The entire curatorial team of Sonsbeek 20-24 in Arnhem, Netherlands, led by artistic director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, is walking out en masse over “precarious and ultimately unbearable” working conditions that they allege have been largely ignored by the organizing foundation’s board and management over the past three years.
In a letter seen by Artnet News that was sent to the board of the organizing foundation, Sonsbeek & State of Fashion, on September 29, Ndikung and his team said they were victims of sexism and institutional racism. They allege the exhibition planning was marred by managerial issues and precarious contracts. They added that their complaints have been structurally neglected by the foundation’s board and management, which has been hiding behind a “facade” of cultural diversity and inclusion.
Members of the artistic team—Amal Alhaag, Zippora Elders, Krista Jantowski, Aude Mgba, Ndikung, Antonia Alampi—signed the letter stating they will leave their posts on November 1, resulting in an early conclusion of a five-year term for the 12th iteration of the international art exhibition. Their current collaboration with the Stedelijk Museum on a show at the Dutch institution of work by the late Dutch artist and composer Sedje Hémon is the last noted exhibition or event.
The board of the Sonsbeek Foundation responded that they regretted the curatorial team’s decision and would address the matter with the team members in private conversations. Other stakeholders involved, such as the management and the municipality of Arnhem, may also be brought in for consultation, according to the foundation.
“We regret the decision and the motivation for it, but we also respect the decision,” said the board members in a statement sent originally in Dutch. “We do not respond to the team’s message via the media, because we believe that this should take place around the table in a personal conversation. The invitation to do so also lies with the curatorial team.” The board said it will consider the situation that has arisen and determine its position in the coming weeks.
Set to run from 2020 to 2024, the theme of the exhibition is “Force times distance: on labor and its sonic ecologies.” (The letter’s authors said it was “tragically painful” that the alleged issues took place within the context of an exhibition about labor). The event’s format of the current edition, which spans over a period of four years, is a change from the previous years where one show took place every four years. Though the organization was undergoing a transformation to become a more structural body, Ndikung, who takes over as director of Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2023, and his team pointed out that the foundation remains poorly governed.
They say that the board did not intervene when the curators flagged that an inexperienced manager of the foundation was largely absent, which they say caused disruptions in the planning and execution of the 2022 edition. Team members pointed out that the curators were fired and rehired multiple times, especially during the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, even though the subsidies for the four-year event were based on the plans and funds tied to the very same team.
According to their letter, in April 2022, an evaluation committee initiated by the board described the working structure “devastating”, noting the allegations of institutional racism and sexism, though no next steps were taken.
Sonsbeek, which was launched in 1949 in an effort to help Arnhem recover from World War 2, has taken place at irregular intervals since. It traditionally relies on financial assistance from the city of Arnhem and the Netherlands’s ministry of education, culture, and science.
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