The year of Rembrandt has ended. About five years ago, the directors of four major Dutch museums began planning the 2019 commemoration of the great master’s immortal legacy, as he had passed away 350 years prior. Together with the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions, they went all out, and museums flocked to participate. The marketing machine was operating at full capacity. The Netherlands devoted an entire year to the art of the Dutch Golden Age. And Rembrandt? Obviously, he instantly belonged to everyone. At the opening of the Young Rembrandt exhibition at Museum De LakenhaI, best-selling Dutch author Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer exclaimed that he could no longer look at Rembrandt’s face. The exhibition has concluded. The paintings, prints, and drawings were removed from the walls, packed in boxes, and shipped last week. Now, people are eager to know how successful your event was: how many visitors did you receive?
However, there were many. On certain days, it was physically impossible to view the exhibition in its entirety. Everyone was swarming around the paintings, peering over one another’s shoulders, and eagerly taking pictures. Indeed, everything was very special. Our team exerted considerable effort to dethrone the renowned Rembrandt. To demonstrate how, over the course of ten years, he went from being an amateur painter to an accomplished master painter through a great deal of dedication and effort. The curators did not conceal his early failures. In contrast, they demonstrated that Rembrandt was a painter of flesh and blood who constantly experimented to advance. Who learned through experimentation. There were numerous comparisons between the works of Rembrandt, his masters, and the other young painters with whom he collaborated, such as Jan Lievens and Gerrit Dou. Next to each other, loans from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Gemldegalerie in Berlin shone. Paintings from English mansions were exhibited for the first time to the public. There was a great deal to see. Initially, the museum had envisioned 75-minute time slots, but visitors took significantly longer. In terms of its subject matter, the exhibition was a great success. Numerous reviewers and visitors reported having had unforgettable experiences.
This is the perverse system in which we are gradually becoming entangled. A system in which Dutch museums bid against one another with large, money-guzzling blockbusters that require more money and more visitors each time, and in which success is measured solely by revenue and visitor counts. Uncertainty surrounds the limit of this visitor potential. It is a sign of the most persistent disease of our time: growth addiction. A person who is addicted cannot break a habit, and over the past several decades, we have all become addicted to growth. This means that Dutch museums are now required to bend over backwards. To finance exhibitions such as Young Rembrandt, excessive numbers of paying visitors, tourists, funds, and deception are required. And none of it is sustainable, as the entire museum circus is set up anew for each exhibition. The question is when will the tide change?
(Translation by Boet de Willigen and Angel Perazzetta).
Museums are addicted to blockbuster exhibitions, but the truth is that blockbusters are no longer viable for middle-sized city museums. The costs are astronomical.