Marjolijn van der Meijden at the Braid of Kalliopi Lemos on the sculpture terrace on the Westersingel. Photo: © Marwan Magroun

Behind the scenes: I'm off the street

In conversation with Marjolijn van der Meijden

Hard work is the motto of Rotterdam and Marjolijn van der Meijden. This also applies to art: at CBK Rotterdam she is a source of information for everyone dealing with public art in the port city, from artists, companies, funds and the municipality to the people of Rotterdam themselves. As an intermediary, it receives from BKOR (Visual Arts and Public Space) many beautiful things for each other through cooperation, perseverance and patience. In short: legs in the clay and feelers in the wind. A conversation with this spider in the web of art in public space.

Text: Annemiek van Grondel

Rotterdam is rich in art in public space and plays a pioneering role in this. Nowhere in the Netherlands can the public enjoy so many works of art as in the port city. BKOR manages, maintains and renews more than 500 items from the Rotterdam Sculpture Collection and also acts as an advisor and mediator between the municipality, funds, companies, artists and residents. Since 2004, Marjolijn van der Meijden (1964) has been leading projects within this part of CBK Rotterdam that enliven the city and deepen the discussion about art and society. Her background as a designer and work experience with SMEs and commercial companies come in handy in this position. 'I know how artists work and I also know the side of the client,' she says. 'Both parties must feel known. And at the same time you have to pay attention to the rules. '

legs in the clay and feelers in the wind

Van der Meijden was born in the Rotterdam neighborhood Zomerland, in the IJsselmonde district. She grew up as a curious girl with an open mind and an extraordinary interest in fashion and underground music. 'In the early eighties, as a teenager, I discovered the expressive, yet unexplored world of new wave in music and related art disciplines,' she says. 'Fashion was a mix of sophistication and artistic subcultures. Not chic, but quirky. I visited the first vintage shops, went out at the Eksit, sang in a ska band and experimented with my clothing and hairstyle: from long curls to short punk hair and back. '

The Willem de Kooning Academy, in particular fashion, exerted a special attraction on her. Following the DIY adage of those years, she first visited the Free Academy to make drawings, paintings and fabric designs for a portfolio. An important source of inspiration was the flamboyant couturier Carl - Cargelli - Gellings, who taught there. 'Cargelli had a fashion house with chic clients,' she says, 'but was a cult figure, a bohemian with an idiosyncratic teaching style. He challenged me and took me seriously. That appealed to me.'


Thanks to the free, intensive search and a stubborn portfolio, Van der Meijden received the coveted admission ticket to the Willem de Kooning Academy, from which she graduated in 1989. Her graduation project was entitled 'Day and Night', a style exercise in fabrics, inspired by the then hyped Jeff Koons, who navigated his work between kitsch and classic. "My project was an intuitive activity, without the wisdom of today," she says. 'I amassed a mountain of couture fabrics and set to work with it uninhibitedly.'

Rotterdam's XNUMXs art scene was unpolished and minimalist. 'My lover at the time lived in Antwerp, which had a vibrant nightlife and a classic decor,' she says. 'I had a different leg in the much less baroque Rotterdam. That was gray; you walked among junkies. Now sometimes I am looking at how the city has been cleaned up. Nice to see that, but less accessible to the current artist generation. The city has been cleaned up. Art must above all be positive, because it involves an economic component, among other things. '

With another leg I stood in the much less baroque Rotterdam

After her training, Van der Meijden realized that her talent was not in her own work. But she did have vision. 'I aspired to a coordinator position in the creative sector, to assist others in the creative process,' she says. 'But there was no study in that area yet.' That is why she decided to work as an intermediary in fashion, in a position between stylist and buyer. It was a hierarchical, disciplined job that required a lot of time and energy. Van der Meijden, who has since become a mother, wanted more freedom. That is why she applied in 2002 at Centrum Beeldende Kunst Rotterdam. 'At CBK Rotterdam you work hard, but it is a very independent position, with a flexible timetable,' she explains. 'Something like this was unprecedented in a commercial-business environment. Here I found the élan: the open conversation, the unconventional vision and approach. '

Van der Meijden quickly worked his way up to project leader Visual Art and Public Space within CBK Rotterdam. She does not necessarily call herself a 'museological' person, rather a 'street person'. 'Especially the Rotterdam public space and what artists achieve with clients and initiators in it is my focus.' Artists she works with question the force field in public space. 'At the moment, young artists in particular long for work in the DIY tradition, despite the rules, permits, regulations, budgets and (political and official) support,' she says. 'Our job is to ensure that this runs smoothly.

Tension field

Being 'spider in the web' of BKOR covers a wide range of activities, from advice, mediation and selection of artworks to practical support for artists and CBK Rotterdam, such as applying for permits and financing. In the collaboration between several parties, Van der Meijden must necessarily compromise. 'Together you prepare projects and create a climate with opportunities to avoid irreconcilable differences,' she says. 'You walk around a work of art, as it were, and you aim the same direction.' In her role she can bring together various forces to get something done and use them strategically for the good cause. 'There are phases where you sometimes have to kick a project, otherwise nothing will happen', they say firmly.

For the development of works of art in public space, BKOR, as a consultant for Rotterdam, has direct access to the network of the municipality. Van der Meijden: 'That is a field of tension between different spheres of influence. We are not so much concerned with museum art, but interested in street art. Yes, I am off the street: I work on “construction projects”, because you are literally dealing with land. That includes selecting contractors and talking a lot with the municipality, clients and artists. '

Together you prepare projects and ensure a climate with opportunities to avoid irreconcilable differences

She has all kinds of people around her who immerse themselves in all aspects of such a project. 'We set up a project group, often also from a network of the municipality. Are advisers needed first? Should an artist be involved sooner or later? I need to know the field, including the history of art in the city. A valuable strength in this is colleague Siebe Thissen, historian, philosopher and program leader of BKOR, who often advises me on the city-historical background of a potential project. The artist makes his or her creative vision known, after which we let the trajectory get off the ground together. There are many preconditions: you are dealing with a club of clients, the municipality and landscape architects. The club must get the feeling: tackling the rules, we go for that work of art. And then the artist can start making the work. '

Pleasant sights, proud sites

An artist distinguishes himself through a clear signature and vision. But in this era of economic liberalism, are artists still just as politically inspired as their post-war predecessors until, say, the XNUMXs? Is socially critical art still welcome in a raked-up society? Van der Meijden thinks so. 'We are in favor of a socially critical approach. But you realize something like that together with an artist. And in contemporary art expressions the sharp edges are sometimes stripped off. Today's society demands a positive attitude. '

There is a need for public recognition and a safe place for the community

A few years ago, Rotterdam experienced a tree of completed construction projects, such as the Markthal and the renovated Central Station. "They attracted a lot of visitors from outside," she says. And many arose in their wake pleasing sights. ' But that does not mean that cheerful works of art have to be without obligation. Take the seat Rewind on Willemsplein near the Erasmus Bridge. That work, consisting of windmill blades, was built in 2012 by Superuse according to a good recycling principle. In 2020 it took on extra meaning in the form of a bold color pattern by artist David Louf, aka Mr June. Van der Meijden: 'There is a need for public recognition and a safe place for the community to fight and celebrate what it is. The project was realized with initiators from the LGBTIQ + community. We researched the history, from the persecution in the Second World War and the use of the pink triangle to the rainbow flag from the late XNUMXs. We decided not to emphasize the sadness but the pride in our own identity. It is a location in the making: what it now stands is a harbinger of the place that will be created on Willemsplein. BKOR is there to fight places in the increasingly scarce public space. After all, land is becoming more and more expensive. It is really an achievement to be able to make such a project possible. ' 

Photo: © Marwan Magroun

Moving images

Rotterdam residents are very involved, with a multitude of initiatives for works of art in public space, including monuments. This requires patience and a lot of research, plus a load of regulations to take into account. 'Remembrance requires its own, subtle approach,' says Van der Meijden. 'For me, it's about the process together with the initiators. Not a quick action. Because such a monument will be present in the city for a long time. It starts with the search for a place, together with Urban Development. You have to dare to speak up, to make yourself strong for such a place in space. But it always comes down to collaboration. Fortunately, many great civil servants at the municipality have the same élan. '

She is proud of it clave, the Slavery Monument in the Lloyd Quarter, made by Alex da Silva, and Hans van Bentems Monument for the guest worker on the Afrikaanderplein. 'Both arose from an initiative by Rotterdammers, which was presented to politicians. Courageous people fought the story of their ancestors to realize these monuments with the help of us. '

Sometimes a work of art comes across her path, such as the braid of the Greek Kalliopi Lemos, who lives in London, on the Westersingel. The work was purchased by the Droom & Daad Foundation, which recently donated it to the city.

Brave people fought the story of their ancestors to realize these monuments with our help

Her eyes start to shine. 'We were just researching the Sculpture Terrace when the municipality advised us about the donation. And so the ball started rolling. We are very happy with it. It is the first work of art by a female sculptor on the Westersingel. There are not many female artists in the sculpture collection. Why? Over the years, more men dominated government and politics. Obviously, there is now more attention for diversity. We received all cooperation from the municipality for the quick installation. The work is a revolutionary and anarchist gesture. '

The image focuses on the position of women in our society. The gigantic cut-off braid symbolizes freedom: 'cutting yourself free' from patriarchal compulsion. Van der Meijden: 'Compare it with the boys' faces from the roaring twenties. Cutting braids is breaking with tradition and that makes you vulnerable. Getting rid of it gives freedom. In my teens I didn't know anyone with long hair: it had to be short and upright. Later you realize that the generation before you saw in long its resistance to the establishment. '

Cutting braids is breaking with tradition and that makes you vulnerable

Is the monumental, upright braid a mischievous nod to masculine power? 'The work is very feminine,' she says. 'The woman standing up and standing upright independently, who naturally takes her place in the public space.' On the appropriate date of March 8, International Women's Day the braid unveiled by the councilor of culture.

Another revolutionary project, Uproot Rotterdam, had more feet in the ground. On the occasion of 75 years of reconstruction, Sculpture International Rotterdam and BKOR organized an exhibition of existing sculptures from the city in 2016, in collaboration with the designers of Studio Makkink & Bey. Van der Meijden: 'We dragged images from all kinds of places in the city and brought them together in the Museum Park, where the Boijmans depot now stands. We told the stories behind the images and with the location we gave a stage to recently graduated artists. A mighty job. And the many positive reactions from the people of Rotterdam made the whole project worthwhile. '

Roll up those sleeves!

Both service and leadership are important qualities for the position of project leader and advisor of art projects in public space, according to Van der Meijden. And finding a middle ground in that. You have to give full attention to people but also be honest when something is not possible. ' Her previous work experience, the twenty years at CBK Rotterdam / BKOR and her university education in art and culture management, completed in 2007, make her a versatile intermediary who is particularly interested in the process in which art is created in public space. 'It's like a renovation,' she laughs. 'Something unexpected always happens along the way. Then you have to change something in the plan again. That is not always fun. But I believe in solutions. You can get things done with committed people. Roll up your sleeves together. '

Along the way, something unexpected always happens

For example, BKOR wants to make a case for restoring the former percentage scheme, with a mandatory budget for art for construction projects. Van der Meijden: 'It's about a framed policy on art in public space. Sometimes it is Wild West, which we must shape. That means lobbying officials and politicians. Now this is happening, for example, in the context of Feyenoord City. '

The process may be very important, but in the end what counts is the result, she realizes. 'And there are always several interests at play in the public space. Now that I am experienced, I know the pitfalls. We try to anticipate this with the entire team. One is good at this, the other at that. All parties involved, such as residents, organizations, city administrators and official committees, have ideas about how to use the public space. You have to hear the different opinions. And sometimes you just have to dare to speak up in order to do so. '

This city is so special. I wouldn't want to work anywhere else for the time being

A job in another city for a bigger salary, could that be the next step? A resolute 'no' follows. 'I am anchored in Rotterdam, both for business and pleasure. Perhaps abroad is an option, as a consultant. Through an international network I got to know colleagues in Scandinavia, among others. My experience is that with the many inspiring stories about the art collection of Rotterdam, there is always a special calling card to be issued abroad. This city is so special. I wouldn't want to work anywhere else for the time being. '

Publication date: 01 / 04 / 2021