are also many art curators who see it as their job to serve the market, to create new products for the market. That’s how they see their job. Just like somebody working in a corporation would. And that’s fine. I’m not opposing it. But that’s a very long way from what I see as being a curator. And you’re more on my side than you are on that side, but you’ve got to be aware that there’s all that other stuff going on. And it’s kind of under the same name.




CE: We need to be a bit inventive of platforms. So I think it is a challenge. Like I said it’s also a challenge to try and invent those new platforms.[6] But that’s something that’s done socially. We invent institutions together. It’s not one person who invents it. Even the Museum of Modern Art in New York was invented by a community.[7] Alfred Barr might have his name on it, but it was invented by a community that felt that this was necessary.[8] Or the Louvre was invented by the French Revolution, which was definitely a community action. So in that sense, it’s a challenge to us as a field, to invent things and to say, ‘Well you know we keep on doing biennales, aren’t they going to run out of energy?’ But the museum has existed for a hundred and fifty years, or nearly two hundred years, more than two hundred years from 1792, and it has been able to re-invent itself.[9] So there’s still that possibility. But also alongside the museum other institutions have been invented in the meantime. You have Kunsthalle, you have artist-run spaces, you have commercial galleries. All those kinds of things have been invented alongside and parallel with the museum’s continuing. So it’s not that biennales need to disappear, but maybe we need to have some other forms where this kind of exchange that you’re talking about can take place. So it is a bit of a challenge in that sense what I’m saying there. Absolutely. To say, ‘Let’s get on and be a bit more inventive.’ It’s even with the terminology. Like you have ‘artist,’ you have ‘curator,’ you have ‘mediator,’ and that’s quite new. You have ‘director’ I suppose in the museums.

There’s a whole other series of rolls that don’t really have terminologies. We call curators everything from Kanye West putting a website together, to what somebody does in a provincial museum in Arkansas or something. The stretch of that word is huge. The stretch of the word ‘artist’ is huge.[10] And it may be sometimes nicer to try and differentiate more within those. And I mean the same with the biennale. Let’s invent things within it.[11] [12]




CE: The biennale is a tool that I’ve had the luck for whatever reason to be given. So I’m not going to turn down using it. Because maybe it’s not the sharpest tool in the box. Or maybe it’s not exactly the tool that I need in order to achieve this job. Yet you can take a screwdriver, and use it as a hammer. You can make use of the tools that you have and that’s one of the things that we have. And so I wouldn’t obsess at all about whether a biennale is in its formation an interesting tool or not. I think it’s something that we have and our task as a curator is to make use of it in the best way possible. And so then the question is ‘Can we make use of it?’ Can you use a screwdriver as a hammer, or is it simply impossible to do it? So of course, what you do with biennales then is the question: ‘How far can you push them, in the direction of creating a dialogue between difference?’[13] In the end I think what I’m interested in is people from different positions in the broad sense of that term. So different subjectivities but also different social positions which are imposed upon them by society. There’s class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, all those things. So there’s one set of subjectivities that you have as an individual and there’s also a set of requirements and demands which are imposed on you because of where you’re born and who you are, and how can those differences be negotiated. It seems to me the challenge of my generation and your generation is actually how we can manage that in a better way than we do now, because we don’t do very well at it as a world.

So if art is to make a contribution then that’s where it seems to need to make the contribution, and therefore biennales seem to be a place where that can happen. And it feels to me that the question of how you bring difference together, not to eliminate it but to understand each other and to understand what difference is and to feel the energy that difference can create, then art is a very good place to do it. Because it’s a cultural question, fundamentally, it’s not really an economic question. It’s not really a political question in the sense of the politics as we know it today. I would like a very different politics, but the politics we have today is not going to provide a solution. So it’s whether we can understand our own beings as not being threatened by difference. And that’s something that happens at the level of culture. So therefore a biennale is maybe a place where you can precisely do that. But, you can also as a curator completely ignore that, and do something that the market loves and you get really good reviews in the newspapers. It’s not in the essence of the biennale, it’s neither the one nor the other. It’s really how you use it. And that’s where this idea of the ‘tool’ for me is very useful. And even if it’s not the sharpest tool in the drawer as they say.

CE: I think there’s a certain experimentalism that I would like to think is behind it. Rather than having definitive answers or saying ‘this is the alternative.’ I think a sort of experimental curatorial practice is how I would like to be called.




CE: [A performative relationship] between a public and the artwork in a way? ‘Public’ sort of broadly defined? I mean for sure, of course you strive for that and there are occasions where it happens. It often happens on the edges of what’s intended. For instance we had karaoke with an Indonesian group that was in São Paulo. And the karaoke was amazing because everybody was there in Brazil. They’re an Indonesian group, so coming from another part of the South, talking to another part of the South in a way, in a dialogue which is always packed with difference but full of potential. Packed with difference because that dialogue isn’t allowed to happen. The world does everything, including the way you can fly there, the interconnections, to deny that connection.[14] And when it happens it’s therefore fraught with difficulty, but at the same time packed with potential, because it’s actually an encounter which can really make a difference. It can shift power.[15] So, if India talks to Ecuador, that’s actually a far more interesting connection than if England talks to India. Because that’s been something that’s happened for a long time. So that potential is there, but also it’s a much more difficult encounter to envisage. Because of language, because of culture, of history, of all those things. So at those moments I felt a genuine notion of a kind of global community being possible. Interestingly through something like karaoke, which is an original Japanese invention which has come to Western Europe and then spread throughout the world. So again, it has its own interesting history.

And could that happen through a painting exhibition? It’s hard for me to see that. Because of the way that you participate in a painting exhibition. It’s difficult to get over all of those cultural barriers. Paintings themselves are so determined, so limited, particularly the modernist tradition, and we can talk a little bit about the problems of modernity and modernism, particularly today, but in those moments, when kids and adults, things like that, were coming together, and they were singing Indonesian songs, in São Paulo, at an exhibition organized by Israeli and Scottish curators, suddenly that felt like there was something going on there. I can also talk about other moments, but they are often moments where people are engaged in a way which is not the primary purpose of the exhibition somehow. Again thinking about a performance sort of aspect, there was this sort of open mic happening in the favelas, coming into the biennale, and you saw the oligarch class really being quite terrified by people because, I don’t know if you know Brazil, but it’s a society in which there’s a complete denial of the existence of the rest of Brazil by the oligarchs. They simply say ‘It’s not Brazil.’ They deny their existence. Except as servants, but that’s it. So the social system is so geared toward not recognizing these people that suddenly having them come and ‘invade’ this space again created a sort of tremendous feeling of capacity amongst the people, but also a kind of terror amongst the oligarchs, which you don’t really want to create but you do take note of. You say, ‘OK this means something has changed.’

And I can name other instances even in the museum. When we had the refuges, a lot of Syrian people coming here because of the war in Syria, coming over to Western Europe. Nearby the museum in Eindhoven there’s an asylum-seekers center and we had some of them coming into the museum and we tried to do guided tours of the museum.[16] But it was again when the conversation started in the café afterwards, and they were able to sing Syrian songs and things like that and speak back to us. You started to see a sort of give-and-take, and it’s these give-and-take moments which I think are really interesting. And of course most of the architecture of an exhibition I think is really designed to give, in the sense of giving these images out, and then the taking happens elsewhere. The taking happens back home or the taking happens when two people come into conversation with each other. So sometimes performance or performance-like elements within the museum can be those moments that you’re talking about. [17]


CE: I think there’s a lot of sensitivity around the idea of curators claiming themselves to be artists.[18] And that comes a lot through the different training that they go through. So there’s a validity in saying that the training of an artist is completely different than that of a curator. In fact in some ways there isn’t a training of the curator. The curator should be interested in other things, and then come to curating as a way to express that. So it’s almost a form of expression rather than a discipline.[19] Whereas art has its disciplinary characteristics. There are certain skills that you should learn. From drawing and painting and on upwards. So because you don’t have those skills, then to claim to be an artist upsets people. But I think that if we let go of that essentially modern definition of art, as we have to let go of a lot of things these days, if we let go of that idea of modern art with its particular disciplines and its specialism and even its sort of Greenbergian sense of art being art if it’s at its most artistic, its most arty-ness, in a sense, yeah, that if it’s a flat canvas then you should address its flatness you should try to push it to an extreme. If we let go of that and say that art is a field in which society can both mirror itself and maybe learn how to behave differently and that’s what I think art is interesting for. Then, once we have that definition of art, I think we can claim this idea of curators as having a similar practice to what we call socially engaged artists.[20] So simply claiming curators as socially engaged artists isn’t enough. We need to change the expectations and the social place that art has within society. And once that has been achieved then we can make that claim. But if that hasn’t been achieved then it’s difficult to make that claim. And I don’t think it’s been achieved yet.

continue to part 2



1. Do you view biennials and art as a potential site for the exercise of citizenship and participation in public life and discourse? With this as a better alternative than a public life that’s focused on consumerism….[1] [2] [3] Also, as a curator, do you consider part of your role as somewhat of a ‘leader of active citizenship?’

2. There’s an essay where you’re quoted as saying of biennials that ‘Global repetition of the format can lessen its impact.’ What is your vision or thought for breaking that repetition? Does it involve community engagement, and perhaps also multi-site work in unexpected structures and venues?[4]

3. Is each biennial essentially a forum or tool of its curators?[5]

4. I’m very interested in alternative curatorial practice. If that is the preferred term? 

5. I’ve been thinking a lot about the biennial format as a potential site for intercultural dialogues and intercultural performance, to occur in a way that’s a true and equal exchange, and positive, as opposed to the one-way ‘gaze.’ Has this materialized in specific significant occurrence in the cities and nations you’ve led exhibitions and projects in? I don’t imagine that these types of interactions would occur in the exact same way in each place. Jakarta, Palestine, Istanbul, Havana, Netherlands, São Paulo, Gwangju….

6. Is a curator’s work comparable to an act of social practice art? Should curators essentially be considered, and develop their projects, as social practice artists? 

[1] In “Civic Seeing: Museums and the Organization of Vision,” Tony Bennett (who will likely never fly me to the moon…) wrote about the historical viewpoints and philosophies that shaped participation in early American museums. He described museums as places of engagement and citizenship (available to whomever the status of “citizen” might at the time apply); and obviously, also, as sites for the appreciation of art objects. Macdonald, S. 2011. A Companion to Museum Studies. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

[2] A value statement of “creating citizens not consumers” is top-of-mind for many museums at present. In fact, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, in a recent visit to our SAIC arts admin and policy program, presented on this concept as being an essential driver behind its descriptive language update for 2016: The MCA Chicago is a top 21st-century contemporary art museum: An artist-activated, audience-engaged platform for producing art, ideas, community, and conversation around the creative process, in order to be a consciousness leader of local necessity and international distinction.

[3] Theorists such as Néstor Canclini, in my recent reading, have written about the necessity to “deconstruct the confusion of civil society with the market” and the “complicity of consumption and citizenship.” Many museums are seeking to position themselves as a remedy to this social stasis (again, this has been our SAIC cohort’s observation over the past semesters). The goal seems to be to serve as a private/public hybrid space, fostering an environment of ideas and interactions not based on transaction. I definitely assert that the desire to move toward this model is different for each museum; and ranges from the need to create an inclusive community space for a specific niche group, to a reaction of pushing back against neoliberal climates.   Canclini, N. 2001. Consumers and Citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflicts. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[4] Esche, C. 2011. Making Art Global: A good place or a no place? Making art global (part 1) : the third Havana Biennial 1989. Rachel Weiss. London: Afterall Books, p. 6

[5] In a November 2003 piece for ArtForum, editor Tim Griffin described the then proliferating biennial format as such: “This type of exhibition, endowed with a transnational circuitry, assumed the unique position of both reflecting globalism—since these shows happen in locations throughout the world, however remote—and taking up globalism itself as an idea. Establishing a new curatorial class able to bring artists together from wide-ranging geographic and cultural points, the large-scale exhibition altered the kinds of visibility afforded artists and so fundamentally changed the conditions of artistic discussion, ultimately forwarding the position that no show could, or should, presume an all-encompassing thesis—at least not in conventional terms and form. Rather, the exhibition extends through time and across geography to include panels, lectures, publications, performances, and public works that fall welt beyond the parameters of the traditional show, and lies well beyond the grasp of any single viewer.”   Griffin, T. et al. 2013. Global Tendencies: Globalism and the Large-Scale Exhibition panel discussion. ArtForum 42 (3) November 2003, pp. 152-163, 206, 212

[6] The 2011 Picasso in Palestine project is a compelling example of experimentation. Charles Esche was a key collaborator in achieving the project’s goal. Summaries are available: Michael Baers, for e-flux: Charles Esche, for Van Abbemuseum Kitchen blog: Afterall journal:

[7] Art and instrumentality (unfortunately?) have a long history together. This includes the early political motivations of MoMA. Compelling essay available here: Cockcroft, E. 1974. Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War. Artforum 12 (10), June 1974, p. 125-133.

[8] Alfred Bar, was the founding director of MoMA and served 1929-1944. Ibid. p. 131 [9]

The Louvre opened to the public in August 1793.

[10] In a May 1999 interview with ArtForum, the venerable curator Harald Szeemann noted that “The explosion of biennials is creating a new type of artist who really lives from project to project. They are very flexible. They go to Santa Fe, they go to Berlin; sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse. These artists are like film directors because they go from job to job, place to place, and make masterpieces as well as failures.” In considering the wide spread of the term “artist,” I find it interesting to think about how there are artists that shape their careers and work to maximize participation in the biennial exhibition format.   Storr, R. 1999. Prince of tides, interview with 1999 Venice Biennale Visual Arts Director Harald Szeemann. ArtForum. May 1999.

[11] documenta 11, led by Okwui Enwezor in 2002, is another often referenced example of experimentation. The discursive exhibition and public programming took place on four different continents.   In a November 2003 roundtable for ArtForum, Enwezor stated that: “The value of the global paradigm for me—if it means serious interaction with artists and practices that are not similarly circumscribed—is in its allowance for greater methodological and discursive flexibility.” He also noted the “temporary contexts” of these exhibitions as being “distinctly different from the stable site of the institution,” and the possibility of “what they add to the critical discourse of globalization.” Ibid.

[12] In the essay “Venice or Havana: A Polemic on the Genesis of the Contemporary Biennial,” curator and scholar Rafal Niemojewski quotes several of his peers in this contemporary art field in providing succinct description to answer the question of “What is a biennial?” The gallerist René Block described this format and phenomenon as “a new type of global exhibition established under the generic term biennial, which had a major impact upon the contemporary art scene.” Curator and director Okwui Enwezor pronounced “a mega-exhibition.” And writer Tim Griffin spoke of a “large-scale, transnational experience.”   Niemojewski, R. 2010. Venice or Havana: A Polemic on the Genesis of the Contemporary Biennial. The Biennial Reader. Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebo eds. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz.

[13] Still (the) Barbarians, led by curator Koyo Kouoh, is the 2016 conception of Ireland’s 38-year-old EVA International. The exhibition was developed to investigate and draw similarities between perceived difference—specifically related to the different experiences of existing as a colonized nation. The curatorial statement is available here Also, here’s one review of the exhibition by Alice McCool of OkayAfrica Again, because of this unique take on comparative experience and expressions of dismantling colonialism, I have been following this exhibition for months.

[15] Speaking of shifts in power, I very much like this quote from writer and educator Rachel Weiss, on a major significance of the founding of Bienal de la Habana. In the pre biennial-explosion 1980s, that exhibition “proved that a convincing global position can be developed from outside the usual orders of power.”   Ibid. p.90.

[16] The Van Abbemuseum, in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

[17] In the essay “New Museums in New Europe” (from the book Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe, 2012 University of Chicago press) the late writer Piotr Piotrowski references colleague Hans Betting, saying of museums that “They are instruments that allow us to understand local societies.”   Of biennials, Piotrowski perhaps skeptically notes that “They are often organized by foreign curators, a fact that is supposed to raise their prestige and significance within the art world.”

[18] In her essay “The Curatorial Paradigm,” art historian Dorothea von Hantelmann, begins literally and figuratively with Harald Szeemann, curator for 1972’s documenta 5. Szeemann declared: “I am simply no longer willing to merely fill up an available space, but tend more and more to projecting my own ideas into it.” This shift in role for the curator, from “service provider” to “meaning producer,” was concurrently noted in documenta’s exhibition catalogue by artist Daniel Buren; Buren rejected the encroach of an emerging emphasis on curatorial practice and the importance given to exhibitions.   Von Hantelmann, D. 2011. The Curatorial Paradigm. La Critique journal on exhibition making, No 4, June 2011, p. 6

[19] In excerpt, an actual, and perhaps the quintessential debate…between Okwui Enwezor, Martha Rosler, and Yinka Shonibare, in ArtForum:   Martha Rosler: [speaks of her experience as an artist at Venice] … I am a bit perturbed by Okwui’s remarks that rather decisively elevate the curatorial metadiscourse above the contributions of the artists, which I can accept up to about 20 percent. I have to admit that I regard my own work as ‘instances’ of a discourse rather than leaden ‘things,’ but I’m not sure how willing I am to have a curator say that!   Okwui Enwezor: On the contrary, Martha, I do not elevate the curator’s metadiscourse above that of the artists at all—far from it. If I’m reluctant to treat the artist as an absolute god it’s only because I find it difficult to press myself into the false idolatry of the artwork as the only meaningful theory and speculative object in an exhibition. I always take it that artworks by their very nature are concrete examples of highly speculative thinking, and as such, I come to respect the artist on terms that are beneficial to our mutual interests in the construction of an exhibition.   Yinka Shonibare: The number of artists participating in this debate [2] highlights the ‘dictatorship of the curator’ [several] (sorry, Francesco, it’s a joke too good to resist). I think Martha will agree that the art of curating has become almost more important than the art, and the exchange between the curators here demonstrates this quite well. How did we get to a point where the rise of the global curator has brought artistic practice to its knees? It feels like a David and Goliath situation. This discussion reminds me of a dinner conversation between a critic and artist friend. The critic said to my friend, ‘You are simply an actor, and the curator is the director.’ My friend, who had had quite a bit to drink, screamed in horror, ‘How dare you say such a thing! I am nobody’s actor. I’m an artist.’ To which the critic replied, ‘You are an actor whether you like it or not!’   Ibid. “Global tendencies: globalism and large-scale exhibition”

[20] In “Cultural Pilgrimages and Metaphoric Journeys,” the artist Suzanne Lacy described movements of artists in the 1960s and 1970s and “the connection between an activist view of culture.” This included making a statement on how “women and ethnic artists began to consider their identities […as] central to their aesthetic in some as yet defined manner.” I imagine that this likely the same for many curators of that same generation and afterward, and that it’s not likely coincidental that both shifts occurred at the same time. Lacy, S. ed. 1995. Introduction: Cultural Pilgrimages and Metaphoric Journeys. Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Seattle: Bay State Press.

  • with Asha Veal Brisebois, Taykhoom Biviji

    Charles Esche:

    Asha Veal Brisebois:

    Taykhoom Biviji: