A landscape painting by Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh sold for $81.3 million at a Christie’s auction last November, just shy of the artist’s peak $82.5 million record. But for the comparatively bargain price tag of $17,750, shoppers at the King of Prussia Mall outside Philadelphia can now purchase their own works by the master, sold directly by Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.
The selection of nine works has been on view (and on sale) since August 17 as the first stop of the Van Gogh Museum Editions Pop-up Tour, a year-long traveling exhibition that will traverse malls across the United States (including in New Jersey, Texas, Colorado, and California). It features some of the masterpieces for which Van Gogh is best known, such as “Sunflowers” (1888), “The Bedroom” (1888), and “Almond Blossom” (1890).
Shoppers need not be alarmed, however. The museum is not deaccessioning its collection highlights for rock-bottom prices. Rather, it is showcasing exclusive three-dimensional replicas of iconic paintings, in a two-pronged attempt to bring the van Gogh viewing experience to American mall-goers while simultaneously raising funds for the museum. Earlier this summer, the van Gogh Museum ended its 18-year partnership with the Royal Dutch Shell oil and gas company, which had contributed significant funding to the museum.
“In shopping malls we will reach a large and varied audience,” wrote a Van Gogh Museum representative to Hyperallergic. “By developing the pop-up, the museum has found an easy access [point] for people to encounter van Gogh’s art, who normally wouldn’t go to (a/ the) museum, or would not have the opportunity to come to the Netherlands.”
The exhibited pieces duplicate the size, color, and texture of the originals, down to the frames and markings on the backs of the works. There is a stock of 260 limited-edition replicas available for each of the nine works, and their five-month production process includes: 3-D scanning of the fronts and backs of the works with specialists from Fujifilm Belgium, a combination of the scan with a high-resolution print, and a painstaking color and relief matching verification process by Van Gogh Museum experts.
The reproduction process is surely innovative, but this is not the first case of a museum selling branded products outside its own walls in order to support institutional activity. The gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, has locations at two New York-area airports, one in Australia, and another in Thailand.
Nor is this the first instance of a blue-chip artist being exhibited in a shopping mall. In 2014, the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris loaned 40 original Monet paintings to the Shanghai K11 Art Mall in China, which has a 3,000-square-meter basement gallery space. “Art is made by people for people. All people,” explains K11, a conglomerate of Chinese art and retail malls, on its website. “We pull art out of museums and galleries and put it onto the streets, into shops, into people’s hands and minds. Art for all. All for art.”
Back in Paris, the Galeries Lafayette department store has dedicated part of its first floor towards gallery space that mounts four annual exhibitions and even commissions contemporary artists.
In Lebanon, large luxury mall Aïshti by the Sea includes a sizable gallery exhibiting works from the collection of Tony and Elham Salamé (founders of the Lebanese Aïshti department store and avid art collectors). Since opening in 2015, the Aïshti Foundation gallery has hosted group shows with works by established contemporary artists, such as Cindy Sherman, Laura Owens, Glenn Ligon, John Baldessari, Kara Walker, Julian Schnabel, and Kehinde Wiley.
Exhibiting art in shopping malls provides mall-goers with that extra experience, perhaps a high-brow means of offsetting guilty retail pleasures. And for the shops surrounding these shows, supporting these shows is a way to offer a brick-and-mortar advantage over online shopping. But the potential benefits to museums seem a bit unclear. Yes, they are sharing their collections with broader audiences, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into improved attendance or additional revenue.
For the time being, the Van Gogh Museum doesn’t seem outwardly concerned about whether folks from the King of Prussia Mall will ever visit them. “It is the museum’s mission to make the life and work of Vincent van Gogh and his contemporaries accessible to as many people as possible,” a spokesman of the museum explained. If the people can’t come to the museum, the museum will come to them.