“… there’s an incredible range of possibilities. I wish that the visual arts would start taking advantage of all these possibilities, because they will finally lead to a change in mentality, to a greater critical awareness; a change that in the end will turn away from the destructive and focus on the constructive and creative … if not, there will be no survival …” (Livinus, 1978)
1947-2015 | From ‘Free’ Academy and Psychopolis to GEMAK
by Marie Jeanne de Rooij
The Vrije Academie (‘Free’ Academy), was founded in 1947 and existed for 68 years, until the end of 2015 in the shape of GEMAK. With GEMAK’s closure and the foundation’s liquidation, an illustrious institute will cease to exist; an artistic sanctuary that, before me, had five directors at the helm: Livinus van de Bundt (1947 – 1964), George Lampe (1964 -1982), Frans Zwartjes (1983 – 1988), Bob Bonies (1988 – 2001) and Ingrid Rollema (2001 – 2009).
Livinus van de Bundt (1909-1979), the founder and very first director of the Vrije Academie, was a graphic artist who eventually evolved into a light artist before the term even existed. The following quote that, for the time being can still be found on the glass wall of the GEMAK office, is typical for the artist and idealist Livinus, who was always searching for new developments in the arts: “… there is an incredible range of possibilities. I wish the visual arts would start taking advantage of them all, because they will finally lead to a change in mentality, to a greater critical awareness; a change that in the end will turn away from the destructive and focus on the constructive and creative … if not, there will be no survival …” (Livinus, 1978)
The artist George Lampe (1921-1982) is mainly known as the driving force and front man of the Vrije Academie’s hip and happening Psychopolis era. He was also the husband of journalist Bibeb (the pseudonym of Elisabeth Maria Lampe-Soutberg, 1914-2010) – a household name! / or long forgotten? – who for years wrote much-read and groundbreaking interviews in the weekly newsmagazine Vrij Nederland. A fascinating documentary by the Dutch VPRO television network offers a splendid insight into the Psychopolis phenomenon. In the article below called The Vrije Academie of The Hague, Saskia Gras (*) describes the influential Livinus-Lampe period of the Vrije Academie that still appeals to the imagination.
Frans Zwartjes (1927), who became, and remains, world famous in the underground film scene with his experimental cinema, was director during the turbulent, post-Lampe period. He was by no means the manager type, but he certainly was an intuitive visionary. In a time when both art and society were becoming more businesslike, Bob Bonies (1937) again places the Vrije Academie firmly on the ground by running the institute in the same way he runs his artistic practice: with clarity, without compromise and outspoken.
In her efforts to rescue the Vrije Academie – for throughout the 68 years of its existence, the institute’s ups and downs with regard to funding remained a constant factor – Ingrid Rollema does not shy away from innovation and, among other things, starts a post-academic course and begins a collaboration with the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag that results in the establishment of GEMAK. After her term as director, Rollema continues the ongoing search for innovation in her work that often explores the political-activist possibilities of the arts.
The Vrije Academie has never been in calm waters and has always kept the lines of communication open to the outside world and been aware of what was going on or developing there. These freethinking predecessors each interpreted that in their own way and, fortunately, all had their own, very distinctive approach, temperament and vision.
In the period after 2009, the Vrije Academie was focused on critically reassessing and professionalizing its mission – in short: thinking – making – showing – and its three pillars, the Work spaces, the post academic studios DNA and GEMAK, the exhibition space that offered a podium to the Vrije Academie’s distinctive perspective, the link between art, politics and society.
Although that process was running on schedule and was on the right course to realizing future ambitions, the institute experienced a dramatic setback when the advice in The Hague’s cultural policy plan for 2013-2016, Haagse Nieuwe, resulted in a 75% cut in funding. Important core activities, such as “adult education in the arts”, i.e. the Work spaces and DNA, were no longer considered worthy of funding. This meant additional reorganizations and rigorous downsizing after which the exhibition space GEMAK was the only remaining active component.
In spite of all inflicted injuries, GEMAK was able to ensure continuity and realize a varied, high-quality artistic program. However, after an uninterrupted three-year balancing act, GEMAK was finally forced to face the hard reality that saving what was left from the past had become a hopeless rescue operation in the current political climate. Management, staff and Supervisory Board had no other option but to cease their fruitless struggle.
What we, as an institute, leave behind is a unique, rich and varied colorful history with an influential cultural significance for the city of The Hague, including the innovation of academic art education and artistic practice in the Netherlands. Our institute was never afraid of the uncertain, on the contrary, it saw and sees the future as a challenge for the arts to make a difference! This is why GEMAK says farewell in GEMAK-stijl, still in the spirit of the Vrije Academie’s basic principles, by celebrating the importance of art and artistic practice for society and politics.
Also on behalf of the Supervisory Board and the team of GEMAK, I would like to thank all artists, colleagues and our visitors who, whenever possible, supported, appreciated and enjoyed, and who will thankfully continue with the things they are good at: creating art, making art visible and enjoying art.
Marie Jeanne de Rooij
Director GEMAK | Stichting De Vrije Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten (2009 – 2015)
(*) Saskia Gras is an art historian who is currently working on her thesis, Vrijplaats voor de kunsten – De Haagse Vrije Academie 1947-1982 (Sanctuary for the arts – The Vrije Academie of The Hague 1947-1982) that she hopes to finish in 2016. For her research she used, among other things, the Vrije Academie archives. These archives will shortly be moved to the Municipal Archives of The Hague, where they will be documented and kept for posterity and will be available for consultation on request for further research.