In a Day-Long Protest, Dutch Museums Transform Into Gyms, Nail Salons and Barber Shops

The coordinated effort was “playful” but challenged the government’s inconsistent Covid-19 lockdown measures

A nail technician wears a mask and gloves as they work on a patron's nails, while Van Gogh's painted eyes loom large from a wall decoration behind
A nail technician works at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Patrons could choose from several Van Gogh-inspired designs, including ones inspired by the Impressionist painter's depictions of cherry blossoms and starry night skies. Photo by Sanne Derks / Getty Images

Last Wednesday, more than 70 museums and cultural institutions in the Netherlands temporarily reopened their storied galleries as makeshift nail salons, barber shops and gyms. Organizers of the coordinated event described it as a lighthearted protest of the government’s inconsistent Covid-19 restrictions. Under the rules, theaters, bars, cafés and museums must remain shuttered, while hair and nail salons and gyms are permitted to open, reports Anna Holligan for BBC News.

Cultural institutions and venues have been closed since the country entered a national lockdown in December, in response to a surge in the Covid-19 pandemic attributed to the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Actors perform on stage while two people receive haircuts, one on each side of the theatre stage
Actors perform on stage while two people receive haircuts on January 18, as part of a nation-wide protest against Covid-19 lockdown measures in the arts sector. Photo by Sanne Derks / Getty Images

Even as infection case numbers reached record highs, the Dutch government relaxed some of its lockdown restrictions last week, as hospitalizations fell, “reopening nonessential shops until 5 p.m., as well as gyms, hairdressers, nail salons and brothels,” reports Claire Moses for the New York Times.

The Dutch art sector, still restricted from opening to the public, responded with a coordinated act of civil disobedience. At the Van Gogh Museum, manicurists created nail designs inspired by the Impressionist painter’s flowering trees and starry night skies. At Amsterdam’s royal concert hall, barbers offered haircuts during orchestra rehearsals, per BBC News. Meanwhile, patrons of the Amsterdam Museum rolled out yoga mats next to priceless paintings while actors performed plays in the hallways, reports Tessa Solomon for ARTnews.

Performance artists Sanne Wallis de Vries and Diederik Ebbinge organized the protest. On the event’s website, they billed the daylong event as “a playful initiative to draw attention to the dire situation in the cultural sector.”

Some institutions chose not to participate after local officials threatened fines, reports the Post. And while some 30 mayors across the country expressed support for the cause, others such as Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema stated that she would not permit the protest to occur, according to the New York Times.

Despite the mayor’s statements, Emilie Gordenker, the director of the Van Gogh Museum, decided to go through with the planned event, according to BBC News.

“A museum visit is a safe visit, and equally important as going to a nail salon, perhaps more so,” she says. “We just ask them to be consistent... make the rules in a way everyone understands them. At this point that seems to be lacking.”