Interview with Silvia Bakker from twelve twelve Gallery
Creating dialogue and making voices heard is at the top of Silvia Bakker’s agenda. She runs the twelve twelve gallery in The Hague and sees it as one of her most important tasks to reach out to people – especially the ones who don’t dare to enter a gallery, because they feel the art world is excluding and intimidating. Twelve twelve serves not only as a platform for the few. Rather, it is a space for the public, based on the love for art and its potential to reflect, question and shine light upon the conflicting nature of politics and our society today.
When did you first get interested in art and how did it lead you into the business of being a gallerist?
At the age of 11, I fell in love with the works of Schoonhoven – the silence, the simplicity of the materials and the beauty of the lights. From that very moment, I wanted to know everything about art. I started as a designer; I started buying artworks and in the end finished my MA in Fine Arts in Brussels. For many years I thought I should be an artist, but gradually I found out that my skills were to be used somewhere else. And so I made the decision to give my artist colleagues a platform to express themselves. The artists that I work with create art that resonates with my world view. Their subtle voices are not about domination but activating and in a sense I use their work to speak out and draw awareness to issues of great importance, also beyond the world of art in the society at large.
On your website, you give an introduction to yourself – from your childhood adventures to your background as an artist. Many gallery owners choose to stay anonymous on their website. Why is it important for you to give the audience insights into your personal background?
Sometimes art is presented as an intellectual property for a few, but in fact it deals with personal questions, taste etc. A lot of people still don’t dare to enter a gallery, because they feel that they don’t know enough or they might give a wrong answer. I want to reach out to them and create dialogue. And I want to connect with my customers, for which reason I believe that they should know who I am and what has formed me.
How does the fact that you have worked as an artist influences the way you run your gallery and the collaboration with your artists?
I run this gallery as me (not as an artist, nor a gallerist) and the choices I make are intuitive. I select artists with a strong visual language and an urge to speak out loud. I know their struggles from working in a studio myself and how difficult it can be to formulate an artistic path.
You represent a program that spans the cutting edge of contemporary art, visual culture and politics. Can you elaborate a bit on the way your gallery deals with politics through art?
An important upcoming show for the gallery is "Post-Traumatic" by Peter Koole who sees society and art as deeply entangled. Koole’s work seeks to reflect, question and shine light upon the conflicting nature of politics and our society today. The upcoming show is about PTSS. Art creates a neutral platform and the driving force for his paintings is a sense of justice. There is an appeal for compassion and the attempt to keep someone or some events out of oblivion.
At the forefront of your gallery vision is the term dialogue, which runs like a red threat throughout your program. How is the "dialogic" aspect explicitly reflected in your exhibitions and the artists you represent?
The gallery is located in the city centre, and is visual to a wide public. A public program is organised alongside the exhibition in order to shed light on the presented topics and provide a wide range of perspectives to the public. We work together with for example Humanity House and PAX to build an interesting program. All the artists we show have an urge to speak and a natural need to connect.
Can you give some examples of some dialogues you believe were truly fruitful?
Art functions as a starting point. We did a show for Tamara Dees. The work of Dees is about experiencing and investigating what it is like to be small in a big world, which is very much reflected in the world of shipping. In recent years, she has repeatedly investigated the actual size of ships, as well as the actual size of various "big" works of art. But because of the materials she uses – boats – her material became a metaphor in time. People referred the boat to the refugee crises. During the presentation there where many beautiful conversations and some people even changed their position in relation to what happens at the Mediterranean Sea. Another show we did with Saskia Tannemaat, called Forgiven!, dealt whit the question: what does it mean to forgive? Saskia engages with the world surrounding her. In her portraits, Saskia doesn’t strive to match reality. Rather, she wants to portray the underlying story about what lies behind people’s appearance. The honest gesture of Tannemaat invites people to think about personal struggles and our daily surroundings, and some of them became very open it.
Do your dialogues with artists and collectors often turn into real life relations?
Yes. Without any relation or dialogues, nothing happens. Running a gallery has to do with trust: you have to get to know each other, be open, honest and clear.
If I just stepped into your gallery, how would you start the dialogue?
It is a good question, but I can’t give you an answer. The artists I represent do not set themselves apart from but rather engage with the world through strong constructive responses to aesthetic, cultural and personal questions. So the people entering the gallery always have different reasons. It could be the subject of the show, the title, the works, the artist. In any case it will be an open question…
Do you engage your audience and initiate dialogue with them in radical or new ways?
There are many interpretations of the word dialogue, and I am sure it is not radical. I do not want to use it to reach conclusions or express mere points of view. We search for a striking title, to open up the conversation. We love to organise events, performances, or situations where audience members become the part of the conversation.
With the (art) world getting more and more online, do you think it creates more dialogue or make people more immersed in their own activities on the screen?
While social media certainly help to expand the traditional narrative structures, socially engaged art reaches out from behind of the virtual interface, to find worth in the face to face encounters in the real place. Thus the actual conversation gets more and more relevant. I realise the importance of social value in the arts raises every year. So we use this as a tool to promote our agenda.
In your opinion, are art fairs good spots to go into dialogue with a new audience?
If you want to connect, you have to reach out. Art fairs are great spots to connect and find a new audience for your customer. And it enables you to see the works in real life, ask everything you want to know. But at the same time we have to be innovative to find new ways for a more varied system for exhibiting internationally, to connect with curators and collectors.
Running a gallery is also a business. No money, no space to keep the dialogue going. How do you balance the financial aspect with the vision of creating dialogue and connecting people?
Our most important job is to generate sales for my artists. So that is always our main focus. But the open approach is necessary to reach out to a new public. And so far, we have only managed to sell artworks through relations. People have to get to know you and to enter the gallery first. Through an event, conversation, or lecture, you will reach new potential buyers.
Do you believe that art has the potential to contribute to solutions regarding social issues?
Art gives us the opportunity to contemplate, think, rethink, express, connect. It is a part of the bigger picture. The political passivity of citizenship is idealised as active art appreciation and spiritual enrichments.
Where and how do you find new artists to exhibit and what do you spot an artist with a great "dialogic" potential?
The artists we work with have to be engaged with the world surrounding them, through personal questions and a strong visual language. I know a lot of artists from the expositions I did and visited over the years. And sometimes I find an artist online. When we meet, and we connect in a good way, meaning we have similar ideas about the work and context, we will work together.
In your opinion, does the art world need more dialogue?
We always have to connect. Especially with our colleagues. We have the mission to create a fair and easy way to connect art lovers to artworks.
What are your future plans for the gallery? In which direction will the dialogue go?
Be innovative. Build many relations.
twelve twelve gallery
2513 CB The Hague, NL