Christopher Atkins, director of the soon-to-be-opened Center for Netherlandish Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, gives the kickoff address Friday for a four-part symposium on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Dutch historical art collections. I’ll guess this isn’t where he thought things were headed when he signed on for the job in 2019. But, between then and now, everything else has changed, and so the Center must too.
When the MFA opens its hub of academic inquiry on the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age later this year (a year late; pandemic) the frame will have profoundly shifted from its 2017 opening act, when donors Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie gave the museum 114 Dutch and Flemish paintings, many of them masterworks, doubling the MFA’s holdings and making it a global player in the Netherlandish realm.
But the past year, with its amplified calls for racial reckoning, demands some very public acknowledgments about the roots of all historical collections, this one included. Four hundred years ago, in a moneyed capital of European colonialism, is the place to start.
The symposium — its full name is “Art Museums and the Legacies of the Dutch Slave Trade: Curating Histories, Envisioning Futures” — was convened by the MFA in partnership with Harvard Art Museums, as well as Harvard’s History of Art and Architecture department. They didn’t start this conversation — Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum just opened an exhibition called “Slavery,” a first in its more than 200-year history, to examine the human trade that helped underpin the country’s status as a colonial superpower; while across town the Rembrandthuis Museum ran “Here: Black in Rembrandt’s Time” through last summer — but you can be sure our local institutions are eager to join it.
Both Harvard and the MFA have done hard work with their collections recently. Harvard started rewriting public labels for its historic collections in 2019, finally reflecting elephants in the galleries left unacknowledged for decades: the portrayal of women as objects, the rampant abuse of Native American populations, and, of course, slavery. The MFA, in the run-up to its 2020 sesquicentennial, appeared to be on a broad-based apology tour, laying bare its longstanding shortcomings in representing everyone from women artists and Indigenous peoples to the entire ancient kingdom of Nubia.
The symposium gets to the heart of it all, into the mechanics of museum-making itself. During the final session, a string of curators will give brief presentations on specific problematic objects spanning a gamut of international institutions with Dutch colonial holdings — whether because they were absconded from Dutch colonies like Suriname, or because of the portrayal of African subjects in the paintings. But that’s not the meat of it. No, to understand the Dutch Golden Age — spanning nearly 100 years from the late 16th to late 17th centuries, when the region dominated world commerce and culture — you have to understand colonialism itself.
Wealth always drives culture, a truism that hardly needs to be said. Jonathan Jones, a critic for the Guardian in the UK, wrote some years ago about the flourishing of Renaissance art in 15th-century Italy and the seed capital that was provided by the Medici family. Jones’s column was occasioned by a 2011 exhibition at the Strozzi Palace in Florence — the Medicis’ home turf — called “Money and Beauty,” which described in unblinking fashion how the modern banking system developed in parallel with the great flowering of Renaissance art. This was no coincidence, as the show pointed out. The Medicis were pioneering bankers who more or less created the notion of foreign exchange; financial historian Niall Ferguson, Jones wrote, credits them as architects of the modern global economy.
What they also were, of course, were extravagant patrons, affording generations of artists the resources and time to revolutionize the notion of art itself, elevating it from merely decorative or devotional to holistic representations of philosophy and imagination. There may well not have been a Sandro Botticelli as we know him without the indulgent financial wing of the Medicis. “When we look at Botticelli’s Venus,” Jones wrote, “we are looking at money.”
When we look at Rembrandt, or Rubens, or Van Honthorst, we’re also looking at money. Where the money came from is what underpins the symposium, which serves as something of a conscience-clearing as the MFA prepares its exultant display in fractious times. What we know about the Dutch Golden Age is this: It was a period of aggressive exploration as the region established colonies around the globe — in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The Dutch were a superpower in maritime trade, competing hotly with the British, French, and Portuguese in a race for economic dominance.
At the same time, vast wealth among a growing merchant class expanded the aristocratic practice of commissioning portraits for their own glory. Rich merchants were fueling a brisk trade in art-making, helping to develop and sustain a cultural blossoming, as in Florence 200 years prior.
Trade, of course, means many things, but few things brought more wealth more quickly than the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, a much-prized and fiercely-contested sector of the burgeoning global economy. The first half of the 17th century was dominated by Portuguese slavers, according to the National Park Service’s Ethnography program. But by mid-century, the Dutch had surpassed them, second only to the English. By the end of the century, Dutch slavers had transported more than 150,000 Africans to North American colonies, a number that would more than double in the century to follow.
The country’s commercial ambitions paid the freight for its cultural flowering, embedding a certain darkness at its heart. Museums, built for the enshrinement of those cultural pursuits, have forever borne the same taint. The good news is that’s changing, simply because museums are finally telling the truth. Several experts at Friday’s symposium will speak about dragging the less noble aspects of Dutch cultural achievement into the light. Maria Holtrop, the Rijksmuseum’s curator of history, will expound on “The Rijksmuseum and Slavery.” One of the speakers I most look forward to is independent curator La Tanya S. Autry, founder of the Black Liberation Center and co-producer of Museums Are Not Neutral, which advocates for truth-telling around the museum world’s roots in colonialism and a new model of community engagement for old-guard institutions.
But for the MFA in particular, this is both a pivotal moment and an opportunity. After more than a year of self-flagellation, there’s been a sense more recently of business as usual — a Monet show, a grand opening of its new Egyptian galleries (minus the truth-telling around its near-Nile Nubian neighbors, so important to the museum just 18 months ago), more Monet. (To the museum’s credit, it will open an important exhibition this summer juxtaposing Boston artists with historic pieces from the collection.)
But the opening of the Center for Netherlandish Art is big — maybe the biggest thing the museum’s done since the expansion of the Americas wing in 2010. For a region like ours, whose cultural identity was founded on devotional Europeanism — and from this violently expansionist slave-trading period in particular — a reckoning is very much at hand. A year of pandemic delay has given the museum time to rethink. With the museum’s name stamped on this symposium, it’s finally starting to talk about it. A cynic might see that as preemptive atonement, but let’s give credit where due. After a year of upheaval and justifiable demands for change, it’s a much needed conversation, and one the museum seems eager to have.
ART MUSEUMS AND THE LEGACIES OF THE DUTCH SLAVE TRADE: CURATING HISTORIES, ENVISIONING FUTURES
Part one begins 1 p.m. Friday. Subsequent sessions on April 16 and 23. Free. Registration required. harvardartmuseums.org/calendar/