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Blockbuster art exhibitions: From ‘first time ever’ to ‘last of its kind’ in a few short years

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has just announced a ‘first and last’ exhibition of all the paintings by the Dutch master Vermeer for 2023. This show aims to bring together many of the 35 paintings by Vermeer, hopefully outdoing the 23 works shown at the Mauritshuis in the Hague in 1996.

The challenge of staging major exhibitions of works by old masters is getting bigger, because aging paintings are increasingly fragile and difficult to transport, and more expensive to insure. There is also growing competition between museums to stage such shows, and often it is only the larger museums, such as the Rijksmuseum, that can afford to do it. They have a vast store of works that they can offer in exchange for loans, and also the conservation and research expertise to develop engaging stories around a painter’s oeuvre.

This kind of exhibition fits a model of hallmark exhibitions that was perfected by the Noordbrabants Museum (NBM) in Den Bosch a few years ago for the 500th anniversary of the death of the painter Hieronymus Bosch. This relatively small provincial museum managed to ‘achieve the impossible’ by reuniting 17 of the surviving paintings by Bosch in his home town, a feat which attracted over 421,000 visitors in 2016. The challenges that the Rijksmuseum is facing now in gathering the works of Vermeer were also evident in the case of the NBM. This unknown museum managed to convince world famous institutions to loan their paintings by staging a major research and restoration project, and by forming a network of ‘Bosch cities’ to cement this joint enterprise.

The experience of the NBM in mounting their exhibition is salutary. As our book Small Cities with Big Dreams recounts, on the one hand, the research and restoration project helped to secure loans of paintings from museums eager to use the latest technologies to enhance their knowledge of their works. On the other hand, managing the flow of news about the research findings was a tricky process. The relationship between the NBM and the Pardo Museum in Madrid, owner of iconic works by Bosch, was damaged when the researchers concluded that one of the Prado’s ‘Bosch’ paintings was not from the hand of the master himself. Spanish retribution was swift, and the most important Bosch painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, did not go to the Netherlands. Instead, it formed the centrepiece of the Prado’s own Bosch exhibition, staged a few weeks after the show in the Netherlands.

These kinds of challenges illustrate why the Rijksmuseum sees a limited future for this type of old master exhibition. While the success of the Den Bosch event was based on collaboration and generosity, it seems that many of the larger museums are now more focussed on competition and guarding their most precious assets. This is also why the focus of such shows may have to move from being ‘the first exhibition of its kind’ to being the ‘last chance to see’. In fact, this seems to fit the zeitgeist of last chances, most recently on show at COP26 in Glasgow. No wonder there are a growing number of academic papers analysing the phenomenon of ‘last chance tourism’ – a last opportunity for tourists to see fast disappearing exotic species, unique landscapes or increasingly impossible to stage old master blockbusters. Just time to use your last long-haul flight to get to Amsterdam in 2023.

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