Come venture with us inside the inner circle of Amsterdam's art world, an intriguing scene now buoyed by vibrant galleries spotlighting envelope-pushing artists and the reopening of three world-class museums
It looks like an art heist, the kind you'd see in a Steven Soderbergh caper movie. Along Amsterdam's charming, canal-split Prinsengracht, outside of the Morren Galleries, on a stretch dominated by cafés and daredevil bicycle riders, a car with German plates idles at a traffic-blocking angle. Rain drizzles down as a middle-aged man with a mop of gray hair impatiently jams a large artwork into the car's open hatchback. A blond accomplice in a miniskirt seems to keep watch. Then the man gets the piece inside, slams shut the hatch, and peels away. The woman coolly heads back into the Morren, stooping down to pick up an errant cigarette butt on her way in.
Uh-oh. Would an art thief really do that?
"You work here?" I ask, losing confidence in the heist angle.
"Yes," she tells me, now inside.
"That guy just bought a piece of art?"
She gestures around the gallery, which hosts a group show of terrific photographic portraits with such high resolution that the alluring women depicted seem poised to walk out of their frames. "That is what we do here," she tells me. "We sell art."
She and her colleagues at the Morren are not alone. Amsterdam is enjoying a bit of an art moment this year, surely the most recent of many, considering that great Dutch painters such as van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Vermeer all spent time in the country's most populated city.
Art collecting in Holland dates back 700 years, which leads one dealer to tell me excitedly, "It's in our people's blood!" Surely, then, the collective pulse has quickened now that three major museums (all within a short walk of one another) recently reopened after lengthy closings for extensive renovations, and the city's gallery scene pops with vitality. These developments, which kicked into gear during the last year or so, feed on one another and have been luring increasingly more aesthetically savvy visitors to the city that long reigned as a European art hub.
Amsterdam's past still resonates. After all, there is something inspiring about touring the newly reopened Van Gogh Museum, with the world's largest collection of the artist's work, to find out that when he needed inspiration he would visit the Rijksmuseum, basically around the corner and overhauled to the tune of about $480 million, displaying Rembrandt's famous Night Watch. Plus nobody can miss the massively redone, reconfigured, and expanded Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, with its so-called bathtub facade - yes, the museum's building resembles a bathtub - and a focus on all things artful and modern.
When the museums closed for their renovations, local gallery owners felt it. I find this out from Mo van der Have, a rangy-looking guy with a strong sense of style who owns the Torch gallery, originally founded by his dad 29 years ago. "Established collectors and curators came here for the museums and then they would visit the galleries," he says. "But when the museums closed for renovation, galleries and the tulip festival were not enough of a draw. Now it's nice to have them back in Amsterdam. But we need them here every year, not every decade."
Collectors who stayed away that long missed out. During my four-day cruise through the city's more aesthetically inclined precincts, I'm exposed to an arts neighborhood called De Pijp - where entrenched galleries such as Grimm have set up supersized outposts - terrific street art (a polite word for graffiti, taken from building facades and brought onto canvases and other materials inside galleries such as ASA and GO), and a love of fine-art photography, which surely derives from the fact that the king of rock photographers, Anton Corbijn, happens to be Dutch and is enjoying a gallery moment of his own. Inside the new and strikingly designed Andaz Amsterdam hotel, video art produced in partnership with the Stedelijk dominates the lobby and emphasizes the degree to which Amsterdam businesses support work produced or curated in the city.
Feeling a little frisky, local collectors and art lovers seem to be embracing conceptual art, technological art, street art, and just about every form of art that veers away from traditional drawings or paintings on canvases. Inside his Torch gallery, young van der Have explains that, like his father did, he strives to go against the grain of tradition. "But my dad was more analog and I'm more digital," he points out. Then he underscores the assertion by leading me to a back room where flat-screen, high-definition monitors show images such as perfect cherries that dissolve to resemble deflating bubble-gum bubbles.
After I tell him how cool it all seems, he smiles and replies, "To some people, these images are not conceptual enough. But those are a special breed of people."
When I mention to Mo van der Have that I am looking to meet up with a collector or two who can show me around the city's art world, he warns that I may have come to the wrong place. Unlike Americans, he tells me, "the Dutch don't show off their wealth and acquisitions. It may not be so easy for you."
Still, he gives me a few email addresses, including that of Hugo and Carla Brown, two of the country's best-known collectors. I contact them and Carla responds the next morning that Hugo is out of town but she will happily meet with me. When we rendezvous at the Browns' modest Amsterdam apartment (they keep their primary home in the Hague, a quieter city about 30 miles south), I meet a formal, stately woman with a dry sense of humor and a generous spirit. We spend most of our time in the Jordaan neighborhood, situated in the center of Amsterdam, where canals break up the streets, 17th- and 18th-century buildings taper at the top to provide low-rise Old World charm, and rambles down side streets offer respites from the crowds and reckless bicyclists who seem to be everywhere. Most established galleries tend to be located in this neighborhood, which also boasts more than its share of cozy cafés for coffees and light lunches.
Over cups of cappuccino, Carla explains that she and her husband purchased their first piece in 1974 when they happened into an art gallery while shopping for a new television. Struck by a self-portrait, they bought it and lived for a while without TV. "Then soon after," she remembers, "the artist won a prize." Looking downward and smiling tightly, she adds, "We figured that we had good taste."
These days, Carla and Hugo are old hands with a collection so large that most of it resides in climate-controlled storage spaces. Not surprisingly, gallery owners love Carla, recognizing her as a buyer, not a browser. When she walks into the Galerie Ron Mandos, a sprawling space particularly large for Amsterdam, Mandos himself breaks away from another client and greets her with a hug, then offers wine and a chat. Carla may be a good customer, but she can also serve as a conduit between dealers and artists. She introduced Mandos to the artist on display, Anthony Goicolea, whose computer-enhanced photographs create gritty interiors and landscapes.
A few doors up the block, on the main thoroughfare of Prinsengracht, Carla takes me to the Martin van Zomeren Gallery. A day earlier, I had visited this gallery on my own and left feeling somewhat clueless. The gallery features a wooden, mazelike installation, titled interior A-J, by the Dutch artist Katja Mater. On my second visit, with Carla greeted warmly and requesting to know more about the work, I find out it's designed to make you reconsider your ability to view art. To achieve this effect, Mater built it so you can't see it all at once. Confession here: It's still somewhat beyond me. But Carla seems pleased enough to accept a book by the artist from a young woman who's minding the gallery.
The work at van Zomeren represents the kind of conceptual art that seems to be all the rage in Amsterdam right now. We see more of it at the Stigter Van Doesburg Gallery, where pieces by Belgium-based minimalist Jimmy Robert lie low to the ground and play videos of the artist dancing. A fan of Robert - his media include choreographed video, collages, and stripped-down installations - Carla owns a number of his pieces. "We've loaned them out to museums," she says confidentially. "Sometimes they come back damaged. They are so close to the ground that they get kicked by people walking through the exhibition." She muffles a laugh as she relates this.
Trying to get a handle on things, I ask gallery director Diana Stigter about another Robert piece: a wooden chair with a rolled up poster of him positioned so you can see part of the artist's face but not much more. "It's about desire," she tells me. "There's a desire to open up the print and look at it, but you can't."
When we zip around the corner for the next stop on Carla's tour, passing a boutique selling fancy ladies clothing, the work appears more grounded and less likely to expose my lack of understanding. The Ornis A. Gallery features spooky, hard-angled portraits by a Russian painter named Yuri Rodekin, a discovery of this gallery's owner, Ornis Althuis. Reputed to be Amsterdam's youngest gallerist, the 26-year-old Althuis gushes over the 53-year-old Rodekin "living the way an artist should live." Althuis describes his artist existing spartanly in the Austrian countryside with a 26-year-old girlfriend, his muse. "They have no gas for cooking and walk every day in the forest. Then they come home and make art." The resulting paintings depict otherworldly scenes of melancholy and confusion. I hope Carla will buy one, just on the chance it can bring Rodekin into a more comfortable domestic situation. But his work seems a little too mainstream for her taste.
Walking back to Carla's automobile, passing a crowded ice cream parlor called IJscuypje (one of Amsterdam's best, she says), I wonder how she has seen the art world changing here. If anything, she says, collecting has gotten too big, too popular, too expensive. "Suddenly, [newly] rich people are buying and buying and opening their own museums," she tells me, sounding a little weary from it all. "They buy the big things first and love talking about those big things." Then, mirroring what I had already heard about the Dutch way, she adds, "Collecting here used to be much lower key."
I've hit Amsterdam just in time for white asparagus season. Hence, when Oscar van der Voorn, the GO Gallery's proprietor, invites me to a dinner in the gallery, he serves Louisville Slugger-proportioned white asparagus, adorned with new potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and smoked ham, and topped with melted butter and chives. The food tastes delicious and the eclectic company proves interesting. After one guest gives me a quick tour of her houseboat docked in the adjacent canal, I encounter an acerbic art wholesaler from Amsterdam who goes by the name Atmo Ronen. He encourages me to meet with a young Dutch photographer he represents, Daan Oude Elferink.
I've already met with a couple of local artists - including Nik Christensen, who does enormous, dramatic pieces with sumi ink - and am not sure about meeting another. But after I look at Elferink's online portfolio back in my hotel room, I am too excited by the work to opt out. A software writer by trade, he now devotes more time to exploring abandoned buildings and photographing their elegant decay - focusing his lens on suddenly empty homes, movie palaces seemingly poised for one last show, and castles with rich finishes intact but crumbling. Following a couple of communication snafus, and still excited to meet Elferink, I take a last-minute jaunt out to Atmo's office in a far-flung part of town much farther from central Amsterdam than he alluded.
Soon after arriving, slightly worse for wear, I am glad I made the trek. In a surprisingly homey setting, Atmo's sweeter than at the dinner. Viewed in person, Elferink's terrific work all but shimmers, thanks to a special printing process he employs. After telling me about the derring-do involved in securing these photos - traveling through sewers, traversing rooftops, lowering himself into abandoned spaces via rope - he reveals that his impressive ascent comes after just three-and-a-half years of shooting. Atmo recently sold 10 pieces to a New York City collector during an art fair there, and Galerie Patries van Dorst, in the extremely affluent city of Wassenaar, provides additional Dutch representation. "In Holland, it all goes so much faster than it does in a country like America, with so many galleries and so many artists," says Elferink. "Here, we're up against fewer obstacles."
Later, as he prepares to drive me back to my hotel, graciously sparing me another cab ride, Elferink explains why he resides in Germany, just a mile beyond the Dutch border: It's cheaper to live there. But as he transitions full time into photography, he recognizes that being an artist in Amsterdam has advantages. Snaking his car through the streets, which begin to fill with early Saturday night revelers, he marvels, "Everybody looks artistic here and nobody looks at you strangely because you yourself may be artistic."
No doubt, it's a sentiment that Vermeer and Rembrandt once shared.