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An age of superlatives

It will not have escaped your notice that we live in an age of superlatives. The ordinary is no longer worthy of our attention. As a result life has become rather more exciting, but also noisier and more dangerous. We prefer the company of winners to losers, and love to bathe in the reflected glory of those who excel. Every record-breaking feat is newsworthy. Boredom and the sheer joy of doing nothing are things of the past.
Museums must also grab attention if they are to survive. Much has changed since ministers Elco Brinkman and Hedy d’Ancona introduced cultural entrepreneurship as the driving principle in the museum world at the end of the 1980s. Now it is visitor figures, international recognition and a broad social base that count. And so the average art museum now prefers to be associated with success and glamour than with contrariness and confrontation. The historically defined remit of a museum is to select mankind’s finest products, to preserve them and make them accessible to later generations. The standard of quality was impartial and distinct from considerations of fashion or economics.
Now that more importance is placed on the economic value of what the museum does and safeguards, such considerations play a greater part in running a museum. Museums increasingly programme exhibitions of Van Gogh or Picasso as part of a survival strategy rather than out of intrinsic artistic necessity. No museum can escape this reality, and the Kröller-Müller Museum is no exception.
And so we may celebrate the fact that one of the world’s most famous paintings – Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night – hangs in our museum, that the postcard of this painting is a best-seller in the shop, that the exhibition of works from our collection (including those of Van Gogh) now in Japan is on its way to setting a new record for visitor numbers, that Giacometti’s L’Homme qui marche – another cast of which sold last year for a record price of almost $93 million – is a normal feature of our galleries, that we succeeded within six months in raising the £2 million asking price for The Paintings by Gilbert & George, and that we will soon be exhibiting the challenging work of the Belgian artist Jan Fabre.
Many people manage to find their way to the most beautiful museum in the Netherlands, to one of the most beautiful museums in the world. Despite the pressures of the market – to which we have no objection – we attempt to remain an independent, indeed somewhat obstinate museum. We teach our visitors something and they teach us something.
We have recently learned, for example, that what we consider to be quite normal is considered by others to be offensive. After the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s the Netherlands seemed to enjoy more relaxed morals. We grew accustomed to eroticism in advertising and art. Museum visitors from Islamic and Reformed backgrounds have now informed us, however, that they take offence to female nudes: in particular Hans Baldung Grien’s Venus and Amor of 1524 is viewed by some with extreme discomfort. This painting is among the most costly in the collection, it topped Hitler’s shopping list for his planned Führer Museum (but was luckily returned after the war) and it has had more hours of conservation time than any other: a year full-time! It is indeed a brutal and brazen painting, but one that had been neutralised by its age, financial value and traditional craftsmanship. Now that it is literally seen through other eyes its meaning has changed and its is controversial once again. There can be no better proof of the museum’s right to exist.

Evert van Straaten
March 2011