Van Gogh Museum looks to the future - Museums Association

Van Gogh Museum looks to the future

Fiftieth anniversary has given museum the chance to re-engage with locals and refresh its offer for international visitors, says director Emilie Gordenker
Artists Audiences
Profile image for Emilie Gordenker (photo Tomek Dersu Aaron)
Emilie Gordenker (photo Tomek Dersu Aaron)

The Van Gogh Museum, which opened to the public on 2 June 1973, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. A significant moment such as this offers the opportunity to reflect not only on the achievements of the past, but to think about a clear path forward. 

When the idea for the museum was formalised, in an agreement made between the artist’s eponymous nephew and the Dutch state, one of the guidelines was that the new museum would be open to the public in every sense and would ensure a certain “liveliness” (levendigheid). 

The Van Gogh Museum certainly achieved that in its first 50 years. It is the most renowned and visited single artist museum in the world, having received more than 50 million visitors since its opening. 

That is largely thanks to Vincent van Gogh, whose work and life story holds universal appeal. And yet the museum is far more than a mausoleum for an artist who died some 130 years ago: it is a formidable research institute that is the centre of expertise about Van Gogh; it collects, studies and exhibits not only Van Gogh but also his contemporaries; its educational programmes have a worldwide reach thanks to its online offerings and outreach projects; and it shows how the artist continues to inspire right up to the present day. 

And yet, just before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, marketing research showed that much of the museum’s local public saw the museum as a crowded tourist attraction with a static presentation that was worth visiting once in a lifetime but offered no sense of urgency to return. In a crisis, cultural institutions need the support of those close by, and so the pandemic spurred us to pivot towards our Dutch audiences, to raise the question of who we were not reaching (instead of how to continue to grow). The anniversary was a perfect way to re-engage with local people, as well as to refresh our offerings for international visitors. 

Three major exhibitions were already underway that would be the backbone of the anniversary year, but there was a need to do more. The first step was a clear formulation of positioning. 


The Van Gogh Museum is a building on a human scale that is focused on one man (and his contemporaries). In this, the museum distinguishes itself from its neighbours – the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk museum – which are larger and have broader collections. 

An anniversary campaign that kicked off at the beginning of the year emphasised the way that the Van Gogh Museum touches us as humans and how it has inspired people for 50 years and counting. A national social media campaign challenged members of community organisations – such as educational facilities, sports clubs, neighbourhood associations – to nominate an individual who inspires them.

A jury selected 50 winners, who received a high end 3D reproduction of one of the paintings in the Van Gogh Museum’s collection as a donation. In this way, the Van Gogh Museum emphasised the theme of inspiration and reached people in all of the Netherlands’ provinces who might otherwise not be engaged with the museum. 

Van Gogh Museum photo by Jan Kees Steenman

The actual birthday celebration on 2 June was an all-day affair. It kicked off with a programme attended by Princes Beatrix in order to thank the museum’s stakeholders, including the descendants of the Van Gogh family and the 50 winners of the national campaign. A festival on the Museumplein followed, for everyone to attend, which included free drawing lessons and performances. The day was capped off by a drone performance designed by Studio Drift in the night skies over the museum. 

This “lively” programme not only underscored the original intention of the museum, but served to remind local as well as international visitors of our mission: to inspire a diverse audience with the life and work of Van Gogh and his time. 

Halfway through the year, it is clear that the perception of the museum is shifting from one that is aimed at growth and at tourists, to a place bursting with stories that offer inspiration and hope.  

Emilie Gordenker is the director of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

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