Esther at the Leuvehaven. Photo: © Marwan Magroun

Behind the scenes: I am observant

In conversation with Esther (TENT Rotterdam)

Her problem-solving skills are renowned, as is her love for and commitment to art.
Esther de Leeuwe has been a producer for over ten years TENT Rotterdam, platform for contemporary art. This busy bee has an eye for art and culture that is still evolving. As an intermediary for artist, curator and public, she keeps a cool head when coordinating all the practical work involved in organizing exhibitions and events. 'I am very happy where I am now.'

Text: Annemiek van Grondel

Esther de Leeuwe has developed a greater eye for artistry since working as a productions coordinator at TENT Rotterdam. In the exhibition space in Witte de Withstraat, which is part of CBK Rotterdam, besides exhibitions, educational programs, productions, performances and events in the field of art and culture are also realized. She calls it 'a personal voyage of discovery in art'. 'The performances and the music are inspiring. Artists take me on an exploration of their world, enriching mine. A large part of my life is filled in by art. '

A personal voyage of discovery in art

She may have been born in Amsterdam, 43 years ago, but Esther is a true Rotterdam person. She likes to talk, but straightforward; above all, she is a real 'doer'. After her secondary school years at the Emmaüscollege in Oosterflank, she left for Utrecht in 1997, to follow the university course in General Literature (now: Language and culture studies). She returned a year later, disillusioned. 'I chose language, but was more on the practical side,' explains Esther. 'I always wanted to go abroad, but hadn't thought about it properly. Stomping theory in the head is not for me. I passed the VWO with heels. '

So practice beckoned. She threw herself fully into small and medium-sized businesses and got a full-time position in a clothing store in the heart of the city center. In the Koopgoot, please note.

Underground experiments

The ambition to still complete a (less academic) course played up a year later. The choice fell on the HBO study Cultural and Social Education (CMV) at the Hogeschool Rotterdam. This time she did complete this training: in 2003 she obtained her bachelor's degree. 'This HBO study suited me much more', she says. 'CMV had various directions, such as community work or events. I chose the latter. '

What I see in the street appeals to me and inspires me

Esther has been interested in culture, especially music and graffiti, since she was a teenager. "What I see in the street appeals to me and inspires me," she says. For two years she was active for the underground dance label Clone Records, and she also worked at the Urban Unit, a streetwear store that also sold paraphernalia for graffiti artists. 'When I worked in the Urban, I noticed how passionate creatives are,' she says. 'They came to us to get a spray can and then they went to the station at night and early, to' bomb 'trains, so spray as large a tag as possible on train aircraft. They did this to make their voice heard in society. They wanted to show themselves to society, experiment, create their own work. Without having to depend on an actual exhibition space subsidized by the government. '

Graffiti for the masses

Where graffiti was once a statement against the incumbent power, nowadays walls are given to artists by the city council. Spraying paint in public places has become legitimate. 'Power facilitates it nowadays', Esther nods,' and that is very twofold. On the Rotterdam journalistic website Fresh Concrete an interesting discussion about street art was recently held. Visual artist Navin Thakoer told this in an interview street art is no longer underground, but embraced by city promotion and turned into a “gentrification caravan”, which makes a neighborhood hip and in the long run unaffordable. Graffiti is now intended for the masses, no longer coming from rebellious loners but from creative agencies. With a high “instagrammable” value as a goal. '

we are particularly interested in the concept of the artists and want to think outside the box

That has to be difficult for someone who now works at an art institution himself. 'Wring' is too big a word, but Esther will be the last to rank TENT Rotterdam among the rebels. 'We are more free in what we can exhibit than the really large art institutions, but some will continue to see us as an institution, a white cube. '

Esther, Leuvehaven Rotterdam. Photo: © Marwan Magroun

It occasionally results in slightly comic misunderstandings. Esther: 'There are makers, such as performance artists, who wonder whether they should change their concepts if they are allowed to perform with us. Then, in addition to their performance, they suddenly conjure up an authentic exhibition from the top hat. Although we usually respond to this, we sometimes also have to make it known that we are mainly interested in their concept and want to think outside the box. '

A call from the Oscars

Esther got to know TENT Rotterdam up close in the third year of her CMV training. She was looking for an internship and could even go there for a longer period of time. She was promptly given the TENT Academy Awards, a video evening that over the years grew into a real festival about video art. Even after her studies, that annual job was assigned to her, even though she had found a job at the architectural firm De Zwarte Hond. From graffiti artists and their free expression on walls to designers who unleash their creative vision on entire buildings - in her time as office manager for that agency, it was again the makers who fascinated her: 'The architects were very passionate. A special time: very interesting to be able to take a look behind the scenes there. I have a predilection for the raw and that's why I love buildings, cranes, ships: all things that are conceived, developed and functional on paper. How cool does it have to be to see something in your head performed? '

We sent scouts into the country in search of talent at the art academies

After two years she ended up at Clone Records and was able to work at TENT Rotterdam for the remaining two days of the week. There, Esther arranged everything from A to Z for the TENT Academy Awards. 'Nowadays video is being embraced,' she says, 'but when we started twenty years ago, there were few platforms for this art form. We sent scouts into the country in search of talent at the art academies, after which we put together a longlist and then a shortlist. It was an opportunity to give video artists a chance by exhibiting their work. Fifteen works from around the country were shown in a two-hour screening at Cinerama Cinema. The grand prize was one residency abroad.'

To her complete satisfaction: in 2009 she joined TENT Rotterdam full-time as a producer. Last year, she and her colleagues received a high-legged email from Los Angeles: the Academy Awards organization demanded that the name TENT Academy Awards should no longer be used, under penalty of an undoubtedly peppery fine. Shock-shrugging: 'A good time to stop, because now there are enough platforms for video art.'

A family

TENT, the Exhibitions department of the Center for Visual Arts Rotterdam, was founded on 9-9-1999. The goal: to show contemporary Rotterdam art in all its facets, whereby the international and interdisciplinary character is mainly addressed. Esther: 'TENT Rotterdam has an eye for all arts. We try to grow with the demand in the city from and for makers. We also conduct research into social themes and developments. '

As a team, we have a connecting task, being a source of information and a problem solver at the same time

The public often has no idea what is going on behind the scenes. 'You come in and look at the exhibition. But then you don't see what's behind it: from loan and transport to looking for a host who provides lively and interesting tours, 'she says. 'And that is never a stiff attendant: it is often artists who come in and enjoy taking people on an educational journey in the art world.'

In her work as a producer, all practical work that has to be done for exhibitions and events falls under her responsibility. 'We work in a small team and can always hold each other accountable for things we are working on,' says Esther. 'Everyone gets along smoothly, it's like a family. In principle, I am the point of contact for practical questions, but you could also say that we all are. I am very happy where I am now. Collaboration is important to us. Everyone has a network in a different area, based on expertise and experience. As a team, we have a connecting task, being a source of information and a problem solver at the same time. '

20 years of TENT

In 2019, twelve exhibitions and 84 events took place in TENT Rotterdam. Esther has several good memories of the organization's twentieth anniversary in September of that year. On this occasion, twenty artists who had once exhibited there as well as new artists were approached. Their work was shown over a packed weekend 'for kids of all ages', from visual art to poetry and music, including film screenings and 'family disco'. 'We converted TENT for the weekend, so that all makers could get the space they deserved,' she says. 'It was quite a job: afterwards we were completely knocked out.'

After all the preparations, a child can finally be shown to the public and you see a happy artist shining

This also applies to a greater or lesser extent to 'normal' exhibitions or events, with the opening for about 250 to 700 visitors as the crowning glory. 'After all the preparations, a child can finally be shown to the public and you see a happy artist shining. And then you know what everyone has worked so hard for. '

Prior to such an exhibition or event, the curator has made a selection of artists. Then Esther and her colleague Roel Meelkop are commissioned to discuss and realize the concepts of the various artists. 'The nice thing is: there is an idea, and then you think: but how? First we see if it is feasible at all. It looks nice on paper, but how do you solve that? Then an extensive investigation follows. Sometimes you release a balloon and see how far you can get in the implementation of such a concept. Is it climate-technically feasible or does it need to be adapted? Esther Kokmeijer wanted a airgloo build: an igloo of air conditioners, the ESIS 30, a specific kind only available in China. Via a contact I had a number of copies shipped from China by boat. But that took longer than expected, so they had not yet arrived at the opening. Fortunately, most visitors to the opening wanted to come back to see the final result. '


Esther emphatically does not call herself an artist. 'Because of my practical approach, I think very differently. I am an observer, an intermediary between the artist, curator, visitor and institution. I step in where artists want to realize their work. We are reasonably associative, but sometimes that is difficult if a concept does not fit in with the vision or the possibilities of TENT. We never reject a plan, but do everything we can to make it work by offering alternatives. How do you deal with the artist's children? You work from space. What can you do with the physical space? Then we try everything out until we have found something that approximates the concept as closely as possible. You fine-tune a concept in such a way that everyone is satisfied, if possible. After all, we both, the artists and the team, want everyone to be happy with the result. You create such an exhibition together. Finally, after a good conversation about the first concept, you create something completely new. We look for solutions to make the impossible possible. '

Publication date: 13 / 04 / 2021