After Years of Debate Over Colonial Ties, Witte de With Center Changes Its Name

Kunstinstituut Melly in Rotterdam, the Netherlands (formerly the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art) (Wikimedia Commons)

The Dutch institution formerly known as Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art has announced its new name: Kunstinstituut Melly. The Rotterdam gallery made the announcement today, October 2, more than three years after deciding to depart from its namesake, the colonial naval officer Witte Corneliszoon de With.

The name Kunstinstituut Melly was chosen through an extensive “Renaming Process,” which began in 2018. This involved an online survey for a new name and multiple forums, committees, and public discussions including the participation of over 280 participants. In September, an external Advisory Committee examined the name suggestions and submitted its choices to a public review attended by over 70 individuals across three sessions. The new name will come into effect on January 27, 2021.

“Kunstinstituut” means “art institute” in Dutch; the name “Melly” comes from an artwork by Canadian artist Ken Luman, “Melly Shum Hates Her Job” (1990), which is permanently installed on the building’s facade. It is also the name of the institution’s ground-floor gallery space, which in 2018 was repurposed from a white-cube gallery into a hybrid café and events space.

“It is a name that has been chosen based upon its capacity to maintain accountability, vulnerability, responsiveness, and to ensure that we continue to become a more welcoming and daring cultural institution into the future,” the institution stated in a press release today.

Witte de With The was a 17th-century Dutch naval officer who served in the Dutch East India Company and Dutch West India Company. He led Dutch colonial expeditions to India, Indonesia, and South America. The street on which the gallery is located still carries his name.

Egbert Alejandro Martina, a Dutch cultural critic, was first to raise the demand to rename the art center in April of 2017. Martina challenged the organization for planning an art project on decolonization without addressing the colonial history of its namesake. The art project was Cinema Olanda: Platform by artist Wendelien van Oldenborgh, which was an extension of the Dutch pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale.

On June 12 of 2017, about a week before the exhibition opened, Witte de With released a public acknowledgment and edited its website to address the contradiction of hosting a postcolonial exhibition while carrying the legacy of a colonizer. However, the institution was reluctant to change its name, saying that “re-naming would extinguish a link to a history that needs visibility,” but adding that it’s open for a discussion on the matter.

In response, Martina and a group of artists and activists — Ramona Sno, Hodan Warsame, Patricia Schor, Amal Alhaag, and Maria Guggenbichler — published a scathing open letter that urged the institution to chose a new name for itself.

“Witte de With has ‘failed’ to come to terms with its own internal contradictions, and has yet to reckon with the historical figure it symbolically embodies,” the letter, which was signed by hundreds, said.

After a series of meetings and discussions, the center announced on September 7 of 2017, that it would begin a renaming process. On that same day, it launched Rotterdam Cultural Histories #12: Witte de With; What’s in a Name? an exhibition that included a series of weekly public meetings addressing the issue.

Announcing the new name today, Director Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy said: “The institution’s renaming responds to the claims raised by the larger decolonial movement in such a way that the new name, even by evocation, cannot disregard this moment.”

The name Kunstinstituut Melly was chosen through an extensive renaming process, which began in 2018. The new name will come into effect on January 27, 2021.Read MoreNews, Kunstinstituut Melly, Netherlands, Rotterdam, Witte de With Center for Contemporary ArtHyperallergicRead More

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