The curatorial team of the current edition of Sonsbeek, one of Europe’s most important recurring exhibitions, has resigned en masse, citing “difficult and unsupportive conditions,” as well as “precarious and, in the end, unbearable labour conditions.”
The show is currently taking place in Arnhem, the Netherlands. News of the resignation was first reported in the Dutch-language publication NRC.
In a letter sent earlier this week to the leadership of the Sonsbeek Foundation, which manages the quadquennial exhibition, the curatorial team, consisting of Amal Alhaag, Zippora Elders, Krista Jantowski, Aude Mgba, and artistic director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, as well as Antonia Alampi (a co-curator until sonsbeek2021), said its last day with the organization would be November 1. The members will withdraw their proposals for all projects that have yet to be realized.
“It is with much regret that we are forced to end our five year trajectory of the curatorial framework Force Times Distance: On Labour And Its Sonic Ecologies prematurely,” the letter reads in part. “Alas, we see no option but to retract our proposals and end our commitment to the project, because we can no longer continue in good conscience.”
Among the conditions the curatorial team describes in its letter are concerns around the exhibition’s budget, its general management, and the “lack of structural support for the artistic plan” that were underscored by an environment “shaped by the structural disregard, neglect, disrespect, mismanagement, sexism and institutional racism.”
When reached for further comment by ARTnews, the curatorial team referred back to their letter.
In a statement sent to NRC, the board of the Sonsbeek Foundation said that it did want to respond substantively regarding the resignations via the media and would look to have a personal conversation with the team. ARTnews has reached out for further comment.
The letter also alleges that despite Sonsbeek’s leadership having “employed the notions of cultural diversity and inclusion as facade … it did not enter into a serious conversation with the team when we addressed these concerns in the work environment, despite a lengthy evaluation report from an external body that underlines these concerns and experiences.”
Additionally, the curators lay out other situations during their employment by Sonsbeek that they found to be untenable. They claim that the general director liked the experience to lead the show, and that their contracts were renewed and terminated multiple times, including at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown in early 2020. “This severely insensitive and unjust action was halted by protests by the curatorial team,” the letter adds.
After an independent committee evaluated the working conditions, according to the letter, Sonsbeek’s board “failed at taking appropriate action where the evaluation highlighted that the Board didn’t fulfil its responsibilities as Board: legally responsible for monitoring the actions and policy crafted by the general management.” This situation, the letter alleges, put the exhibition and the curatorial team in a difficult position with its partners, including the Mondriaan Fund, one of the most important funders of art exhibitions in the Netherlands.
This edition of Sonsbeek, branded as sonsbeek20→24, was to be different from past editions, as it would unfold over the course of four years, between 2020 and 2024. (The pandemic delayed its official opening to 2021.) In addition to a traditional exhibition program, with artist commissions, this iteration of Sonsbeek was also to include dialogues, residencies, publishing projects, radio broadcasts, and more, many of which have been deployed over the last year.
Speaking to ARTnews in 2020 about the curatorial team’s vision for the forthcoming exhibition, Ndikung said, “It was already very charged. Then came Covid—as a kind of sharpener or catalyst to understand some of the things we really wanted to talk about. ‘Force times distance’—the formula for work, for labor—became so important as the incredible inequalities in the space of work became so evident.”
The letter adds, “Tragically painful, this all occurred as the context of an artistic plan and mission that reflects on Labour and the sonic, resonating our individual work expertises and collaborative practices, as well as the struggles of many (art) workers in the Netherlands and across the globe over time.”