Interview with Ron Mandos and Radek Vana

This year marks the 15th anniversary of our annual Best of Graduates exhibition. In fifteen years, great things have happened. About 350 artists have participated in the always cheerful summer exhibition. Many of them have since made their breakthrough in the art world. Others decided to stop making art. The exhibition has also developed considerably over the years. Several awards, such as the Photo Talent Award and the Residency Award were added, and new collaborations with Museum Voorlinden and AVL Mundo, among others, were established. To find out how the exhibition came about and what has changed in the past years, we speak with Ron Mandos and Radek Vana (curator of Best of Graduates).

Ron Mandos

Radek Vana

2008: Radek, how did the first exhibition come about?

Radek: Actually, the first edition of Best of Graduates was in 2005, under the name of Paraat. I started the exhibition Paraat at the Veemvloer, where it was intended as a collaborative project. It was about young artists in Amsterdam so it had to have an impact, this way they could join forces. I visited all the art academies regularly before 2005 and I found it remarkable that there were so many academies spread out across the Netherlands. Everything that took place outside the big cities was not really considered interesting at the time. No one came to the graduation shows and I thought that was a shame. That’s how I came up with the idea to bring the best artists from all over the country together in Amsterdam along with the artists who graduated from the better-known art academies.

After a few editions, I thought, all nice and well, but what do these artists actually get out of it? I considered it to be much more interesting for these young artists to work with the commercial segments of the art world. I already knew Ron Mandos from Rotterdam and I approached him, because he had always been interested in young artists. So, in 2008 we made an exhibition together for the first time. In that first year of collaboration, the title was Paraat #4 (Best of Graduates). A year later I left the Veemvloer and since then the title has been Best of Graduates. The 2008 edition took place in the gallery as well as in the Veemvloer. That year we made a nice connection between the gallery on the Prinsengracht and the Veemvloer with a boat. It was a great festive displacement. 

Installation views of Best of Graduates 2008

2008: Ron, how did you know Radek? Why did you feel it was important to bring Best of Graduates to the gallery?

Ron: At that time, I had the gallery on the Prinsengracht and we were closed for the whole month of August. The rental costs were very high and in August of course a lot of people are on vacation so it’s hard to choose what to show at the gallery. Especially since I’ve had a passion for young artists for years and I’ve always attended graduation shows, I thought this would be a good opportunity to offer them a platform here on the canal. That’s when I started to look into it, I think it was in 2006. I knew that Radek was the director of the Veemvloer and organized his exhibition Paraat there. Radek also came to the gallery sometimes, we knew each other a little bit. So, I went to see him to find out if we could do something together. That resulted in the Best of Graduates. I remember that for the first opening we had rented a big boat, so everyone could watch the graduation show here at the gallery and then take the boat to the Veemvloer to see Radek’s selection.

Radek: We had discussed in advance who did what and we divided it up. In one place more of Ron’s favorites and in the other more of mine. 

Ron: It was a great success from the beginning and it has also grown into a happening that is now almost indispensable. We receive a lot of appreciation for it as well – the fact that we ended up with a more or less non-commercial show and promote young artists so enormously. And people should realize that you can also support younger artists through a purchase. There have also often been major collectors, such as Carla and Hugo Brown and the family Drake. They are then also mentioned on their CV, which is of course very nice.

Installation views of Best of Graduates 2009

2009: Radek, can you tell me a little bit about the Young Blood Award and why it was created?

 Radek: The Young Blood Award was the result of working with a commercial party. We were able to come up with things that would be really meaningful for the artists. It was important that they would be received in a professional way, but also that they would be supported accordingly. That is why the Young Blood Award was created. Initially, the gallery purchased a work from the winner of this award. Later, in 2019, we began the collaboration with Museum Voorlinden. From then on, an artwork by the winner would be given a place in the permanent collection of the museum. Daniel de Roo was the first winner and he had a very good start of his career. Later he went on to do something completely different and started to make furniture.

Images of the winning work by Daniel de Roo

Artworks by Rik Smits, Nika Neelova, and Carl Johan Högberg

2010: Ron, can you tell us anything about artists who participated in Best of Graduates and with whom you later collaborated?

Ron: Carl Johan Hogberg, Nika Nelova and Rik Smits were artists from the Best of Graduates with whom I did projects as guest artists. We had some great projects with them. And at some point, you grow apart again. They’re still young artists, so you hope that they’ll find other galleries along their way. About twenty percent of our Best of Graduates alumni are still regularly active in the art world, but it also happens that you hear very little from them. That’s also something we want to explore with the Ron Mandos Young Blood foundation. We are in the process of creating an overview of all the artists who have ever participated, so we can see what they are all doing at the moment. I am extremely curious to find out.

Installation views and views of the opening of Best of Graduates 2010

2011: Radek, can you tell us something about the Public Choice Award, which was presented for the first time in 2011?

Radek: As cliché as it may be, we believe that all participants of Best of Graduates are winners. But you notice that in the course of the exhibition you have more affinity with some artists than with others. This was also reflected in the Young Blood Award. Although the last two years we no longer have any influence on that, as Museum Voorlinden now selects the winner of the Young Blood Award. But to get back to your question, the exhibition attracts such a large audience that we thought it would be a good idea to present a Public Choice Award. Minke Nelissen was the first winner. She had made a spectacular multi-layered video projection that was visually very attractive and thus well received by the audience. It shows that an audience award really does use different criteria. It has only happened twice that the winner of the Young Blood Award also won the Public Choice Award.

Minke Nelissen, Oeverland, 2011

Installation views of Best of Graduates 2011

2012: Radek, what is so special about Best of Graduates?

Radek: On the one hand, of course, the exhibition itself. But there is also an important part that precedes it: traveling along all the graduation shows. It is always a joy for me to visit all these different exhibitions, compare them and discover all the differences. For me personally, that is a very important part of the Best of Graduates. In a period like this, you see so much, that you can really keep a very close eye on the development of young artists. It happens very often that you see something at an exhibition a few years later that you came across before at one of the graduation shows. That’s what makes this exhibition so special.

It is also fun to see how the artists of Best of Graduates end up after the exhibition. Often their first year is full of projects and adventures, because it’s still so close to graduation. But then suddenly there’s nothing happening anymore and they have to start making money regardless. Then some artists disappear for a while and sometimes they return into the spotlight. A good example is Matea Bakula, a sculptress, she is doing very well now. When I saw her at the academy, she already had a great sense of material. She made a huge cube of Styrofoam with a sort of tub on top filled with caramel. She had poured that in there and it then dried up. That was very special at the time, no one did something like that. It was a very cool piece of work for that time. She still makes work like that. It makes me very proud to see that such an artist is still doing so well.

Interim Phase, 2012 | Sculpture, ceramics, clay, wood | 500 x 450 x 260 cm

Lorenzo Quintanilla

Zonder Titel (Rood), 2012 | Oil on canvas | 108 x 227 cm

Bob Eikelboom

Layercake, 2013 | purschuim | 75 x 70 x 90 cm

Matea Bakula

Group Portrait, 2013 | Inkjet print, incl. display van plexiglas | 120 x 200 cm

Tom Lore de Jong

2013: How does each year’s selection come about?

Radek: An important part of the selection is visiting the graduation shows at eleven different art academies in the Netherlands. It is fantastic to see so many young artists together in such a short period of time. You see so much that you can really keep a close eye on the development of young artists. Based on a large selection of interesting artists, we then get around the table and choose the very best. Some important selection criteria are innovation, the story behind the work, and the craft or the workmanship of their product.

Ron: I am very happy with Radek’s devotion, his passion, time and energy he puts into visiting the graduation shows. I don’t have the amount of time to visit all academies. I do, of course, have wonderful conversations with artists, but I can’t speak to 300 artists. Radek does, and together we come up with a solid rationale for the selection. We’d be sitting with Czech liquors until midnight selecting all the different artists.

Installation view of Best of Graduates 2014

2014: Ron, can you tell something about the pop-up location for Best of Graduates in 2014?

Ron: We had a pop-up show at a different location, because the gallery was being renovated in 2014. At Galerie Witteveen, around the corner from Galerie Ron Mandos. It was a really fun, new experience. The space was totally different, a little weird even, so we had a lot of room to experiment. There was also a beautiful postmodern curling stairway in the gallery that made it very interesting. Also, Galerie Ron Mandos was around the corner, so you could make a connection between the two places with flyers and posters on the Prinsengracht and then the exhibition at Galerie Witteveen around the corner.

We remember Oeke Witteveen as a dear colleague gallerist. Unfortunately she died in 2020. I am certain that she is looking at us from above, because she was always so passionate about young artists and happy to see as one of the first visitors in her own gallery, what these young artists had brought into her gallery space.

2015: Ron, can you tell something about about the pop-up location for Best of Graduates in 2015?

Ron: To be honest, I always prefer to organize the Best of Graduates in my own gallery, but because of the renovation that year we suddenly had to organize it somewhere else. Galerie Witteveen was very suitable for the exhibition though. With two floors, exciting spaces and it was larger than here. So, it did have special features. We could use the curling staircase as a platform from which to present the awards. In addition, the opening and the barbecue were very relaxed because the street was not a thoroughfare. The whole street was filled with hundreds of students, teachers and collectors. Also, the gallery owner Oeke Witteveen, who has since sadly passed away, was very passionate. She always came to visit the exhibition and also did a lot of promotion for us. This crossover went very well. It was a really fun time.

Installation views of Best of Graduates 2015

Being in the Landscape, 2016 | Toyobo print on Hanemühle paper | 84 x 59,4 cm

Adrianna Dieleman

2016: Ron, can you tell me a little more about the Photo Talent Award?

Ron: The main motivation for this award was the founding of UNSEEN, a new photo fair in Amsterdam. We really wanted to show young talent there. Of course, the title of UNSEEN connects with the younger artists participating in Best of Graduates. The works by these artists haven’t been shown that often. So, with that in mind, we created the award. The winner of the award is shown the following year at UNSEEN. The first winner of the award was Esther Hovers in 2015. In 2016, Adrianna Dieleman won the award. She made beautiful photographs of mountains, very hushed and solid at the same time.

2017: Ron, what is it like to see artists develop after Best of Graduates?

Ron: That makes me incredibly proud. With some artists, sometimes it even feels like a missed opportunity for us. Because you simply cannot work with the winner every year, you have to let them go. But it does make you very proud when you see them making fantastic progress in the years after Best of Graduates. A few years ago, we tried to set up a Young Blood Gallery with a partner to show the works of the Best of Graduates alumni. Some great exhibitions came out of that. This unfortunately ended, but my big wish is that we will set this up again at another location. This way you create a permanent platform for the artists we once selected.

Installation views of Best of Graduates 2017

The Best of Graduates of 2018

2018: Why was the Young Blood Foundation established and how has it evolved in recent years?

Ron: The most important thing for me was to create a legacy through the foundation so that this gem could continue with or without me. I gathered a wonderful board around me, so that it could really become an entity in itself.  General board members are Emily Ansenk (Director of Holland Festival), my cousin Michelle Mandos (art historian), Wijnand Bossenbroek (Partner at NautaDutilh), and Remy Jungerman (contemporary Surinamese-Dutch artist). The main objectives of the foundation, besides organizing the Best of Graduates show, are the Artist in Residence program, mentoring young artists, supporting our alumni, and of course the presentation of the awards.”

2019: How did the collaboration with Museum Voorlinden come about and what does it look like? 

Radek: I mentioned earlier the step we took from exhibiting at an artists’ initiative to working with a commercial gallery. After ten years we asked ourselves, what could be the next step? That turned out to be the step from the commercial gallery to the museum world. We then looked for places where we could do a recap exhibition of Best of Graduates, which is still one of our ambitions.. 

Ron: Initially, I always bought a work from the winner for my own collection. But then we decided that it is much better for an artist if the work would go to a public collection. We wanted to find a place for it. Museum Voorlinden coincidentally opened at the same time and they were very enthusiastic about our program. Together with the museum we came up with the idea that a work of Young Blood Award winner should be included in their permanent collection. Since then, the museum decides who the winner is. It is of course very nice for a young artist to have their work included in a permanent collection. My own dream is that in twenty-five years’ time I can visit an exhibition at Museum Voorlinden with all the winners of the Young Blood Award.

Young Blood Award winners Milah van Zuilen (2021), Narges Mohammadi (2020), and Stephanie Rizaj (2019), together with Suzanne Swarts and Barbara Bos of Museum Voorlinden, during the award ceremonies.

2020: How did you come up with the idea of creating the Residency Award?

Ron: We believe that mentoring young artists is very important. It is not always easy for newly graduated artists to support themselves. You come from the safe environment of the academy and then you suddenly have to do everything by yourself. You need to rent a studio for a lot of money which is not possible for everyone.

We have built this program to support the artists on the one hand, with, for example, advice from people in the field. But we also ensure that they can exchange ideas with people from the financial world or from the field of psychology. These are very important subjects for young artists to think about.

Radek: It’s also good to see it in a broader context. At the academies they are increasingly aware of the support that young artists need so shortly after graduating. You see that these kinds of residencies and other awards are becoming more common there too.

Shimon Kamada (Artist in resicence 2020-21)

Joseph Thabang Palframan (Artist in resicence 2021-22)

2021: What can we expect in the future?

Ron: Soon our community center will open in Rotterdam. It will function as an artist residency, but it will also be the office of the Young Blood Foundation. There we want to organize some more activities and my wish is to eventually open a gallery there for young artists.