A watch of 75,000 euros: does that fit the Van Gogh Museum?
Museums and commerce Due to corona, the growth model for museums is outdated. That's according to Van Gogh Museum director Emilie Gordenker following a lawsuit against a colleague. "We're going to focus more on impact."
29 june 2021
'The museum's raison d'être is not to make money.' Van Gogh Museum director Emilie Gordenker spoke these words on Thursday afternoon 3 June in a small and cramped room of the Amsterdam District Court. Her position was the apotheosis of a long-winded and sometimes embarrassing session intended to resolve an internal conflict. The museum had filed a petition to terminate the employment contract with Ricardo van Dam, the director of Van Gogh Museum Enterprises bv (VGME), a subsidiary that generates revenue for the museum through commercial activities. Gordenker had got on with him and the working relationship had become "untenable", according to the museum.
For an hour and a half, the lawyers of both parties had read out their pleading papers, arguing with nasty accusations and discussions about competences and money. Why both directors had such a disagreement with each other was difficult for an outsider to assess, not least because the district court did not ask one question during the hearing. At the end, Gordenker and Van Dam each spoke for a few minutes.
Gordenker read out an explanation. "Because of corona, everything is under pressure," she began. The pandemic had made the museum dependent on government support measures. As a resulted of the forced closure, the museum had already lost some 25 million euros in revenue last year alone. Dozens of employees should have been farewelled by the museum, managers had voluntarily waived their performance bonuses, and she herself had handed in part of her salary in solidarity (10 percent, she says when asked). Given the many sacrifices, she therefore did not understand anything, Gordenker concluded her explanation of Van Dam's enormous claim against the museum.
The manager got the last word. "Your Honor," he said, "can't I lose my job based on the museum's lies?" For many years he had led Van Gogh Museum Enterprises to everyone's satisfaction. He wasn't a raging rower who wouldn't listen, and he wasn't to blame. If his employment contract were to be terminated, the 49-year-old manager therefore demanded a so-called fair remuneration of 636,321 euros, more than five years' salary.
On the face of it, no dispute for an extensive newspaper report. Which large company – more than 300 people work at the Van Gogh Museum – does not have a labour dispute ending in legal proceedings in its time? Still, this lawsuit filed by the museum aroused curiosity. Earlier this year, NRC received two emails about "abuses at the Van Gogh Museum".
The first message was signed by 'Employees of the Van Gogh Museum'. The second email had no sender and reached the newsroom via whistleblower site Publeaks. After a request for more information, the author came forward: a former employee of the museum who does not want his name in the newspaper. The museum's lawyer suggested at the hearing that the VGME director was the author of the first email. An assumption that the person concerned denies.
The scope of both emails is very similar. Since the arrival of Gordenker – she took office on 1 February 2020 – everything would go wrong at the Van Gogh Museum. The museum would attract fewer foreign visitors and fewer commercial activities, policy changes that run counter to "what the organization wants." Because the new director does not tolerate contradictions, a culture of fear would have arisen among the staff. "At the end of the day", the author of the first email therefore addresses "the media".
Both e-mails mention a conflict of interest in the appointment of Gordenker. Her move as director of the Mauritshuis in The Hague to the Van Gogh Museum would be the result of a one-two between the main supervisors of both museums. Lokke Moerel, chairman of the supervisory board at the Mauritshuis, is married to Jaap Winter, chairman at the Van Gogh Museum.
Finally, both e-mails highlight the great turnover at the museum since Gordenker's arrival. Of the management team at the time, only the executive secretary and Van Dam are still in office. Managing director Adriaan Dönszelmann, director of operations Ezra de Jong and director of museum affairs Nikola Eltink disappeared.
28.5 MILLION AID
Since the outbreak of the corona pandemic, the Van Gogh Museum has received a total of 28.5 million euros in government support: 6.8 million euros in compensation for labour costs (NOW) and 21.7 million in emergency aid.
The pandemic hardly affected the museum's large equity: at the end of 2020, this amounted to 37.9 million euros, only 1.5 million less than one year previously. The supervisory board will allow the museum to bet up to 20 million in the coming years. Since February last year, the workforce has shrunk by 12 percent to 274 FTE (of which 41 FTE at VGME).
Supervisory Board Chairman Jaap Winter says that during Emilie Gordenker's application to the Van Gogh Museum, she abstained from assessing her candidacy. Winter did so because his wife is chairman of the supervisory board of the Mauritshuis, Gordenker's previous employer.
A restructuring, as the mail writers suggest? Het Parool, asked Gordenker a question about the exodus of the managers at the end of March. They had all left voluntarily, she said at the time: "These were people who had worked in the museum for a long time and chose something else. It's partly natural. Another part came under pressure due to corona. Then you start thinking: what do I want?"
This explanatory note shall not apply to Dönszelmann. The managing director, who led the museum as interim general manager for a year before Gordenker's arrival, has been forced to leave. The supervisory board had lost confidence in him, Gordenker said when asked. His redundancy scheme makes it impossible for Dönszelmann to answer questions about his old employer. Ricardo van Dam doesn't want that either.
Emilie Gordenker is willing to have a conversation. With mixed feelings, she looks back on what was her first court hearing ever in her study overlooking the Museumplein. "I'm very conflict-averse. I really hope never to visit a courtroom again."
According to her, there is no culture of fear at the museum. Staff at the Van Gogh Museum welcomed her with open arms, she says. Only with managing director Dönszelmann and VGME director Van Dam did she taste a different attitude. "Their perception of what I meant by finding the right balance between art and commerce was not consistent with what I said and what I say about it. From day one I have been crystal clear: the commercial side of the museum is essential. But projects have to be in line with what we stand for as a museum."
Van Gogh Museum director Emilie Gordenker: "If you focus on growth, you give yourself less room for experimentation".
Photo Tomek Dersu Aaron / Van Gogh Museum
The Van Gogh Museum went on an adventure in China a few years ago with the ambitious Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience. This amounted to a loss of tonnes and a write-down of one million euros.
With commercial activities, the Van Gogh Museum is very successful. Top three in the world, Van Dam said in court. At the basis of this success is a transaction by the Vincent van Gogh Foundation, founded in 1960 by cousin Vincent Willem van Gogh. In 2009, the foundation sold the right to operate the museum shop to the museum.
Because copyrights expire 70 years after the death of an artist, since 1960 everyone has been free to offer postcards and posters with Van Gogh's sunflowers and cornfields. Van Gogh Museum Enterprises must therefore have the uniqueness of the Van Gogh Museum as the sender and the particularity of the products, services and licenses inspired by the life and work of the namesake of the museum.
This is getting better and better; since it operates the museum shop itself, the subsidiary has started to generate more and more revenue for the museum. On a record turnover of 18.1 million euros, the bv made a net profit of 2.4 million euros in 2019 with sixty employees. Over the past ten years, VGME contributed a total of 13.6 million euros in profit to the museum's equity.
From eyeglass wipes and face masks to bicycle bells and roll cases, VGME had products made for every conceivable wallet with potato eaters, sunflowers or almond blossom. The pinnacle: in collaboration with Gassan Diamonds, Jaeger-LeCoultre watches made of rose gold and platinum with Van Gogh paintings on the dial were added. The price: 75,000 euros each.
In several interviews over the past twelve months, Gordenker has said that finding the right balance between art and commerce was one of the reasons why she wanted to become director of the Van Gogh Museum so badly. She also indicated in the Strategic Plan 2021-2024 that "a new focus for the Van Gogh Museum is inevitable and necessary".
What was wrong with that balance?
Emilie Gordenker: "Commercial projects must be in line with our core values. The internal coordination of projects could be improved. The Supervisory Board was already working to gain more insight into risk assessment in commercial plans. VGME operated too solo.
"In my first weeks at the museum, I started talking to department heads about what sets us apart from other museums. What makes us unique is our phenomenal collection, linked to van Gogh's letters and also our role as a knowledge centre about Van Gogh. We all agreed on that. Based on those core values, we make our decisions.
"Commercial projects are essential for us. But I don't want to say yes to projects because they bring in some money. First, I want to know how much time goes into it, and whether it really fits our image. We don't have to do everything.
"It is not the case that all commercial activities take place at VGME and that the rest of the museum drains that revenue. Half of our revenue comes from ticket sales. The museum is one organization."
In your 'Strategic Plan 2021-2024' for the Van Gogh Museum there are two sentences about commercial activities. In the 'Strategic Plan 2018-2020' there were still very few paragraphs...
"I read that old plan as a time frame. As museum directors, we were very involved in cultural entrepreneurship at the time. Yes, partly dictated by the government. But it was also the time of the growth model: as many visitors as possible. Bigger and bigger. More and more. Now we are in a different time, also due to corona.
"Is such a growth mission sustainable in the long term? We're going to focus more on impact, on what we want to achieve. This could mean, for example, more specialized exhibitions that do not have a huge audience. If you focus on growth, you give yourself less room for experimentation."
Thanks to the government's support measures, the huge financial reserve (see box) and substantial cuts, the Van Gogh Museum survives the crisis for the time being, says Gordenker. Next year will be the most difficult financially: the support measures are likely to fall away and the museum is likely to attract less than half of the number of visitors of 2019, when 2.1 million tickets were sold. With the permission of the supervisory board, the museum will then respond to the equity.
As of 2023, the museum is structurally aiming for about 1.6 million visitors per year, considerably less than before corona. Gordenker calls this lower number "a real basis for healthy progress".
What is the danger of more than 2 million visitors?
"At some point we reach the maximum capacity of our building. Or people don't come back because it's too busy. It is more important to reach different target groups than for the number of visitors to increase annually. Only 15 percent of our visitors came from the Netherlands, and the trend was decreasing. The museum had already planned to do something about it. And then suddenly a corona crisis comes, tourists stay away, and it shows how important local audience is. That does not make us a provincial museum, as stated in those e-mails to you. Of course, it is important that we continue to attract international visitors."
Van Gogh watches of 75,000 euros, does that still fit with the core values of the museum?
"That is exactly what we are mapping internally now. We made, excusez le mot, a brand filter. Does this suit us, we wonder about everything. From now on, we will ask that question before we automatically do something because it generates money."
I could no longer find the cat collars with sunflower print in the museum's webshop. Is that a coincidence?
Laughing: "Yes, some things are already gone. When I came there was also a van Gogh-printed dog blanket to my surprise. He didn't sell, so it was easy. Yes, in two years the offer in our stores could be different. Times change. Let's give ourselves that: keep evaluating. And always check whether something suits us, also ethically."
At the trial, it emerged that managers at Van Gogh Museum Enterprises received performance bonuses of three monthly salaries, amounts of at least 20,000 euros. Are such bonuses common in the museum world?
'Such bonuses are very unusual and I haven't had to deal with them before. It has now also ended."
What about the trial? He won the museum. The employment contract with Ricardo van Dam will be dissolved on 1 July. According to district court A.W.J. Ros, the VGME director had "misjudged his position vis-à-vis (ultimately responsible) general and statutory director Gordenker". According to the decision, Van Dam is entitled to a transition fee of more than 16,000 euros. The court saw no basis for allocating the fair remuneration of more than six tonnes he requested.
Van Dams advocaat informs us that she discusses the possibility of appeal with her client.
Correction (June 30, 2021): In an earlier version of this article, the staff magazine shrank 12 percent since February last year. That must be the workforce. That's been adjusted above.
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