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Up Late With Vermeer, as a Blockbuster Draws to an End

ByTeam BB

Jun 5, 2023

To become one of the last lucky last visitors to the landmark “Vermeer” exhibition, Kristian Markus of Hamburg, Germany, drove five hours on Saturday to make it to the Rijksmuseum by midnight.

Markus, who works in marketing, first made a stop in Münster to pick up his mother — the tickets were her Mother’s Day present — and then drove two more hours to Amsterdam.

“I knew it would be a special mood,” he said. “Vermeer’s interiors are a closed world; they are all private interiors, private stories, and you need a bit of an intimate atmosphere to get close to them.”

The “Vermeer” show, featuring 27 of the Dutch Golden Age master’s approximately 35 known artworks, has been the most successful exhibition ever staged by the Dutch national museum, in terms of ticket sales.

According to the museum’s press office, the Rijksmuseum sold more than 650,000 tickets to visitors from 113 nations for an exhibition that ran 16 weeks, from Feb. 10, and closed on Sunday.

“I’m confident to say that we could have sold way over a million tickets,” said Taco Dibbits, the museum’s director. “Everybody was talking about it, and there was an enormous buzz.”

The show was billed as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the largest collection of Vermeer’s works in one place, including “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” from the Mauritshuis in The Hague; “Young Woman With a Lute,” from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and three paintings from the Frick Collection in New York.

“I seriously think that it will never happen again,” Dibbits said on Monday. “There are few Vermeers and, because of their popularity, most of the museums will have a hard time letting them travel.”

The Rijksmuseum, however, resisted selling as many tickets as possible. Dibbits said his intention was to bring visitors “closer to Vermeer,” and to allow them to view his works — many of them quiet domestic scenes — in the most intimate possible setting. (And as a government-funded museum, the Dutch national museum does not need to earn its income from ticket sales.)

At first, it made 450,000 tickets available for the show, and they sold out within three days. Museum officials expected a great deal of interest but were surprised by the volume of requests.

Nevertheless, limiting tickets left many Vermeer lovers disappointed. Some people planned trips to Amsterdam just to see the show, before realizing that they couldn’t get in.

Responding to the demand, museum quickly scrambled to figure out ways to admit more visitors, extending opening hours to 11 p.m. from the normal closing time of 5 p.m. Staff shortages made that difficult. “In the Netherlands, as with a lot of countries in Europe at the moment, it’s very difficult to find staff,” Dibbits said. “We hadn’t yet filled all the positions for security and for the front office.”

In March, the museum was finally able to release another tranche of tickets to respond to demand. When that batch of about 200,000 tickets became available online, Dibbits said, the Rijksmuseum website crashed.

For the final weekend, museum officials wanted to offer two special nights to Vermeer lovers, by keeping doors open to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. “At first we were afraid people would say we don’t want to work until 2 a.m.,” Dibbits said. “But people loved the idea.”

The Rijksmuseum offered up an additional 2,300 tickets for the last weekend, which were made available by lottery on the museum website and advertised on social media.

That was how Marcus Stehlik, a lawyer from Vienna, got his tickets at last. He said he’d been trying since January, but it was always sold out. “We read about it on Twitter and got lucky,” he said, adding that he and his wife flew in for the weekend, but, after a day of visiting other museums, they almost slept through their 12:30 a.m. time slot early Sunday morning.

“To be honest, we nearly missed it,” he said. “But we’re so glad we didn’t.”

At 1 a.m., the museum galleries were indeed far less crowded than during the daytime opening hours, when visitors had to crane over shoulders to get a glimpse of “The Milkmaid” and “The Geographer.”

Julia Kowalska, a Polish mathematician studying in the Netherlands for a Ph.D., said it was her ninth visit to the show, and the most relaxed. Kowalska bought a Friend’s Pass to the museum, which allowed her to invite a different friend to join her for each visit.

“Now each painting is associated with a different person,” she said. “Now it feels like the closure of a chapter of my life. My private life got all intertwined with Vermeer.”

At 1:37 a.m. Sunday, security personnel began to shoo visitors out of the galleries. The halls began to clear and stragglers got a moment or two alone with their favorite work.

Later on Sunday, Dibbits said goodbye to the last visitors, an American couple from North Carolina, when doors closed at 6 p.m.

“I’m still kind of mourning over the paintings leaving,” he said on Monday. “It was an emotional farewell.”

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