L.A. Museum to Host Van Gogh Exhibit


The Los Angeles County Museum of Art will be one of two recipients of the largest loan ever from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Seventy paintings by Vincent van Gogh--the revered Dutch artist whose vibrantly colored, vigorously painted works draw enormous crowds and set auction records at tens of millions of dollars--will open at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in October and be exhibited in Los Angeles from Jan. 17, 1999, to April 4, 1999.

The show will be Los Angeles’ first Van Gogh exhibition in 30 years and is expected to be an enormous hit, potentially bringing in as many as 1 million visitors, Los Angeles museum officials say. That would far surpass the 460,000 people who saw “A Day in the Country,” a popular French Impressionist show at the museum in 1984.

Although large shows of the artist’s work are rare, there have been a few in recent years. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art brought in about 630,000 visitors at each of two blockbusters: “Van Gogh in Arles,” a 152-piece show in 1984, and “Van Gogh in St.-Remy and Auvers,” which presented 90 works in 1987.

The ultimate Van Gogh extravaganza occurred in 1990 in the artist’s homeland, when the Van Gogh Museum and the Kroeller-Mueller Museum in Otterlo, 55 miles east of Amsterdam, marked the centennial of the artist’s death with an exhibition of 133 paintings and 248 drawings. The museums issued 1.4 million tickets to the landmark event, and turned away thousands of would-be visitors.


The current show is a result of the efforts of Earl A. Powell, director of the National Gallery and former head of the county art museum, who initiated the loan exhibition to coincide with an eight-month period when the Van Gogh Museum will be closed for renovation and construction of a new wing. The museum opened in 1973 to house a permanent loan of works that had been in the Van Gogh family collection since the artist’s death, and is the second-largest tourist attraction in the Netherlands, drawing 1 million visitors annually, second only to the Rijksmuseum.

Titled “Van Gogh’s Van Goghs, Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum” this show will survey the career of the troubled artist who took his own life at the age of 37 and has achieved mythical stature both as an influential modern painter and as the embodiment of mad artistic genius. Among celebrated images to be displayed are “Potato Eaters,” “Self-Portrait as an Artist,” “The Bedroom” and the artist’s last painting, “Wheat Field With Crows.”

“The exhibition will be a spectacular event,” Powell said. “It’s not something that will ever happen again. I’m sure it will be enormously popular.”

Powell said he had inquired about the possibility of a Van Gogh exhibition on a visit to Amsterdam two years ago, when he learned about the planned expansion. When serious talks began this past spring, he suggested that the show also travel to the West Coast.

“I thought my former home would be a nice place for it,” Powell said of the Los Angeles County museum he left in 1992 after a 12-year tenure as director. “I still feel very close to LACMA, and it has always been a great venue for special exhibitions. I’m delighted that we will be partners.”

Citing the J. Paul Getty Museum, the county art museum and L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, Powell said that Los Angeles is a major art center and a “logical match” for such an exhibition. “Los Angeles has always been a vibrant and provocative and powerful place to do all kinds of things, but it is remarkable if you stack up what’s happened in the last 10 or 15 years. There’s a lot to be proud of.”

John Leighton, director of the Van Gogh Museum, said he agreed to the loan because “we would rather have the pictures on show than put them in storage, and this is a chance to increase our profile in the United States. Showing the collection at two of the most important museums in America is a huge honor.”

The best of the museum’s remaining paintings will go on view at the Van Gogh Museum’s next-door neighbor, the Rijksmuseum, during construction. Additionally, a few works may be sent to one or two provincial museums in the Netherlands, but no other foreign loans will be made, he said.

County art museum officials are greeting the exhibition as an opportunity to build the Wilshire Boulevard institution’s audience and membership, but also as a signal that the museum has emerged in good health from a period of belt-tightening and restructuring under the leadership of President Andrea Rich, who took charge in 1995, and Director Graham Beal, who joined the staff in 1996.

“This demonstrates that LACMA is back,” Beal said. “We have the infrastructure. We are the right people. This is the institution that can pull this kind of thing off.”

Rich said she hopes the show “reminds people of the long-term value of an investment in a comprehensive, major encyclopedic museum. The community needs an institution that has an ongoing capacity to receive important international exhibitions.”

Although blockbuster exhibitions bring a bonanza of ticket sales, new memberships and gift shop revenues, they also come with enormous costs--for insurance, shipping, installation, security and advertising--and do not necessarily yield profits for the hosts. The Van Gogh exhibition budget has not been revealed, but support from Andersen Consulting, an international management and technology consulting firm, and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities will offset expenses.

Rich said the county art museum will seek additional sponsorship, but she is confident the museum will cover its costs. “I don’t see this as a huge windfall,” she said. “The great benefits are service to people in the region and an enormous economic impact on the city, particularly hotels and restaurants.”

In anticipation of attendance that could reach 1 million, the museum will issue tickets for specific dates and times, and possibly keep the show open every day for 12 hours. “We want to balance our desire to get as many people through as possible with a good experience in a comfortable environment,” Rich said.

Visitors will see a varied array of paintings made from 1882-90, including landscapes, still lifes and portraits. During that short period, Van Gogh’s palette evolved from somber browns and grays to his trademark brilliant yellows, oranges and blues. Meanwhile, his brushwork became more agitated as he wove powerful images from short strokes of pure color.

“There is something about the way Van Gogh made his paintings that doesn’t begin to come across in reproductions,” Beal said. “People who come to the exhibition will be able to see that he wasn’t just a rather sad mental case who ultimately did himself in, but a Modernist master.”

Leighton said the 70 works in the exhibition were selected to represent the artist’s career and the Van Gogh Museum’s holding of 210 paintings, while eliminating pieces too fragile to travel. An additional concern was to retain a substantial group for display at the Rijksmuseum so that tourists in search of Van Gogh’s art wouldn’t be disappointed.

Along with Van Gogh’s paintings, the museum contains 580 Van Gogh drawings, seven sketchbooks and about 750 letters written by the artist. Additionally, the museum is building a collection of 19th century works by other artists. The new wing, which will double the museum’s exhibition space, will be used for temporary exhibitions, Leighton said.

Although the upcoming exhibition is the only large loan ever made by the Van Gogh Museum, it is not the first time many of the works have traveled to Los Angeles.

Long before the museum was established, Van Gogh’s heirs promoted his reputation by displaying their collection widely. A show of 155 drawings, paintings and watercolors toured the West Coast in 1958, stopping at the County Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park. In 1969, four years after the museum’s art section established a separate facility on Wilshire Boulevard, the county art museum hosted an exhibition of 114 drawings and paintings from the collection.

Interest in Van Gogh’s work escalated during the 1980s, most notably in the marketplace as his paintings repeatedly set astonishing auction records: $39.9 million for “Sunflowers” in 1987, $53.9 million for “Irises” later that year (the painting is now in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum), and $82.5 million for “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” in 1990.