by Paul Laster
A documentary about the 10-year, $500 million renovation of the Netherland’s national museum, The New Rijksmuseum takes viewers behind the scenes of the dramatic makeover—from the demolition of elements of the existing structure in 2003 to the celebrated re-opening of the strikingly transformed building in 2013.
Director Oeke Hoogendijk shot 275 hours of footage, which took seven months to edit down to some four hours of film with a standout cast of professional workers. “In order to succeed I realized it was important to gain complete trust of the museum staff, curators and architects”, said Hoogendijk.
“I invested many hours in personal conversations, and over the years I managed to connect with them and eventually win their trust,” Hoogendijk adds. “Thanks to these relationships, I was allowed to film virtually everything with my crew: from the first scoops of the excavators to management meetings discussing future colors of the walls, from the opening of contractor bids to the restoration of 17th century Dutch masterpieces.”
Having hired Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz, who aim to bring the museum back to the pure layout conceived by the original architect, Pierre Cuypers, while making minimal alterations to the building itself, Rijksmuseum Director Ronald de Leeuw is confronted with one bureaucratic setback after the next.
In 2005, the powerful Cyclist’s Union protests the planned new entrance through the museum’s underpass, which leads the Amsterdam city council to reject the plan. Work grinds to a halt in 2006 when no contractors are willing to take on the project for the existing budget.
A bidding process is put in place in 2008, but the only bid that comes to light is nearly twice the budgeted funds, provoking the Minister of Cultural Affairs to parcel out the tendering procedure to seven different contractors. A month later, one of the star players in the renovation and the film, the diplomatic Ronald de Leeuw, steps down and is quickly replaced by a younger, more forceful Rijksmuseum Director, Wim Pijbes.
In part two of the film, the dynamic Taco Dibbits, who had hopes of becoming the new Rijksmuseum Director, is named Director of Collections, an equally important role. He tries to acquire an important piece by Dutch conceptual artist Jan Schoonhoven at auction, but is greatly outbid—a money problem that affects not only the museum’s ability to make acquisitions in an inflated art market, but also to move forward with construction.
In 2009 Pijbes pushes once more for Cruz & Ortiz’ design for the new entrance, which frustratingly gets shot down again by the city council, bringing about a less compelling compromise. Contract agreements are finally met to begin construction in 2010 and interior architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who worked with I.M. Pei on the Grand Louvre in Paris, presents his color scheme for the galleries.
Wilmotte, however, also has to compromise, as Pijbes decides the designer’s black and gray color combination is too oppressive. Repainting parts of the galleries white, as well as the resurfacing of walls in the most prominent spaces, causes further delays.
During the delays, the cameras turn to the excitement of Menno Fitski, the Curator of Asian Art, one of the new sections added to the museum, as well as the cleaning of the paintings in the collection, including Rembrandt’s 1642 masterpiece, The Night Watch, and the pride in the project and misgivings at its coming to an end that are expressed by Leo van Gerven, the contractor’s superintendent, and Marleen Homan, the onsite architect from Cruz & Ortiz.
Hoping to have a year to install 8,000 pieces from the collection in 80 galleries over a one-year period, Pijbes, Dibbits, and the curatorial staff are forced to wait until September 2012 before their daunting task can begin. But all of the years of planning the historical display, restoration of major works, and new acquisitions pays off as a military-like operation readies the Rijksmuseum for a jubilant April 13, 2013 opening by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.
“With hindsight I am able to see how extremely fortunate I was: to have been so close to this disconcerting yet wonderful project, so close to the restoration of masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer and many others,” said Hoogendijk. “The museum is now beautiful to behold and, with over 14,000 visitors a day, a grand success. Although everyone involved, including myself, had many a doubt, eventually it became a tale with a happy end."
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.
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