Leading the Van Gogh Museum through a future with no tourists

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Leading the Van Gogh Museum through a future with no tourists
Stickers on the ground in front of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” show visitors where they can stand to maintain social distancing at the Van Goghh Museum in Amsterdam, May 29, 2020. All museums need visitors to survive, but the Van Gogh Museum is particularly reliant on tourists, and unlike Dutch national museums, which are supported by substantial government subsidies, the Van Gogh relies on earned income — ticket sales, and revenue from the shop and cafe — for 89 percent of its budget. Ilvy Njiokiktjien/The New York Times.

by Nina Siegal

AMSTERDAM (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Surrounded by sunflowers, Emilie Gordenker stood on a yellow carpet rolled out in front of the Van Gogh Museum. On June 1, the institution’s new director was there to welcome the first visitors back after the coronavirus lockdown. About a dozen were lining up in the sunshine, 6 feet apart.

“We’ve waited eleven weeks for this moment,” said Gordenker. “It’s fantastic that we can reopen on such a radiant day.” Instead of shaking hands, she walked to an automatic hand sanitizer dispenser, demonstrated how to use it, and then pressed through the museum’s revolving glass doors.

The first ticket holders, Emma Overheul, 35, and Maarten Halma, 43, took a few tentative steps forward, passing a line of news cameras, like celebrities at a movie premiere. “In the last years there were always such huge groups of people,” Overheul said. “Now is a good opportunity to be here without all the enormous crowds.”

As the visitors continued to trickle in, Gordenker said she felt happy about reopening, even if the museum could only accommodate a maximum of 750 visitors over a six-hour day. It’s a far cry from the 6,000 visitors a day before the pandemic.

“It is going to feel slow,” she said. “We’re used to having so many more visitors here, but we have to be careful and do what we can.” Tickets must now be booked for specific time slots, and Gordenker said there were still plenty still available. “I think people are still waiting to see how it goes,” she added.

Attracting visitors was not the problem Gordenker thought she’d be facing when she became director of one of Amsterdam’s most popular museums in February. A profile in the Dutch national newspaper NRC Handelsblad at the time heralded her move from the tranquil Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in the Hague to the Van Gogh Museum with the headline, “It Will Never Be Quiet in the Museum Again.” Famous last words.

“We do disaster scenarios and the ones I was more prepared for were flooding or fire,” she said in an interview by video a month into the lockdown. “But a pandemic like this with a complete shutdown of the economy? No one has ever seen it before, and I don’t think anyone saw it coming.”

All museums need visitors to survive, but the Van Gogh Museum is particularly reliant on tourists. Unlike Dutch national museums, which are supported by substantial government subsidies, the Van Gogh relies on earned income — ticket sales, and revenue from the shop and cafe — for 89% of its budget. This is in large part because 85% of its visitors do not live in the Netherlands. That reality creates additional difficulties during an already challenging time.

So, Gordenker hopes that more local people will take the same view as Overheul’s perspective, and see this as a special opportunity to come in. That’s the message she wants to get out there.

“Now we are reorienting towards our Dutch public,” Gordenker said. “A lot of people here thought that the Van Gogh Museum is for tourists. That was a matter of perception that we need to change.”

For years, one of the museum’s biggest struggles was crowd control. In 2015, it opened a new wing with a larger entrance to move the winding lines off the street. When that wasn’t enough, the museum introduced a time-slot system, with visitors buying tickets online in advance.

Overheul, who used to visit the Van Gogh Museum when she was a student in the early 2000s, said that in the last five years or so, the museum was too crowded for her taste. “It’s not so relaxed anymore to visit a museum when there are like 30 people standing in front of all the great paintings,” she said. “Over the years, it started to feel more like a tourist thing.”

This perception wasn’t limited to the Van Gogh Museum, but extended to many of the city’s major tourist attractions such as the Anne Frank House and red-light district, but also to the city as a whole. Earlier this year, some media outlets were lamenting the tragedy of “over-tourism” in the city, with locals saying that Amsterdam’s distinct charm had been lost in the din of nearly 20 million tourists a year.

In recent years, taking cues from popular European destinations such as Venice and Barcelona, Amsterdam implemented measures to rein in unruly tourists, creating fines for “nuisance” behaviors like drinking alcohol in public or urinating in the street, restricting tour bus routes and increasing a tourist tax on hotel stays.

Geerte Udo, the chief executive of Amsterdam & Partners, a nonprofit that advises city authorities on branding and marketing, said those measures were intended to create a “sustainable visitor economy” that wouldn’t place “too much of a burden on locals.” The tourism industry directly supports about 11% of the jobs in Amsterdam, she said, and there were many other indirect economic benefits as well.

The shutdown has given the city a much-needed pause to weigh the value of tourism against its negative effect, Udo said in a telephone interview. “There are some people that are happy because they say, ‘This is the city I fell in love with 20 years ago,’” she said, but there would be negative effects, too, from lower tourist numbers — particularly for arts and culture.

In the meantime, the city is trying to send a message to residents that their local attractions are open to them again. “We are working on a campaign that says, ‘Discover your own city, and discover your own country,’” said Udo, “because we see that there is a potential Dutch market that will not be able to go abroad this summer. They’ll say, ‘This is our chance.’”

Gordenker grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, with a Dutch mother and an American father, and moved to the Netherlands 12 years ago, after working as curator of Dutch and Flemish painting at the National Gallery of Scotland.

As director of the Mauritshuis, home to an exquisite collection of Dutch Golden Age paintings, including Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with A Pearl Earring,” she oversaw the $40.6 million renovation and expansion, reached out to younger audiences with new technologies, such as a virtual Vermeer museum, and invited the public to observe research and restoration projects that were formerly in-house affairs.

Gary Tinterow, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a member of the Van Gogh Museum’s supervisory board, said that during her tenure at the Mauritshuis, Gordenker became respected as a cultural leader who had fully integrated into Dutch culture.

“We felt that Emilie had the right balance of local, meaning, Dutch and European, and international contacts,” he said in an interview, “as well as the right balance of new thinking and entrepreneurial instincts, with respect for scholarship and art history.”

At the Van Gogh Museum, she succeeded the German curator Axel Ruger, who became the director of the Royal Academy of Arts in London last June.

Gordenker has spent nearly two-thirds of her tenure at the museum so far in lockdown, and will continue to work from home for the coming months as well, she said, to “set a good example for the other staff members who are able to do so.” Of more than 300 staff, she said about 40 are essential to keep the museum open to visitors.

Her biggest challenge will be to figure out how to make up for the loss of earned income. For every month the museum was closed, it lost about $4.3 million, Gordenker said. Even with its doors open, it is earning about 10% of its former revenues, and visitor numbers are likely to stay low for many months.

“I feel extremely nervous,” Gordenker said in April. “As the month has gone on it’s become clearer and clearer that it’s going to last a lot longer than we’d hoped. If we keep going like this, we will burn through our reserves. I am worried about the future of the museum and the people who work there.”

A few weeks later, Ingrid van Engelshoven, the minister of Education, Culture and Science in the Netherlands, visited the Van Gogh Museum and announced that it would receive additional government support, without specifying an amount. “No one has to worry that the Van Gogh Museum will go under,” she said later in an interview. “It will always be there, and we will help them to survive the crisis.”

On June 1, when the museum reopened, Gordenker said she still hadn’t heard from the Culture Ministry about the financial support, but she was a little less anxious.

“I have to do it step by step because there are too many unknowns to factor in right now,” she said. “I like to focus on how creative you can get with a little bit less.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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