Fans in line 5 weeks early for van Gogh Art: It looks like a rock concert, not an exhibit of paintings.

September 01, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Jaynie Simmons lost the battle on Sunday. She arrived at the National Gallery, felt the skin-baking sun, stared at the endless line of sweaty people waiting for free passes to next month's Vincent van Gogh exhibit and left.

With a soldier's resolve -- and lots to read -- she was back yesterday. It was still pretty sultry. The wait was two hours. But she would not be denied her free advance pass to see the work of the famed Dutch painter, whose praises she sang while biding the time.

"He was a tortured artist, and people can relate to him, how he must have suffered," Simmons said. "And his colors are wonderful."

Van Gogh fever created another madhouse at the National Gallery of Art yesterday, a day after passes first became available. A total of 1,149 people descended on the gallery for tickets yesterday, a day after 2,661 braved the line in 97-degree heat, forcing employees to be pulled from other departments to help process orders.

All told -- including tickets bought by phone and in person -- the museum distributed more than 44,000 tickets on Sunday, a record for a showing that is more than a month away. With the more than 25,000 additional passes sold yesterday, one-third of the advance passes have now been claimed in the first two days.

Beginning on Oct. 4, 70 of the artist's paintings -- on loan from the Netherlands -- will be displayed in an exhibit titled, "Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam." The exhibition, which runs through Jan. 3, is the most elaborate survey of Van Gogh's career outside the Netherlands in 25 years and includes such masterpieces as "Potato Eaters" and "Self-Portrait as an Artist."

Yesterday, ticket-hunters stood in a line that twisted across the floor of the air-conditioned lobby, then spilled outside toward Constitution Avenue. They came with cassette players, newspapers, novels, art exhibit brochures -- anything to entertain themselves.

Their fortitude was remarkable given that there were much easier ways: For a service charge of a mere $2.75 a pass and a $1.25 handling fee, art lovers can obtain tickets by phoning TicketMaster from their living rooms. Or they can drop by a TicketMaster outlet at Hecht's or elsewhere. In fact, about 80 percent of all the passes distributed so far have been handled by TicketMaster.

Those who made the trip to the gallery, though, said it was a matter not of money, but of principle. Gallery exhibitions in Washington should always be free and open to all, they stressed, and to hand over any sum of cash would taint that image of accessibility.

"Washingtonians expect to go to the museum for free," said Val Gremillion, a Federal Reserve employee. "This is a national treasure. Why should I have to pay?"

Pearl Winick, 74, of Silver Spring, was a little less indignant. "I'll give it an hour," she said. "And then I'll go to Hecht's."

For each hour that the exhibition will be open, the gallery is distributing 600 passes -- 200 through TicketMaster, 200 on the day of exhibition and 200 for free at the gallery's advance pass desk.

In yesterday's relative calm, some griped to security guards that only two staffers were handling orders, prolonging the wait. One jittery man, a lawyer, would not give his name, fearing that his boss would discover the truth about his lengthy lunch break.

But most of those in line had no misgivings about whiling away the hours, eagerly reflecting on their passion for van Gogh's work. "It's not so abstract that you can't figure out what the hell it's supposed to be," said Martin Burke, a professor of communication at Prince George's Community College.

"He makes the swirl paintings," said 6-year-old Ellen Archie. Her father, Andrew, an Episcopal priest from Purcellville, Va., said he learned his lesson to come early after braving bone-chilling cold three years ago for a pass to the Vermeer display at the National Gallery. He didn't get a pass that day.

One of those waiting was Kamaal Hollander, a native of Amsterdam, where the works in the exhibit make their home. Hollander, a courier who usually bikes around Washington delivering parcels, had been assigned by his employer to stand at the gallery to obtain passes for a client. The cost for his services was 50 cents a minute.

"In Amsterdam, you don't have to wait this long," he said. "It's funny to see all of these Americans who are so interested to wait two hours in line."

'Van Gogh's Van Goghs'

What: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Where: National Gallery of Art, Washington

When: Oct. 4-Jan. 3

Tickets: Free at advance pass window in East Building of gallery, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays; $2 through TicketMaster outlets; through TicketMaster phone charge, $2.75 per pass and $1.25 handling fee per order. A third of the passes will be saved and handed out during the exhibition. There is a limit of six passes per person.

Call: 410-481-SEAT

Pub Date: 9/01/98


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