Last May 16, the Rijksmuseum won the coveted European Museum of the Year award. Judges singled it out for the way it restored its wall paintings, rehung its storied pictures, and integrated objects and paintings from across collections, and for its new Asian Art pavilion.
Several months earlier the museum had garnered attention from a photograph of President Barack Obama and Rijksmuseum director Wim Pijbes shaking hands in front of Rembrandt’s Night Watch, the institution’s most iconic painting. The photo made the front page of 50 newspapers around the globe.
At the time, Pijbes attributed the image’s appeal to the “pulling power of Obama and Rembrandt.” But Pijbes himself, who took over as head of the museum in 2008 when its renovation was mired in delays, was also an attraction, having played a highly visible role at the museum and in Amsterdam itself.
Bold and forthright, the director has repeatedly taken on the Dutch government and the art establishment: he called the construction delays “a scandal” and termed the decision to let bicyclists use the road through the Rijksmuseum a “dumb idea.” When some visitors complained that the museum’s recent show “Late Rembrandt” was too crowded, Pijbes shot back: “If you feel the need for contemplation, you buy a Rembrandt. A museum is not a silence center.”
And last year, after the museum reopened to generally rave reviews, Pijbes jumped into the fray, calling Amsterdam itself “dirty, filthy, and too full” in an open letter to the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
From Tom “Making the Mummies Dance” Hoving, who with his larger-than-life and very media-friendly personality, ruled the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1960s and ’70s, to impresario art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who radicalized MOCA Los Angeles, populist museum directors have become recurring actors on the art world stage. But not at the 215-year-old Rijksmuseum. Enter Pijbes. Interviewed in his office in a small building that looks across a garden to the main museum, he said, “The museum is the median between the visitor and the artwork; as a museum, in my opinion, you have to be invisible so as not to disturb the relationship.” But in marketing, he said, “you have to put a face on the institution. To pull people into the museum, you need tricks.” He added, “If you can brand the product with the face of the director, that is helpful—generally a museum wants to get connected to somebody.”
Pijbes, with his strong theatrical sense (he once managed a dance company), makes that easy. It was he who approved the purchase of a buttocks-baring dress designed by Marlies Dekkers, a Dutch designer who has worked with Lady Gaga. The decision prompted one critic to complain about putting low culture into the museum, but Pijbes was unapologetic. “It is chic: hiding the body at the front, but opening at the back,” he said. “I wanted to move forward by purchasing a strong piece by a contemporary designer, appealing to a younger audience not yet familiar with the Rijksmuseum.”
Part of Pijbes’s marketing approach is to blend the traditional and the unexpected. The museum’s current show of 18th- and 19th-century fashion prints was designed by Christian Borstlap, who has worked for such brands as Louis Vuitton. The museum also commissioned fashion illustrator Piet Paris to create pieces, and fashion journalist Suzy Menkes opened the exhibition. “Even when a show seems orthodox, it is not,” Pijbes said. “We spice up Old Masters and translate them to a 20th-century audience.” Two upcoming exhibitions, “Asia in Amsterdam” and a show for Dick Bruna, the cartoonist and childrens’-book illustrator, reflect the creative mix.
The renovated Rijksmuseum reopened in April 2013. Nearly two years later, it mounted “Late Rembrandt,” a group of 90 paintings, prints, and drawings from the later part of the painter’s life. The show attracted more than 500,000 visitors, breaking attendance records and ultimately leading the museum to limit the number of tickets to it sold each day.
It was entirely intentional that the museum simultaneously exhibited “Chiaroscuro in Photography,” 45 photographs that illustrate the importance of light and shadow in early works. “We want to show parallels,” Pijbes said. “We wanted to show that Rembrandt is not an isolated phenomenon. The works of Old Masters are relevant to later generations.”
He further explained the process: “Curators pick the shows, then it goes to committee and then to the directors,” he said. “The big themes are more academic. The smaller shows can be more playful.”
Pijbes’s interest in both aspects of art reflects his academic roots. He studied art history, philosophy, and music history at the University of Groningen. In his professional life, he started out as a lighting designer and went on to curate international tours of Dutch contemporary art. It may have been his awareness of the importance of lighting that influenced his advocacy for putting the Rijksmuseum’s greatest 17th-century paintings together on the first floor where, in his opinion, the lighting is the best in the museum.
When Pijbes became head of exhibitions and later director of the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam, he was not shy about making waves. One show that attracted attention presented photographs from Dutch Playboy. But Pijbes pointed out that the museum had mounted an international traveling exhibition on Playboy cartoons 40 years earlier. “These cartoons, like the photographs, play a role in the visual public domain,” Pijbes explained. “In the Kunsthal we had great freedom to bring really everything we wanted.”
The Rijksmuseum has been at the forefront of making images from its collections available online. Indeed it made 200,000 available at Rijksstudio, its collections website.
“Pijbes has looked at the museum in a different way,” noted museum planner Mark Walhimer, whose most recent book is Museums 101. “The Rijksmuseum is the benchmark against which other museums measure themselves for handling their websites,” he said in a telephone interview. “Pijbes has opened the door. He believes that museums are the protectors of the objects and hopes people can come and see them. But they are available in other formats, and if you can’t come, you can see them in another way.”
The museum, as Pijbes sees it, serves as the keeper of national treasures. However, “on the Web, we present objects to be chosen by you,” Pijbes said. “It is do-it-yourself—not the top-down curators’ choice, but everyone’s personal choice. It gives new dimension to ownership. It is everyone’s private collection.”
Some in the art world worry that making the images available might cheapen the brand and leave people uninterested in the museum experience. But Pijbes thinks otherwise. Even though images of Night Watch have appeared on milk cartons sold at Albert Heijn supermarkets, the Netherlands’ largest chain, Pijbes is unconcerned that such exposure will diminish interest in seeing the original work.
“People will still want the authentic experience,’’ he said. “An image is never the original artwork. Venice in Vegas is not Venice.” He has said that bringing the image to the world only makes the world more eager to see the original.
If pure academics have an issue with the democratization of art images, Pijbes feels his own background has trained him as a sort of “hands-on academic,” and, he noted, he will be a visiting professor at Cambridge University in the spring of 2016.
“It is all about trust, authenticity, and value,” Pijbes said. “I love to bring art and people together in a great place like the Rijksmuseum: to inspire people and to move them to educate and share knowledge and yes, sometimes to entertain. To me that is what it is all about.”
Geraldine Fabrikant is a former senior writer and reporter for the New York Times. She continues to write for the Times and other publications.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 66 under the title “Rembrandt and the Buttocks-Baring Dress.”