‘White Balls on Walls’ Review: Time With the Gatekeepers

From its tub-like exterior to its gallery walls and vast conference room, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam is awash in white. But the Dutch documentary “White Balls on Walls” concerns a different whiteness (and maleness) endemic in one of the Netherland’s cultural institutions. The movie’s cheeky title comes from a protest that the arts-activist collective the Guerrilla Girls (or an offshoot) staged outside the museum in 1995.

The filmmaker Sarah Vos began following the museum’s director, Rein Wolfs, and his staff in 2019 as they set out to address diversity and inclusion. The museum’s slogan, “Meet the icons of modern art,” had been met with scrutiny of the who-decides-what-is-iconic variety. Vos tracks those efforts through the height of the pandemic and the social justice demands wrought by the killing of George Floyd. There will be some awkward social distancing and a doubling down on Wolfs’s sense that the museum must include a richer array of artists, welcome a more diverse demographic and, while it’s at it, hire more people of color.

With access to behind-the-scenes processes, the documentary can be instructive about the work of changing legacy institutions, but also wincingly cautionary as Wolfs, his administrators and curators get tangled up in numbers and nomenclature. (“‘Gender balance,’ that sounds nicely diverse,” a woman says in an early meeting.) Their internal conversations — about colonialism, gender and Dutch identity — become more nuanced when people of color arrive. Charl Landvreugd, the museum’s head of research and curatorial practice, and the curators Vincent van Velsen and Yvette Mutumba, offer that nuance and give context to the museum’s quandaries. But even they don’t always pierce the hermetically sealed feel of the documentary.

White Balls on Walls
Not rated. In English and Dutch, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters.

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