White Balls on Walls (2023)

White Balls on Walls (2023)

An insightful, candid look at an art institution undergoing a long-overdue cultural transition



Dutch, English, German
90 min


Miraculously featuring zero glib uses of the word “woke.”

What it's about

A prestigious art museum undergoes a painful self-reckoning as it works to diversify its “pale, male, stale” collection.

The take

This sociologically revealing documentary follows the attempts of the largely “snow-white” staff of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk art museum to refresh the institution’s collection, just 4% of which was by women artists at the time of filming. The museum also featured exactly zero works by artists of color — another embarrassing truth that the Stedelijk’s staff, headed up by (white) museum director Rein Wolfs, work frantically to rectify by acquiring new works and “turning the mirror around” on the canon to contextualize whiteness as a distinct category of its own, rather than “the standard” (as the museum’s own Charl Landvreugd puts it). 

Though it features discussions on such worthy topics as artistic canons (who defines them?), linguistic nuances (should works with problematic titles be renamed?), and how to decide which art will be put into storage to make room for works that better reflect Amsterdam’s diverse population, this documentary is less interested in delving into the dark side of art history itself than the human behavior that arises when confronted with such uncomfortable truths. More than anything, what director Sarah Vos is perceptively spotlighting here is the intense discomfort and self-consciousness of the museum’s white staff when confronted with these historic issues — when, in a sense, the mirror is “turned around” on them.

What stands out

White Balls on Walls might seem, at first glance, to take a totally neutral fly-on-the-wall perspective — which it does, on museological questions — but across its runtime, it prods and zeros in on unintentional or unconscious behaviors in a way that casts a raised eyebrow over the decision-making process itself. Loaded pauses, anxious hesitations, and involuntary gulps are all spotlighted by the camera, a filmmaking choice that tacitly foregrounds the idea that the conversations being had here just might be forcing the Stedelijk’s white staff to reckon with things they’ve never yet had to in their careers. Without casting explicit judgment on the participants, this approach reveals just how painful and fraught a long-overdue process like this is, even for the most well-meaning curators.


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