The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is much more than a beautiful museum dedicated to one of the masters of the 20th century. Thanks to its director Axel Rüger, it has become a true innovation powerhouse, from content and storytelling to new revenue streams.
After getting the museum world (and the We Are Museums crowd!) to talk with the launch of their new, story-oriented website in 2014, the Van Gogh Museum launched last year a brand new Van Gogh experience: Meet Vincent, that will be the focus of Axel Rüger’s keynote at We Are Museums in June. Meet Vincent immerses Van Gogh lovers who cannot come to the museum into his universe thanks to an infinite range of beautiful content (video, facsimiles, apps, quotes…). As the experience is premiering in China soon after We Are Museums, you’ll be able to ask all the questions you want about what such an installation requires and how it is awaited by the local audience. In the meantime, here are some insights from Axel Rüger about Meet Vincent, reaching new audiences and creating new revenue streams and making museums into entrepreneurial structures.
WAM: Museums usually try to make visitors come to see them. How did you come up with the idea of creating a travelling experience about Van Gogh?
AR: Fundamental to the museum is our mission to make the life and work of Vincent van Gogh accessible to as many people as possible, all over the world. As a result of the vulnerable nature of our collection and availability concerns, many paintings rarely leave the museum, and some works never travel at all. Travelling experiences such as BODY WORLDS, Harry Potter and now Meet Vincent van Gogh offer a new means of introducing the story of, in our case, Vincent’s life and work.
WAM: How does tech and digital help you sum up Van Gogh’s life in an experience that is smaller than your own museum?
AR: Audio recordings and numerous fragments from Vincent’s letters guide visitors through the experience. The abundance and intimacy of the quotes bring you closer to Van Gogh the artist and Vincent the man. We use a multisensory approach, inviting visitors to look, listen and touch. In the first scene of the experience, visitors find themselves in the wheat field where he fatally wounded himself – they hear the gunshot ring out, feel the wind blow and listen to the voice reciting text from his letters. All of the various elements are subtle and complementary.
Both this experience and the Van Gogh Museum itself draw on decades of research and expertise to explore the life and work of Vincent van Gogh. In the museum, Vincent’s works and letters take centre stage. In this multisensory experience, it’s images, sound, feeling and visual impressions. We introduce the same story, but we use alternative means and a different emphasis.
WAM: Is it about reaching a new audience or is it about having a new revenue stream? How does Meet Vincent contribute on both these levels?
AR: It’s about both: about fulfilling our mission to offer access to the life and work of Van Gogh and his contemporaries, while also bolstering the museum’s financial position. These two considerations actually go hand in hand. Meet Vincent van Gogh and the museum share the same brand values. The experience allows visitors to discover the story behind the artist and his art. The limited company behind the experience – in which the museum is the majority shareholder – receives a fee for the lease of the experience set.
In addition, activities such as professional services, ticket and merchandise sales, the launch of the Relievo Collection of 3D reproductions and the acquisition of funds through sponsorship and the Friends network all also contribute to providing the museum with solid financial foundations.
WAM: As a museum visionary expert, you dare taking strategic decisions that others will never think about. How does the museum world react to you?
AR: In order to achieve corporate success in the cultural sector, you need to make investments and take calculated risks. Just like in all other businesses. There are various ways to increase the size of our market and stimulate innovation. However, we always operate within the strict framework of high quality, integrity and originality. As is the case with many innovative developments, there will be those that champion this initiative, and those that oppose it. In any case, the pilot demonstrated that visitors are certainly enthusiastic. Continuing on this innovative course, taking this approach to keeping Vincent’s story alive, is a strategy that dovetails seamlessly with the museum. And with our mission.