A black and white portrait of a woman with blocks of colour painted over it on a blue background.

Merel van Helsdingen

In the midst of the pandemic, the Amsterdam member opened the first museum in the Netherlands dedicated to new media art

By Rosalind Jana  Portrait by Joe Cruz   Images courtesy of Nxt Museum

It’s been a tough year for art, with museums shuttered, workers laid off, and online experiences replacing the atmospheric thrill of wandering around an exhibition in many parts of the world. Which, considered all together, seems to suggest that 2020 was also a less than ideal time to open a new gallery. Not that this has stopped Merel van Helsdingen. 

The Soho House Amsterdam member recently moved back to the Netherlands after spending seven years in London. There, while working in marketing for a number of companies, including Apple and Universal Music, she was struck not only by the possibilities of combining art and technology, but also the creative frontiers being pushed by various institutions within the city. ‘Those huge installations in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, or in the Royal Academy where they work[ed] with David Hockney showing his work on iPads – I think those types of works really inspired me,’ she says.

Impressed by both the ambitious scale of these works and the fusion of artistic and digital mediums, she hatched a plan. Van Helsdingen wanted to create her own ‘big futuristic’ world of art. And so, Nxt Museum was born. 
A collage of a woman's portrait and two artworks.

'Opening a museum during a pandemic is obviously quite the roller coaster'

Above images from left: Heleen Blanken, Joe Cruz and Marshmallow Laser Feast (Peter Tijhuis)

Two people lying on the floor next to a large artwork.

Above: Dimensional Sampling #1 by Yuxi Cao (Peter Tijhuis)

Housed in a former recording studio in Amsterdam Noord, it is the Netherlands’ first museum devoted to showcasing and supporting new media art. Its mission? To ‘always look at what is next. We are totally and utterly obsessed with the future.’ Its mediums? Anything that sees artists using ‘the tools of their time to talk about modern topics,’ whether via ‘virtual reality… augmented reality, projected mapping, light art, videography, design, 3D printing’ or anything else pushing at the frontiers of art, form and reality in our technological age. 

‘Opening a museum during a pandemic is obviously quite the roller coaster,’ says van Helsdingen. Working alongside her business partner Natasha Greenhalgh and curator Bogomir Doringer, the team had to push back their opening date, make serious contingency plans, and think creatively about how to put together their exhibitions when some of the artists involved were stuck on the other side of the world. Though difficult, it was a time that bred ingenuity. Installations were built from afar with the aid of videos and online calls, while local artists who’d had work cancelled elsewhere were called in, too. 

Aptly, the museum’s opening exhibition was titled Shifting Proximities. ‘All about the distances between people, and how they constantly change,’ the exhibition explores questions of closeness and separation via eight immersive works. These range from Heleen Blanken’s data-driven digital world ‘Habitat’ (also now available to view on the museum’s Instagram, @nxtmuseum) to London-based collective United Visual Artists’ programmable light architecture, ‘Topologies #1’. 

Despite the strange and often overwhelming circumstances it’s had to navigate, it’s been a rewarding beginning for Nxt Museum. And from building further links with the local community and hosting more live performances, to expanding its online programming for viewers from afar, there’s plenty left to be done. ‘As long as you move with whatever is going on and gather people around you that are willing to twist and turn, and constantly steer in different directions, and keep supporting you, then I think you’ll get very far,’ says van Helsdingen.

Artists featured in the video: Thijs Biersteker, Roelof Knol, Heleen Blanken, Yuxi Cao, Marshmallow Laser Feast (images by Peter Tijhuis)

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