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I Went to a VIP Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit and Now I’m Pissed

Where better than a rapidly gentrifying arts district to see an “artistic experience” by an artist who died impoverished and unappreciated?

10:47 AM CDT on October 6, 2021

Northeast Minneapolis was the perfect neighborhood to host “Immersive Van Gogh.” Where better than a rapidly gentrifying arts district where artists can hardly afford to live to see an “artistic experience” by an artist who died impoverished and unappreciated?

I was offered free tickets to one of the exhibit’s VIP events in September. (Everyone else has the privilege of paying $40-$70 to take in large, screen saver-like animations of the work of a man who hardly sold a painting in his lifetime.) 

When my girlfriend and I stepped inside, we were overwhelmed by what we could only describe as a liberal nonprofit superspreader event. A sea of semi-formal individuals sipped wine and mingled as some band played loungey jazz. One small table was set up with info on Northside Achievement Zone (or NAZ). On the opposite wall, VIP guests could receive gifts consisting of a plastic sunflower, a postcard, and a chaotically designed art notebook with randomly placed graph paper and low-quality pictures of Van Gogh’s work. 

After settling in, we spotted a small crowd of people circled around the boy mayor himself, Jacob Frey. Immediately, we felt like this event highlighted everything wrong in this damn city. After producers of the exhibit and folks at NAZ spoke, Jacob Frey got up to give one of the most Jacob Frey speeches I've ever heard—and as folks around me applauded while he got on stage, I booed.

The disconnect between Minneapolis politicians and the public was stark as Frey gave a Van Gogh-themed talk about his “love” for Minneapolis. He made a Wikipedia-like remark about how Van Gogh was talented but struggled, gave a spiel about affordable housing he hasn’t provided, and made a short reference of the city’s problems—which he called “remarkable”—before having the audacity to relate it all to how great of a city this is. A city where he stands by as law enforcement agencies mass-arrest his constituents. A city whose houseless population he consistently fails.

I wondered if Frey would've displaced an impoverished Van Gogh, or how MPD would’ve reacted to Van Gogh having a mental health crisis. My girlfriend was pissed. Things were not off to a great start. 

After the speeches, organizers let us enter the exhibit, which consisted of two sections: a small room that displayed the exhibit more intimately, and then a larger room with taller ceilings. We were surrounded by projections of animated versions of Van Gogh paintings straight out of a Van Gogh GIF Tumblr account circa 2012. 

Some of these visuals bathed us in a sea of the golden sunflowers and wheat fields found in Van Gogh's works Wheatfields With Sheaves and Sunflowers, others isolated specific people like in Van Gogh's painting Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Café du Tambourin or oddly animated objects like the chair found in Van Gogh’s Chair. A boring-ass mixture of classical and electronic music from composer Luca Longobardi played, setting a tone you’d find in a study playlist on YouTube. It all came together to say, “Hey, this is a super deep art event. You should feel as much as possible. Are you getting it?” 

Crows from what’s considered Van Gogh’s last painting, Wheatfield with Crows, were animated in a way that made them look creepy and out of place. Unnecessary animations of smoke and clouds in other paintings reminded me of a cheap JibJab effect. It all felt disjointed and thrown together in a way that distracted from the original pieces themselves and reminded us of the VIP notebook gift. I kept wondering, “Why is this taking place in Minneapolis?”

Somehow the exhibit was both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time, which left me and many other writers disappointed. So many Minnesota artists struggle to get opportunities here, while money and media attention go to subpar spectacles like this one—a nonspecific thing that’s also running in 20 other major cities—that will come and go. Where is the immersive exhibit for Kprecia Ambers or Papa Mbye?

When everything wrapped, the crowd exited through the one place this exhibit was bound to have—the gift shop—because this isn't a show where folks pay respects to Van Gogh as much as it is a show where a few people profit off of him. A show highlighting how thirsty Minneapolis elites are to be on the same level of elites in other major cities, where these exhibits are the norm. An event where the mayor does some election season photo ops while people see the augmented works of a man who had no followers in his lifetime. 

My girlfriend and I left upset. She said events like this are the reason she sometimes hates Minneapolis, and it made me wonder how many artists living here will end up like Van Gogh: only recognized in death, like so many whose murders Minneapolis elites want us to forget. 

Would not recommend.

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