How diverse are Dutch art museums?

How diverse are Dutch art museums?

The Netherlands is famed for its many art museums, from the Van Gogh Museum to the Rijksmuseum and from the Escher in the Palace Museum to the Kröller-Müller Museum. But how diverse are they in terms of the ethnic backgrounds of their employees? 

Diversity in Dutch art museums

In English-speaking countries like the US and the UK, there are many curators of colour in important museums, such as the Guggenheim in New York. But the Netherlands does not have the same level of racial diversity in top positions in its art museums. 

That’s why Dutch newspaper NRC spoke to nine directors of the most important Dutch art museums, gathered personnel data from 21 museums and interviewed cultural policy-makers, cultural scholars, scientists and freelance curators in the same sector.

2,6 percent of curators are from a non-western background

The NRC carried out research among the 21 leading museums, showing that of the 231 employees in high positions in art museums in the Netherlands, such as curators, just six have a non-western heritage. That’s just 2,6 percent. Amongst museum supervisory boards, there is a slightly higher percentage of ethnic diversity, but it still totals at only 6 percent.

A more even cultural diversity can be found amongst museum employees in areas like security, technology or catering, but in curating, the figures are stark. The six curators of colour are employed at three museums: Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, Kunstmuseum in The Hague and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Yolande Zola Zoli, of South African descent, has been appointed as curator of Van Abbe Museum on January 1, 2020. Yasmijn Jarram is the curator of contemporary art at the Kunstmuseum. There are four curators of non-western descent at the Rijksmuseum, of whom one, Valika Smeulders, will be promoted to the position of head of the history department on July 1. 

To date, however, there are now seven curators with a non-western background: the date of reference of the report was dated June 1 and since then, Yvette Mutumba has been appointed curator at the Stedelijk Museum.

Not measuring is not knowing

The figures are clear-cut, but that doesn't mean there have not been efforts to combat a lack of diversity in the arts. The Cultural Diversity Code was introduced in 2011 and updated in 2019 as the Cultural Diversity & Inclusion Code which addresses diversity not just in recruitment but extended in four main areas: audience, programme, partners and personnel. Despite the richness it brings in many aspects of culture, the heart of art museums remains overwhelmingly white.

NRC also spoke to historian Patricia D. Gomes who has been researching institutional racism for years and she gave some insights. Gomes has noted that personal data often omits race. Gomes said: "All institutions use as an argument, as a neutral argument, that there is no ethnic registration in the Netherlands because this would be racist." In short, she sums it up as "Not measuring is not knowing, and not knowing is not having to do anything about racist exclusion."

“The arguments for this,” wrote Patricia D. Gomes in her well-regarded lecture on the topic, “have been the same in the Netherlands for fifty years: black people are not represented, because we cannot find them. They are not represented because they do not apply. If they do apply, they don't have the right education. And if they don't have the right education, we need more money to offer them that education.”

Rachel Deloughry


Rachel Deloughry

Rachel is a writer, editor and digital content creator, passionate about the arts, culture and lifestyle.

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DavidYoudonotne... 14:30 | 19 June 2020

Interesting article. If I may add some Dutch perspective, in my opinion it is not just a matter of money, it is also a matter of interest or appeal. Dutch (art) history as it is taught in primary and secondary school focuses a lot on Big Events and Important People from a Western perspective, even if attempts have been made to provide more than that single point of view. For someone with a different background, chances are school will not be the place where a lively interest in art is awakened, making it less likely they will pursue the academic career that is a prerequisite for the positions mentioned in the article. If curators are overwhelmingly of a Western background and perspective, even with the best of intentions they are more likely to create exhibits that stem from and thus appeal to that background and perspective, making them less likely to speak to visitors with a different background. Which in turn will not encourage such (young) visitors to take an interest in a formal career in art (history). And if they become artists who later wish to pursue such a career, they will run into the challenges concerning lack of education as described in the article. In short, I do not believe lack of representation is solved merely by throwing money at the issue, although that will certainly also be needed. It requires a change in mentality in a whole lot of people, who even with the best of intentions will have a blind spot that needs fixing. Thankfully it seems we are recently taking some small steps towards learning and understanding. (Yes, art is universal, but appreciation of 'different' art is easier if one has an appreciation of art that is closer to home, literally. What children learn, see and hear at home greatly influences (but does not determine, obviously) what they will appreciate outside of it.) (sorry for massive all of text, the comment field ignores line break apparently)