Complexity in Culture: Interview with Axel Rüger

As a member of the vanguard of leaders bringing a new perspective and broadened approach to leadership in our sector, we were absolutely delighted to have the chance to talk to Axel Rüger early into his journey as Secretary and Chief Executive at The Royal Academy.

Returning to London after 13 years making transformational innovations at the Van Gogh Museum as its Director, Axel shares his view of leadership in a changing world where demographic understanding, digital innovation and data analysis are paramount, but all underpinned by hard work. He shares some of his ambitions for The Royal Academy and considers how and where we should be looking for and encouraging new talent to lead the sector.


You have been in your role at The Royal Academy for six months. Can you outline two or three key ambitions for your new role?
Initially I have needed to get to know the place. The Royal Academy is quite a complex institution being led by artists and through its governance structure with many different facets of what that encompasses. The Academy’s work includes exhibitions, the Schools, collections, learning programmes and of course the new buildings – a fair amount to get the head around. It is certainly different to a traditional museum in my experience.

The Academy’s recent primary focus was its 250th Anniversary. It has enormously expanded its campus through a major capital building project, and it is really now time for us to think about the future. We need to develop a new strategy and new narrative for the period going forward. That is the overarching key ambition that we as the Academy need to tackle.

We have recently elected a new President and our Artistic Director is also leaving soon. These changes are all new since I started and while these were not part of my initial intentions when I came to the Academy, it means we are in a position to take a fresh look at the organisation and its structure.

There is one more major building project underway which was not part of the original master-plan – the refurbishment of the Royal Academy Schools – which we are progressing as we proceed with the renovation of the Schools. This requires a separate fundraising campaign and is due to be realised in 2022/23. It poses another big and challenging project for us to deliver successfully over the coming years. There is never a dull moment.

Your career began in the US, then London at the National Gallery before you became Director at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. As you return to London how has the sector changed since you were last working here in 2006?
Only six months back into working in the UK it is quite hard to make many wide-ranging observations, however I have noticed a generational shift in the new leaders and directors coming in. In fact, several of them are my old colleagues and office mates. I observe that this generational shift has brought a slightly different attitude to leadership style.

It is quite difficult to put your finger on what it really is, but it feels more collegial in its focus. We are all now facing a different environment, particularly from a digital perspective, which has brought a whole new dimension for any arts organisation.

We are under a lot more public scrutiny particularly in terms of the ethics around what we are doing, how we are fundraising and what the trustees of our organisations are doing. The relevance question keeps coming back in terms of the rapidly changing public demographic around us and that we need to reflect this particularly in terms of age and ethnicity. All of that in our hyper-sensitive society means that there is a whole new set of challenges which present a markedly different environment than before.

“We are under a lot more public scrutiny particularly in terms of the ethics around what we are doing.”


Does this attitude shift resonate more in the UK or is that a global trend?
The challenge staring all of us in the face in the UK is the uncertainty of what is going to happen with Brexit and what that will mean economically and politically. The general tone of the public debate is fairly harsh and hardened and we can feel that in everyday life across many organisations. I think Brexit has accelerated that and the increase in abrasive language – both in terms of politics and the public – is marked. People say things openly today which five years you would not be allowed to say in public. That shift in attitude translates into people generally feeling more licensed to make statements and behave differently towards people. This is particularly bad for front of house staff and the service industry is really feeling it: they get the full impact of how entitled and sometimes even abusive the public can be.

Globally, people are becoming more inward looking and more nationalist. There appears to be a big backlash against an international, cosmopolitan outlook and I believe the internet and social media have a lot to answer for here. Technology provides platforms that weren’t there before and allows for not just outspoken opinions but for really abrasive language. I don’t think this is specific to the UK, but here all of this has been funnelled and amplified by the Brexit debate.

You were Director of the Van Gogh Museum for 13 years and in this time made it one of the most successful internationally acclaimed institutions. Can you share the approach and methods you took to make it such a success?
Of course, I wish I could claim all the credit for its success, but when I got there Van Gogh was already pretty famous! He is arguably the most famous artist in the world so you kind of have gold in your hands.

We also hugely benefited from the fact that Amsterdam as a city pulled up its bootstraps and positioned itself anew with a very, very successful city marketing campaign – in fact it was almost too successful considering the number of tourists now visiting.

In terms of the approach, we wanted to stimulate creativity. When you have a single-artist museum, the approach needs to be creative and kept fresh, relevant and interesting.

With an institution of that type and exposure or renown, there is a duty to be best in class. I always drove the museum to achieve the best quality in everything we could deliver. Sometimes people said that I was pushing too hard and it was too extreme. There were times when some suggested that 80 per cent was good enough. I am afraid I had to disagree and say: “We are the Van Gogh Museum and 80 per cent is really just not good enough.” I know that some people found it a bit much but actually for the most part it was really motivating to achieve very ambitious goals.

The final piece was to always be very professional. I was driven to demonstrate that the Museum was professionally run. At the Van Gogh Museum we focused hugely on the visitor services. We re-jigged the entire visitor proposition and had some brilliant staff who came up with great ideas which I gladly helped along and facilitated. That developed a really strong attraction for visitors and boosted the atmosphere. Despite being a relatively small Museum in a town the size of Amsterdam, the Museum welcomed two million visitors per year. The proposition for visitors is therefore something you have to manage carefully.

How did the evolution of technology impact on your approach to increase accessibility to the collections at the Van Gogh?
With such truly global interest in Van Gogh – far greater than we could ever satisfy for many people who will never be able to come and visit Amsterdam – digital technology helped us to reach so many. With a very strong social media presence, we were able to communicate with audiences everywhere to inspire and stimulate creativity.

In the Museum itself we also developed our own multimedia tour, which we wanted to make as high tech as possible. Usually organisations engage specialist companies to do this, but we took it in-house and reinvented it, and subsequently ourselves. It became very successful and proved a great business model generating income for the Museum.

I remember when I started at the Museum in 2006, our Managing Director shared a vision that one day they hoped for 15 per cent of ticket sales to be made online. By the time I left, we sold 100 per cent of our tickets online and effectively closed the box office. There was such rapid development in this area.

On many different fronts, technology has impacted the approach arts organisations are taking. There are a lot of new and interesting initiatives coming through including crowd control, visitor management all through better data usage and algorithms. It is very exciting.

How will you harness the success at the Van Gogh with your approach at the Royal Academy to increase awareness, integration and accessibility for a wider audience?
I do hope we manage this, but it is difficult to say for sure as the proposition is quite different across the two organisations. The Van Gogh Museum had 85 per cent tourist audience from around the world and we communicated to them in eleven languages. At The Royal Academy, 80 percent of our visitors are local and regional with only 20 per cent tourists.

Visitors don’t come for our collections as they are not really as important or famous as our neighbours’ – The National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and V&A – who all have sizeable, permanent collections with famous iconic works. Here, our proposition is largely around our exhibitions programme, which is well-known and well-established.

However, the other aspects of the Academy are perhaps those we are most keen to raise awareness of. Most people are not aware that we have students on site and that we are actually an active art academy. We need to make more use of the building, thinking more closely about who our audiences of the future are.
The Academy has one of the largest ‘friends’ group in the UK – 97,000 members – which is very important to us. They come largely from a certain demographic and we have to consider carefully what the future looks like with that group and other audiences.

Not all the things that worked at the Van Gogh Museum will work at The Royal Academy, but with our strategic hats on we need to think about what audiences we appeal to and how we potentially re-imagine the offer so we may become more appealing to other groups. All I can say right now is: watch this space.

The Royal Academy is celebrating 250 years since it was established. How is it looking ahead to the next 250 and its evolution as a home for art and ideas?
The Academy is, and ought to be, a home for ideas. We are led by artists and they have their own minds and are diverse in their opinions so I don’t believe the Academy will ever speak with one voice. We need to focus more on how we present that and create a greater profile for the Academy as a place for debate.

As well as debate, we need to give more prominence to the practice of art and what creativity really means and how that translates into artistic expression. We need to make that more visible and tangible. If we can bring that more to the forefront by also integrating the collections, and of course the Academy’s learning and development element, we have the opportunity to appeal to an even wider audience.


“We need to give more prominence to the practice of art and what creativity really means.”

As an Academy, the importance of encouraging and exciting the love and practice of art is at its core. Is enough being done to support this ethos across many different demographics of the UK to ensure sustainability and innovation in the sector?
I really believe there is an awful lot being done with a huge number of initiatives underway. In London, the Mayor is greatly supporting the Arts sector through the London Borough of Culture and activity right across the city. The UK in general has always been quite innovative about how to approach audiences and museum learning.

That said, many of the big institutions were established some time ago and are struggling to diversify and broaden audiences. We all have to look more closely at to whom our offer is really appealing. When you look at certain demographics, the concept of galleries, and two-dimensional art on the wall particularly, is not part of their experiential world. That is found much more in performance, street dance and movement with many very interesting dynamics.

We need to think now as demographics are really changing. In Amsterdam, for example, it has been predicted that by 2030 the majority of under 18-year-olds will be of a non-western background and while I don’t know specific forecasts for London, this trend is likely to be mirrored to some degree.


“We all have to look more closely at to whom our offer is really appealing.”


From an international viewpoint is there enough being done to identify new talent in Arts and Culture? Are there any countries that you would highlight as doing this well?
On one hand there is a lot being done. Britain was quite trailblazing with the Clore Leadership programme, established in 2003 as a learning and development resource for leaders and aspiring leaders in the arts, culture and creative sectors. I had the good fortune to attend Clore myself, and there are now other countries who have similar style courses.

However, we are not really reaching the diversification that would reflect the world around us. That is not just about the programmes being offered; an institution needs to reflect that true level of diversity too.

For many youths from a variety of backgrounds, the arts are never really considered as a career option and a lot more work needs to be done in fostering talent and the desire to do something in this field.

One of the biggest problems and challenges that I would have to put squarely at the doorstep of government is the hollowing out of arts education, which has been happening for years in schools. There is a problem, which also exists in other countries I have worked in, where governments are really proud and pleased to highlight home-grown top notch artists, institutions, singers, dancers or musicians, but they don’t realise that broad investment at the base is required to generate that top talent. If that base is hollowed out, talent levels are just not sustainable.

From an economic perspective, the creative industries are a huge contributor in many European countries. One of the unique selling points of Europe is its cultural and historical background and it is vitally important that it is remembered. The fact that the fostering of this industry is no longer stimulated enough at school level anymore is almost incomprehensible.

What would you note as the key drivers of your leadership success? Do you identify with certain leadership characteristics or an approach that have shaped the way you lead organisations?
I am ambitious personally, and I have always been even more ambitious for the institutions that I have worked in. It was a conscious decision: I wanted to become a Director. My conviction around leadership broadly, is that it behoves one to build upon, develop and maintain a broad interest in every aspect of the institution.

For a long time, the arts sector has had many leaders who have come through the artist ranks (and that is how it should be) but they often became a Curator/Director or an Actor/Director and remained close to their own artistic background. They never quite fully embraced all the other aspects, be it finance, security, marketing, or estate management. As a Director I believe that one really needs to engage with every aspect right across the institution. That has always been my mantra and I hope that to live up to that. I have learned to ask the right questions, at the right moment, on all the topics that are necessary.

Professionalism for me is paramount. I hate the attitude where people assume that arts institutions are some kind of hobby. In fact, they are highly complex, very difficult institutions to run and manage as they have such a varied focus. It is not as simple as a black number at the bottom line. Our success factors and KPIs are far more complex than that. Managing creativity is challenging. I think it is a formidable task.

Hard work is absolutely essential in leadership. There was a lesson I learned whilst in a Clore lecture: one has to work hard to allow opportunities to be opened up, and those opportunities then need to be grabbed at the right moment. It is certainly not just luck that gets you there.


Axel Rüger Biography

Axel was born in Dortmund, Germany. He studied Art History at the Freie Universität in Berlin, the University of Cambridge and Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Axel worked in various museums in Atlanta, Detroit and Washington D.C. before he was appointed Curator of Dutch Paintings, 1600-1800, at the National Gallery in London in 1999. In 2004, whilst still at the National Gallery, he was selected to take part in the first year of the then newly- created Clore Leadership Programme. From 2006 – 2019, Rüger was the Director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and The Mesdag Collection in The Hague. Besides the artistic aspects, Axel developed the Van Gogh Museum by building a new conservation studio and adding a new entrance hall, the latter greatly enhancing the museum’s capacity. In 2017 a report conducted by the Erasmus University, Rotterdam, ranked the Van Gogh Museum second after the Louvre in Paris in terms of reputation of the 18 most famous art museums in the world. In 2019 he became the Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy, London. In addition to his executive role, Axel also holds several non-executive board positions.


This interview is featured in CANVAS, the leadership insight update by Saxton Bampfylde.

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