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The Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam

The Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam
Museum Muddle in Rotterdam
by Abigail R. Esman

Rotterdam's beleaguered Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, long troubled by legal, budget and management problems, now sits in the middle of a muddle that, as the saying goes, only grows curiouser and curiouser. Where the tale begins is hard to say, but at its center is the theft, early in June, of 3,000,000 euros from its coffers. The curious part is that the museum is 600,000 euros in the red. And that's just part of the story.

When museum administrators discovered the funds missing on the morning of June 10, 2003, they immediately alerted Fortis bank, which handles the museum's financial business as well as those for other government offices in the region (the Boijmans, like most Dutch museums, is government run, making this the theft of state, not private, monies). Fortis, acting quickly, was able to retrieve all but E800,000, which remains missing and unaccounted for still, according to officials (though some reports suggest that the money has been located, but not recovered, at this point).

One employee of the museum was swiftly taken into custody, with several others arrested over the course of the next two weeks. Police believe that others involved in the embezzlement scheme, as it is being called, will still be found. (Officials admit, however that they are providing only very sketchy details to the press at this time.)

What makes the entire matter particularly suspicious is the claim against the Rotterdam museum -- and the municipality at large -- issued exactly one month prior to the theft by the construction company hired to oversee the recently completed rebuilding and renovation of the museum -- a project which took two years longer than planned and, at a cost of E17 million, was more than 90 percent over budget. The rising costs and ongoing delays caused the municipality to dismiss the contractor in March.

The amount the contractor is suing for? 2.5 million Euros.

Stranger still is the observation of Rotterdam Socialist Party parliamentarian Theo Cornellisen, who told the national daily, Trouw, that the museum "has a negative balance of 600,000 Euros and no liquid assets. Where did the money come from? The only thing I can figure out is that it involves bank guarantees for the new building or (private) sponsorship funds." Cornellisen has called for an investigation into this matter, as well.

The Boijmans has been at the center of numerous political controversies of late; as recently as March, motions were made to begin investigations into the Museum's financial and administrative problems dating back to 1996. In 1999, the entire staff went on strike against its director, the Belgian Chris Dercon (who cut his curatorial teeth at P.S.1 in Queens), protesting (among other things) Dercon's intention to sell a Rothko painting from the collection.

Dercon, who took office in the spring of '96, resigned in September of last year to take the helm at Munich's Haus der Kunst. His last official day at the Boijmans was May 30, just ten days before the missing E3,000,000 was discovered.

ABIGAIL R. ESMAN is an art critic and journalist based in New York and Amsterdam.