The Museum of Bags and Purses is currently hosting a small (but lovely) temporary exhibit on beaded bags alongside its larger permanent collection. The museum is a popular attraction, but recently got the bad news that their funding from the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts (AFK) was being pulled for the coming four years. We sat down with founder and director Sigrid Ivo.
The Bead Goes On. The clever name for the Museum of Bags and Purses' latest exhibit has taken on new meaning, given the museum's current situation. What are the next steps? To simply go on? What is the museum's response to the decision by the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts to defund the world's largest museum of bags and purses for the next four years? Sigrid Ivo is the artistic director of the museum, which takes its Dutch name – Tassenmuseum Hendrijke – from her own mother, Hendrijke. The museum – whose stately, canal-house home alone is worth a visit – was born out of her parents', Hendrijke and Heinz, collection. Both are in their 80s but still visit the weekly to lend a hand. "They're very proud of what the museum is today," said Sigrid Ivo.
The artistic director shares her disappointment with the AFK's decision. "We've been here for 20 years, nine of them in this gorgeous location on the Herengracht. Previously, my parents and I were running a tiny museum in Amstelveen. In the last few years, we've really achieved something! We're the only fashion museum in the Netherlands."
"We're the only fashion museum in the Netherlands"
Do you see yourselves as a fashion museum?
"Yes, the handbag is certainly a strong component of the fashion industry. A lot of brands earn their living with accessories and perfume.
"The Museum of Bags and Purses has been named on international lists as one of the top ten best fashion museums in the world, and we're the largest museum of bags and purses in the world, in terms of the scope of our collection," continues Ivo proudly. "It's not only fashion labels and museums who know us, but visitors do, too. That's why we were surprised when we heard about the AFK's decision, we expected some financial appreciation from the city."
You requested €290,000 for the coming four years. What were your plans for the subsidy?
"To better develop our plans. We wanted to modernise our permanent displays with multimedia installations. Right now, it's basically a chronological timeline with bags and photos. There's so much more we want to say: how is a bag made, for instance? We'd also like a knowledge base, there's a lot of interest in close study of the bags in our collection. We're putting those plans on the back burner now that we've lost the AFK subsidy; we need to concentrate first on strong temporary exhibitions that will attract visitors. That's already going well. We average around 70,000 visitors per year, and we're among the 100 largest museums in the Netherlands in terms of visitor numbers. We brought on a business director in order to attract more visitors. I used to be the general director, now I'm the artistic director."
How else will you fill the financial gap?
"Governments have long expected museums to also be cultural entrepreneurs, and we fit that bill. We earn between 60 and 70 percent of our income ourselves. For a museum, that's quite a lot, some don’t even reach 20 percent. On top of that, we have a major donor, a patron, Henk van den Broek, from the Dirk van den Broek supermarket chain. He bought this location for us, because he – in his words – sees our collection as 'art with a small A." He sees that our bags are also about fashion, art, society, emancipation and travel. Henk van den Broek is our angel, to be in this location on the Herengracht is a dream. But he's phasing out his support, so we need other funders and sponsors. For example, last year we bought Margaret Thatcher's bag for €23,000 thanks to the help of two separate funders, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds and Stichting Zabawas. This spring, we'll be opening our exhibition Royal Bags, with bags from royal family members. There are, among others, bags from Queen Elizabeth and Queen Juliana, selected by Queen Maxima. That's a huge project, so we've applied for more grants."
The clutch ‘Queendom’ by Mary Frances (2015).
""Last year we bought Margaret Thatcher's bag for €23,000, thanks to the help of two separate funders.""
One of the reasons the committee to deny the subsidy was that your exhibitions don’t offer enough context. They mentioned the Barbie exhibition, which the committee had hoped would include reflections on the female image. What are your thoughts on that?
"I don’t agree that that exhibition offered no context. It was there, but the context we chose was Barbie's fashion sense. The female image wasn’t part of the exhibition, because that doesn't match our museum's approach. We choose a different context for each exhibition and we certainly always mix history with the present. An earlier exhibit, for instance, on travel bags and suitcases also covered the history of travel.
As a museum, we have to maintain a delicate balance – we want high visitor numbers, but also substantively strong themed exhibitions that will attract perhaps fewer people. The bead exhibit we have now is more specific and perhaps doesn't, at first glance, speak to everyone. But when visitors are there, they think it's wonderful. I speak regularly with men who were dragged into the museum by their wives, but once they're inside, they find all the information about history and societal development quite interesting."
"I speak regularly with men who were dragged into the museum by their wives, but once they're inside, they find all the information about history and societal development quite interesting"
How did the bead exhibition, The Bead Goes On, come about?
"We collaborated with Betrand Fried of Fried Frères, a well-known Parisian company that deals in beads. Fried has a large collection of historical beaded bags starting in the 18th century, and we have a number of pieces on loan from him. Alongside those, we have contemporary beaded bags from the last 40 years. Modern works are also included, for instance, beaded shoes from designer Tomas Kroes. Visitors can also feel the various types of beads. My favourite bags from this exhibition are two polished-bead pieces done in an art deco motif. In the '20s, a lot of beading was used in fashion – look at designers like Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli and Chanel. But modern labels like Alexander McQueen and Valentino use beading, as well. What I think is lovely about this exhibition are the modern bags from less famous brands and designers, who we wrote to and asked if they'd like to include something. That's something we're increasingly doing."
A beaded bag from Sugar Rush by Mary Frances.
An overview of the Museum of Bags and Purses' permanent collection.
How does that work?
"We send a letter asking if they'd like to donate anything. Often they do, so we have some fantastic shoes from Prada with a matching bag in the permanent collection. We also have limited editions from labels like Louis Vuitton and Chanel. American companies see it as good promotion to be in a museum, so they're happy to donate items. Some of the more unique pieces are things like a bag from Judith Leiber, a well-known American designer. We were able to go to New York to choose pieces from her. I left with four bags, including a rhinestone bag made for Hillary Clinton in the shape of her cat, Socks. Along the same line, we received some similar gorgeous bags from Karl Lagerfeld last year, including one in the shape of his famous cat, Choupette."
"I left with four bags, including a rhinestone bag made for Hillary Clinton in the shape of her cat, Socks"
Your collection consists of more than 5,000 bags, with pieces from the 15th century to today. What is your favourite bag in the museum?
"It's a rectangular aluminium bag from 1930 with a blue plastic coating in art deco style. So gorgeous! You could carry it today, that kind of motif has come back in vogue."
The temporary exhibition, The Bead Goes On, is on display until 18 September in the Museum of Bags and Purses. The temporary exhibition, Royal Bags, will run from 8 October 2016 through 26 February 2017.
The Pyramid Frame handbag with matching shoes from Prada.
The Judith Leiber bag commissioned by Hillary Clinton (1996).
The In Love With Choupette bag from Karl Lagerfeld, from the 2015 fall/winter collection.
The aluminium handbag with plastic coating from around 1930, France.