Still from White Balls on Walls
Carmen Henne-Ochoa looks at the documentary White Balls on Walls and how it spotlights one museum’s struggles with questions of gender bias, systemic racism, and colonialism.
What does it mean to “decolonize” a museum? In 2022, when I began DEIJ professional development with staff at the Eskenazi Museum, I posed this question to the 30-35 individuals who were seated in front of me and with whom I’d be working over the course of several months. I used the term “decolonize,” cognizant of the problematics that attend to it and recalling an Indigenous chief who once shared with me his rejection of academia’s use of the term. Decolonization, he expressed, should be reserved for when we are prepared to give back the stolen land on which Indiana University stands. Several years earlier, I had also had a conversation with an Indigenous graduate student. “What does it mean to ‘decolonize’ a museum?” I asked her one day while we sat on my front porch. “A decolonized museum is a museum that no longer exists,” she responded. As I related my conversations to the Eskenazi staff, I was met with a good number of blank stares. For some staff, this was the first time they had considered what decolonization actually means from the perspective of an Indigenous person. For others with quizzical stares on their faces, I gathered they had on their minds what one male staff member dared to say out loud: “If we’re talking about doing away with the museum, or even less likely yet, giving back the land, well, that’s just never going to happen. It’s just not realistic.”
It seems very plausible that actual “decolonization” of the traditional museum — that is, in its historical colonial form of collecting (often by looting and forcibly removing) and displaying objects — is a long way away. Still, numerous museums across the country and around the world have engaged in the difficult work of interrogating their institutional legacies. Indeed, they have and must continue the work of contextualizing colonial artefacts, collections, and narratives; acknowledging and addressing the historical power imbalances of (re)presentation; and reflecting on and meaningfully including the perspectives of present-day Indigenous, colonized, and marginalized peoples and communities.
Sarah Vos’s White Balls on Walls offers a rare and sometimes jarring look into Amsterdam’s famed Stedelijk Museum’s journey as it reckons with its past in the context of pressures of funding mandates, evolving societal values, and reputational and ethical considerations. Over the course of three years, Vos’s camera zooms in and out of the Stedelijk’s innards: its operations, storage and conservation rooms, bathrooms and basement floor, and staff members’ thoughts and perspectives via virtual meetings, discussions, and individual interviews. What viewers witness is a complex journey wherein the museum’s director, Rein Wolfs, and his staff struggle with what is involved in diversifying the museum. They recognize that beyond including more than just “white balls on walls,” a reference to a Guerilla Girls protest placard that exposed white men — their gaze, their bodies, their art — as the standard in museum exhibits, they must also grapple with their own active complicity in perpetuating exclusionary museum narratives and policies.
“1% women artists; 0% artists of color; 99% American white male perspective.” These were the percentages displayed on the signs held up by the Guerilla Girls outside the Stedelijk Museum in 1995. Yet “it has been 25 years since the Guerilla Girls protest and only now have things begun to change,” says Dr. Charl Landvreugd, Head of Research and Curatorial Practice. In 2019, when the shooting of the documentary began, more than 90 percent of the museum’s art was created by white men. In a scene where Wolfs appears seated at a desk reading from the Theatre Journal, the Stedelijk’s efforts are criticized as paltry and insincere. “We see how these snow-white artistic leaders are and remain the measure of all things,” Wolfs reads from the published comments. At almost 60 years of age, well-dressed, white-haired, and exuding an air of confidence, Wolfs’s very embodiment is evidence that, to date, museum leadership — directors, decision-makers, artistic leaders — remain “snow white.”
Rein Wolfs in White Balls on Walls
It is therefore fitting that the documentary should open and close with the camera focused on Wolfs. In the opening scene, he stands, alone, facing a large swath of window blinds allowing for light to flood the room in which he stands. In the closing scene, he appears at the top of the museum staircase, good-heartedly greeting a group of three White middle-aged men as they climb the stairs to meet him. “Looks as if our supervisory board consists only of men,” and adds as he bumps fists with the group of men, “Only white men on the supervisory board.” “Grey white men,” one of the board members responds. As someone who has facilitated DEI professional development with hundreds of staff at various institutions, it is these last statements that I believe necessitate the most interrogation for making headway in the work of interrupting male-dominance and dismantling systemic racism. Without serious self-interrogation, white males in leadership positions will continue to be the observers of diversity problems, but will rarely — except, perhaps, in a jocular manner — turn the mirror to examine themselves as (part of) the diversity problem. White Balls on Walls leaves the viewer wanting in this regard.
Between the opening and closing scenes, however, Vos gives us much to ponder. Beyond efforts to display a wider range of art on its walls, museum staff engage in the larger project of contextualizing the production of art, its curation, and the socio-politics of (re)presentation, this despite Wolfs’s honest admission that “contextualizing” is a word he “hates” but that “we have to use it all the time these days.” Staff discuss the acquisition of works by artists from non-Western European or North American backgrounds, but they do so somewhat awkwardly, in terms of quotas and percentages, and while debating the meaning of what is meant by “background.” Staff imagine and plan the spatial arrangement of newly acquired art, ensuring they don’t create an “African zone.” In the Stedelijk’s storage, curator Beatrice von Bormann commits herself to resurfacing works by women artists, some of which weren’t listed in the museum’s database. Meanwhile, Dr. Landvruegd — who stresses, “It’s important for people to realize that I am the Head of Research and Curatorial Practice, and not the Diversity Officer” — engages members of the research team in a dialogue about the Western art canon. Judging from his uneasy disposition and responses, it’s clear Frank van Lemoen, one of the researchers, is not keen on decanonization. “You have to acknowledge that this is history,” van Lemoen offers. “One wonders whether inclusiveness isn’t some kind of utopia.”
Vos’s documentary presents a few missed opportunities. Most glaringly, a deeper dive into the highly discomforting process of introspection on the part of white people who hold power in the museum world, and the treatment of non-White, non-Western art, which is jarringly captured in a scene at the home of art collector Vincent Vlasblom. We witness the un-rolling of Marcel Pinas’s — a Black Surinamese artist — artwork on Vlasblom’s living room floor, Vlasblom’s accidental shoe on one of Pinas’s art pieces, and the careless handling of Pinas’s artwork as it’s moved out of Vlasblom’s storage units and displayed on the ground of a parking garage. That said, the implications of the Stedelijk’s willingness to open itself up to such public scrutiny, and Vos’s spotlighting of our cherished repositories of culture and history, are significant. White Balls on Walls allows us, to borrow from Wolfs’s words, “to re-evaluate things, but not just from the aesthetic perspective, but from an ethical perspective.”
White Balls on Walls will be screened at IU Cinema on November 12 at 1pm as part of the Art and a Movie series. A pre-screening gallery talk called “DEAI in Focus” will precede the film at 12pm at the Eskenazi Musuem of Art. For more details and to register for the talk, click here.
Dr. Carmen Henne-Ochoa has a PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago and currently serves as Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion in the College of Arts and Sciences. She has been teaching for close to two decades. For the latter half of this time, her “students” have been faculty and staff in institutions of higher education. Her subject-matter is diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice (DEIJ) education and professional development. On her good teaching days, she is reminded that she came to DEIJ work carrying her sociological lens and acting upon her moral and ethical convictions to create more just and equitable institutions. On the hard days, she is reminded that she is little more than an “institutional plumber” tasked with identifying the systemic and structural blockages — biases, exclusions, and inequalities — by institutions that claim they want DEI to flow unimpeded but that in reality resist meaningful transformation.