Leading the Van Gogh Museum Through a Future With No Tourists

By Nina Siegal

Emilie Gordenker took over at the Amsterdam institution that attracts most of its visitors from abroad just months before the coronavirus lockdown began.

Emilie Gordenker, the general director of the Van Gogh Museum in front of the museum on May 29. Ms. Gordenker took on the role in February.
Emilie Gordenker, the general director of the Van Gogh Museum in front of the museum on May 29. Ms. Gordenker took on the role in February.Credit...Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

AMSTERDAM — 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, six feet apart.

“We’ve waited eleven weeks for this moment,” said Ms. 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,” Ms. Overheul said. “Now is a good opportunity to be here without all the enormous crowds.”

ImageVisitors to the museum arriving on June 1, the first day it reopened after the lockdown.
Visitors to the museum arriving on June 1, the first day it reopened after the lockdown.Credit...Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters

As the visitors continued to trickle in, Ms. 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 Ms. Gordenker said there were still plenty available. “I think people are still waiting to see how it goes,” she added.

Attracting visitors was not the problem Ms. 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 percent of its budget. This is in large part because 85 percent of its visitors do not live in the Netherlands. That reality creates additional difficulties during an already challenging time.

So, Ms. Gordenker hopes that more local people will take the same view as Ms. 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,” Ms. 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.”

Stickers on the ground in front of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” show visitors where they can stand to maintain social distancing.Credit...Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

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.

Ms. 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 percent 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 impact, Ms. 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 impacts, too, from lower tourist numbers — particularly for arts and culture.

For every month the museum was closed, it lost about $4.3 million, Ms. Gordenker said. Visitor numbers are likely to stay low for many months.Credit...Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters

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 Ms. 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.’”

Ms. 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 Ms. Gordenker became respected as a cultural leader who had fully integrated into Dutch culture.

  • Updated June 12, 2020

    • Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

“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.

Ms. 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.

“A lot of people here thought that the Van Gogh Museum is for tourists,” Ms. Gordenker said. “That was a matter of perception that we need to change.”Credit...Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

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, Ms. Gordenker said. Even with its doors open, it is earning about 10 percent of its former revenues, and visitor numbers are likely to stay low for many months.

“I feel extremely nervous,” Ms. 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, Ms. 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.”