W139 is a presentation and production space for contemporary art in the centre of Amsterdam. It was founded in 1979 by a group of young artists who wanted to present an alternative to the collections and exhibitions on show at the city’s museums and commercial galleries.
In the course of 30 years, W139 has evolved from an anti-establishment squat into a professional non-institutional platform for contemporary art. The program includes both Dutch and international artists who are invited to develop a new (site-specific) work for the W139 area.
Today, W139 operates parallel with, rather than in opposition to, the more established exhibition venues. W139 provides ‘room for risk’, and in so doing fulfills a unique role in the Dutch art world.
Judith Witteman (chairwoman)
Martijn van Boven
Monique van der Poel
Floor plan W139
plattegrond.pdf (63 KB)
A Brief History of W139
The former theatre at Warmoesstraat 139, on the oldest street of Amsterdam, was squatted in October 1979 by a group of five young artists including Guus van der Werf, Marianne Kronenberg, Martha Crijns, Reinout Weydom, and Ad de Jong who had graduated from the Rietveld Academie in the spring of that year and had made a summer tour through Europe in a van with a portfolio of their artworks and a list with addresses and phone numbers of galleries and museums. Back home in Amsterdam, they felt that before they would focus on an international career it was important to have a place to show their works to their friends in their own city. There was also a more general ambition of initiating a counterculture in Amsterdam, a movement against the closed world of commercial art and museums.
The huge, cold and light space formed an oasis in the dense, rundown environment of the city centre, a neighbourhood that in the early 1980s was dominated by drug dealing and prostitution. In permanent competition with a number of comparable artists run squats, W139 opened a new exhibition space with performances and punk music every weekend. The artists lived and worked in the block of houses around the W139 and its opening hours ran from noon till after midnight. After about nine years, the fire of the first group of artists ran out and a dinner and a discussion were organized for about forty artists and designers who were in one way or another connected to W139. From the discussion sprung many ideas about the direction W139 had to take and the question of who wanted to take responsibility for that. Ad de Jong, one of the founding artists, was willing to take that place. He became the first director of W139. From 1990 – 1991 he succeeded in finding and attracting the right people for W139 to establish itself as a place for artistic risk and innovation The Jong developed the basic ideas for W139: to keep the building free from external power, to always activate W139 by employing a director for the maximum of 4 years, to focus on the artists, to secure the autonomous place forever for the foundation and Amsterdam, by buying the building.
In the year 92 the floor of the back space was removed and the program had to be adjusted for that year. W139 was run by 4 curators; Martin Grootenbroer; Hewald Jongenelis; The threesome Bas van Tol, Pascal Zwart & Madje Vollaers and the English artist Tim Brennan.
Board member Van den Ban was at that time considered an established artist with an international career and he saw W139 as a possibility for new ways of presenting art. These shows attracted international attention. In an exchange program with French artists, the future initiators of the Palais de Tokyo visited W139; Van den Ban believes that the Palais de Tokyo’s very successful exhibition concept was to a large extent inspired by this visit.
Ad de Jong was not afraid to reject proposals by invited artists or to suggest far reaching alterations. He experimented with new physical support structures for artworks, alternative lighting conditions, and combinations of art and interior design. The Desk shows, in which artists were invited to create a one night event with their work on a huge table that filled the entire front space of W139 (except for a one meter corridor along the walls), is an example of the kind of ideas for art presentation that were developed during those years. In another extraordinary show I remember, small, framed etchings and woodcuts were lighted by huge, second-hand colour neon signs. Each director has four years to sculpt W139 entirely according to his or her ideas: Dominique Pelletey was director from 1992–1994, Theo Tegelaers became director in 1994, then Jean Bernard Koeman in 1998, Ann Demeester in 2002, myself in 2006, and recently Tim Voss, former director of Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof in Hamburg was appointed. W139 is a place where artists can realize their own desires and share them for free with everybody who enters the door. Isn’t this what everybody wants?
— Gijs Frieling, former director of W139 (2006–2010)
From ‘Desire and Relevance: Curating for the Many at W139’, Manifesta Journal no. 10, 2009/2010