Witte de With Contemporary Art
Program—Timelines of a Name-Change Initiative at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art
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Timelines of a Name-Change Initiative at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art

With an introduction by Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy

The purpose of these timelines is to offer an overview of a discussion, initiated in 2017, surrounding the name of our institution: Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. Central to this discussion, and to its entailing institutional critique, is the association of this name with the history of colonization, and, relatedly, of slavery. As background, since its foundation in 1990, the institution was named after a street in Rotterdam called Witte de Withstraat, where it is located; for its part, the street was named in 1871 after the Dutch naval officer called Witte Corneliszoon de With (1599-1658). For the sake of clarity, in these timelines, the institution is here simply referred as Witte de With; the street as Witte de Withstraat; and the officer as Witte Corneliszoon de With.

The first of these timelines refers to positions, materials, and debates emerging from the onset of the discussion on the institution's name, specifically, from the start of the discussion within its premises. This very discussion about Witte de With's name emerged in a closed-doors planning meeting for a project at the institution (described below). Once the discussion reached the public sphere, it triggered controversy. The timeline lists events and actions concerning the different approaches and critiques of the institution’s name, as well as the ensuing proposals for a name change.

The timeline is, or aims to be, an attempt to describe the discussion; it is, in principle, an effort to report and learn from these events. Its drafting began in February 2018 by Milou van Lieshout, editorial and communications coordinator at Witte de With, who has tracked the debates internally at the institution, as well as in media outlets since 2017. In other words, its writing has been done retrospectively: it looks back in time and then forward to date, assessing events and debates, and identifying key moments and points in and of an ongoing discussion. As any written timeline, its succinctness may not express the lived or felt intensity of the discussions nor point to personal feelings, individual conversations or debates held privately.

Considered a draft-in-progress, this timeline is meant to be regularly updated as the discussion develops and new information surfaces or when new awareness or knowledge is produced. You may reach us via email at [email protected] if you wish to offer feedback on this timeline, in specific, or to comment on the name of Witte de With, in general. You may also contact us if you wish us to consider expanding on related events or actions, whether or not these are listed to date here; to point us to other matters surrounding the larger topic of name-changes; or, to mention related events taking place in Rotterdam, the country or abroad, which can serve to contextualize this ongoing discussion. We encourage you to do so.

Parallel to this timeline, we publish here a second timeline, which synthesizes the life and work of Witte Corneliszoon de With during the seventeenth century; this is interwoven with information on the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the Dutch West India Company (WIC), with whom the naval officer served during his lifetime. This second timeline was drafted by Wendy van Slagmaat-Bos, production officer at Witte de With and organizer of the public discussions Witte de With; What's in a Name? (described below), which is part of the long-term program series Rotterdam Cultural Histories.

A third timeline has been commissioned to an external collaborator, Çağlar Köseoğlu. This timeline will be published by the end of the summer. A native Rotterdamer, Köseoğlu is a published poet and teaches literature, politics and globalization at Erasmus University College, Rotterdam. The commission to this author involves researching several contemporary cases related to debates surrounding Dutch history, its colonial heritage, and public de-colonizing efforts and proposals. It also involves considering different senses of time, which may, perhaps, not be experienced chronologically, as well as pointing to current matters or existing grammars that could help articulate a structure of feeling of our times.

As it may be expressed above, there are various time periods and senses of time to consider, as there are various subjects and histories to account. Drafting these timelines and publishing them online—knowing this platform allows for constant review, that the information there is not "set in stone"—is a step in a longer learning process begun this year. The term learning is used here to denote a stage of an institutional procedure underway, which considers that for meaningful change to happen, experiencing various perspectives, different to one's own, is required.

This said, it is pertinent to understand the context in which a discussion or critique of an institutional naming, or proposal for a name change, for that matter, has unfolded. Making informed and sensible structural changes to acknowledge and to include cultural diversity from within, which is different to making an identity or marketing campaign outwards, is, ultimately, now a larger goal of this art institution that was named, for better or worse, whether in haste or to intently resignify, Witte de With.