Hurrah: Van Gogh Museum monetises expertise

20 October 2014

This is the headline I was expecting to read after the Van Gogh announced to have a new consultancy branch in their museum. They will market their expertise in preserving and securing very expensive paintings to have an extra source of income. The museum will experiment for a year doing this under the flag of VGMC. Sadly, the responses from the field ranged from negative to reserved++In this (Dutch) newspaper article, for example.. Can we please turn this around into a round of cheers?

Benno Tempel, who runs the beautiful Municipal museum of the Hague, said VGMC is ‘a strange idea’ which ‘does not fit within the museum culture.’ Which in my eyes is exactly the problem.

Starry night

Starry night by Vincent van Gogh

Maker: Vincent van Gogh



Starry night by Vincent van Gogh

In this era of cutbacks in subsidies, museums and other cultural institutions can’t seem to do anything right with regard to their business model. On the one hand, they are encouraged to secure income. In fact, they are obliged to raise 21.5% of their grants themselves in 2014. Commonly institutions sell entrance tickets and have some sponsoring to come up with this sum, as does the Van Gogh. According to their financial report over 2013 the subsidies they received from the national government are 19% of their entire income. On the other hand, it is considered faux pas to run a museum like a business, to monetise on cultural goodsIt is considered faux pas to run a museum like a business and to monetise on cultural goods. and expertise like consulting as a museum. Why not use everything a museum has to secure that their collections are accessible to the people?

As a visitor of the Van Gogh Museum I am very happy about the decision to use their expertise to make money, instead of raising entrance prices, closing earlier or raising prices in the cafe (seriously, how much can a cup of coffee and some apple pie cost?). These would be choices that create a higher threshold for regular people to see the Van Goghs. This consultancy branch asks people who can afford it to pay for services provided.

One of the arguments used against VGMC is that it will become difficult for small museums to ask the Van Gogh’s help. But they took this into consideration and implemented a three-tier system (that most companies have) for people asking for their services, which consist of ‘for free’ (think of a small Dutch provincial museum), the ‘non-profit rate’ (okay, you can afford it but are a friend in the field) and the ‘commercial rate’ (rich Russian oligarch buys Van Gogh).

The reason why Bruno Tempel said VGMC was a strange idea is because the museum world revolves around favours. When you help a private collector with his security, he lets you borrow a painting the next year. Or get an endowment as a thank you. While Tempel has a point, I do not see the problem for this favour-economy to become an actual economy.I do not see the problem for this favour-economy to become an actual economy. It brings more clarity on the value of the expertise of museums, which is a lot more than knowing how to open the door in the morning. We can show off our world-class museum professionals with the corresponding price-tag.

The only risk I foresee is a scenario where VGMC consults on securing a painting, and it consequently gets stolen. Would that be a blow to their reputation? Yes. But that is called taking a risk and being entrepreneurial. We need more of that in the GLAM sector++GLAM stands for Galleries, Libraries, Archives & Museums., not less.

In short, the Van Gogh might accidentally cut off their own ear (please forgive the pun) by pursuing this experiment. But that is okay. Is VGMC a sign of a massive shift in the cultural sector towards more entrepreneurial business models? Hopefully. I, for one, am hoping it will turn out well and will be cheering them along.

What do you think? Should museums be selling their expertise of should this favour-economy prevail? Shoot me a mail at

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