Van Gogh, the Brand: Pictures at an Exhibition

Bob Varettoni
3 min readJul 9, 2021


I love technology; I love New York; I love art museums; I love taking photos; I love date night.

So I eagerly purchased tickets to attend one of the various “immersive Van Gogh” experiences now popping up everywhere following the wildly successful Atelier des Lumières installation in Paris in 2018.

People I admire whose opinion I respect have also wholeheartedly recommended a visit.

Since I find it hard to be wholehearted about anything, I wanted to post these thoughts about my visit last night. Most of the images speak for themselves.

Yes, I’d go again: It’s great for date night. I imagine, earlier in the day, lots of loud, happy children running around, but that’s OK too. I would have loved the opportunity to have taken my daughters to something like this when they were young.

Bottom line: It’s an Instagram and people-watching paradise.

Entrance, left; gift shop, right.

I’d temper expectations, though, with these half-dozen observations:

  • It’s essentially a high-tech slideshow (reminding me of the highly choreographed July 4 fireworks displays).
  • It’s not totally “immersive” (with all the pedestrian activity and curtains and pipes and scaffolding and neon Exit signs).
  • Mind all the wandering people holding up cell phones (including me!).
  • Mind all the restless people on never-ending searches for the best seat in the house (it’s all pretty much the same, but I admire their motivation).
  • There’s an app for all this (and it’s quite good, too).
  • There’s a gift shop about the size of half a football field (peppered with AR app-enabled activations), and prix-fixe $36 parking at the Pier 36 site.

That last is the point that disheartened me: all the commercialism, all the Van Gogh-branded merchandise.

Van Gogh’s work is now in the public domain — unlike all the Instagram photos taken at the exhibit that Mark Zuckerberg probably now owns.

A half dozen promoters of expensive, immersive Van Gogh exhibits are now profiting off the work of an artist who only sold one painting during his lifetime.

I went to the “original” exhibit at Pier 36 near South Street Seaport. I won’t risk copyright infringement by mentioning the exact name. Rest assured, there’s another similar immersive Van Gogh exhibit on the other side of Manhattan on Vesey Street, or coming soon to a town near you.

Juxtapose this commercialization of the artist with this sentimental, often-viewed video clip from a 2010 BBC episode of “Doctor Who.”

I get — and applaud — that immersive art exhibits are tantalizing glimpses of the quality of the entertainment and educational experiences made possible by technology.

I just don’t get the same connection to the source.

Not everything is a show, and Vincent Van Gogh wasn’t a brand. His painting of crows over a cornfield in Arles has long had deep personal meaning.

To me, it had always been a suicide note somehow translated to canvas.

Until last night, when it was just another Instagram post.

PS- Sometimes the view outside the exhibit is just as lovely.

Originally published at



Bob Varettoni

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