Prompted by the programmers and participants of the Cinema Olanda: Platform project, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art has come to examine the circumstance of its name, drawn in 1990 from the street on which it is situated, and Admiral Witte Corneliszoon de With (1599 – 1658), a Dutch naval officer engaged in colonial exploits. Attention has been drawn to our operating under such a name in a field of contemporary art practice that claims criticality, and the fact of this blind spot in our institutional history and self-awareness. The process of considering the implications of this has been challenging, replete with open-ended questions, ongoing self-reflection and critical re-evaluation; processes that we have come to recognize as core to our hosting of the Cinema Olanda: Platform project, by artist Wendelien van Oldenborgh and curator Lucy Cotter as an extension of the Dutch Pavillion in 57th Venice Biennale, and of great value in provoking evolution within the institution.

Part of our current efforts coalesce around laying bare a history of the Dutch Admiral Witte Corneliszoon de With. We contribute the following text as a permanent part of our website, and a display (September - December 2017) addressing; Witte de With as a figure, the naming of our street, and consequent naming of the institution – which itself will become part of the institutional archive. These are first steps in an ongoing process, part of making visible colonial legacies, and which have, through their embeddedness, become hidden from view or neglected; a symptom of a wider issue in Dutch society.

The process of examining this history has raised issues of re-naming. At this point we believe that re-naming would extinguish a link to a history that needs visibility, but remain open to discussing this further (ed. please see update: Public announcement of 7 September 2017). We would like to proceed in a spirit of open consultation, recognizing calls for transparency and openness, in order to approach the responsibility of arts institutions as a part of post-colonial power structures within Dutch society, and to re-think structural imbalances that current institutional practices reinforce. Formats for these efforts will be made public shortly.

From the age of 16, Witte Corneliszoon de With moved his way up through the ranks of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), serving on various trade voyages to territories such as India and Indonesia. Later, as a corporal in the Admiralty of Rotterdam, he was involved in the siege of Jakarta (1618) establishing the city as a VOC trading post for the next 300 years. In 1622 he became flag captain of the Delft, raiding Spanish held territories in South America. In 1625, now a captain, he spearheaded actions in the Malaku Islands off the coast of Indonesia, burning 90,000 clove trees belonging to inhabitants to increase the cost of the commodity. After leaving the navy for some time, Witte rejoined to fight the Spanish, and later, after being court martialled for various infractions, sailed a mission to the Dutch colony of Brazil (1648) to defend Dutch West India Company (WIC) interests from the Portuguese; a disastrous campaign that lead to the Dutch handing over the colony in 1654. He died in 1658 during a campaign to support the Danish against the Swedish, and was eventually buried in St Lawrence Church, Rotterdam.

We are grateful to the Cinema Olanda: Platform participants, and other commentators, who have raised these issues with us and set us on a path to unearthing neglected and sanitized histories that continue to support a colonialized past and present, and toward recognizing our institutional responsibility to address these issues now and for the future.

Update: we have read the recent open letter written to Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. We recognize our institutional responsibility to address these questions, now and for the future. Our acknowledgment about the name of our institution above is a first step addressing in part the issues raised by the Cinema Olanda: Platform (17 June - 20 August 2017).

23 June 2017

Update: The 12th edition of Rotterdam Cultural Histories is devoted to the legacy of the institution's name. It attempts to lay bare the activities of Witte Corneliszoon de With, the motivation behind street-naming in the nineteenth century, and the naming of the institution 27 years ago. It also aims to provide a space for public feedback on the question as to whether Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art should change its name.

1 July 2017

De Groene Amsterdammer published De aangekondigde dood van Witte de With written by Koen Kleijn.

23 August 2017

Public announcement by Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art

7 September 2017