Axel Rüger joined the Royal Academy in 2019, just after its 250th anniversary. Prior to this, he was the Director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for 13 years. He spoke to blooloop about his first year in the job, the impact of the pandemic, and the lessons he has learned from his career so far.
The Royal Academy of Arts is located in Burlington House in Piccadilly, London. It was founded in 1768 and has a mission to promote the creation, enjoyment and appreciation of art. It does this through exhibitions, as well as through educational events and debates. The Royal Academy is also well-known for its annual Summer Exhibition of new art.
Speaking of his decision to take up his new role at the Royal Academy (RA) last year, Axel Rüger says:
“After having been at the [Van Gogh] Museum for 13 years, I felt maybe it was time for a new challenge, and to deploy my creativity in a different context. What attracted me to the RA was that it was something really very different, in terms of the type of organisation but also in what the institution is doing.”
Axel Rüger and the Royal Academy
“The Van Gogh Museum was a relatively straightforward museum with a collection, albeit a very famous one, and an exhibitions programme, research and all of that,” he says. “Whereas the Royal Academy is, from its founding day, an artists’ association.”
“The most important constituency is the artists. They are our community, as it were. So we’re working constantly with living artists, not only in terms of programming but also in running and thinking about the RA. While the RA does have a collection, the collection is, in the scheme of things, somewhat less significant.
“The RA has been running exhibitions since the day it was set up. It has a very varied and much wider-ranging exhibitions programme. We have exhibitions from antiquity to the present day. So that freedom, that wide range, that engagement with contemporary art, all of that attracted me to the Royal Academy.”
A ‘clean bed of fresh sheets’
Axel Rüger has said that moving to the Royal Academy in 2019 was like getting into a clean bed of fresh sheets. Following the 250th anniversary and unveiling of the new campus the previous year, it should have been a perfect time to introduce new plans and goals.
Of course, 2020 had other ideas, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. Ruger talks about how the crisis has caused a change of approach.
“To begin with, I knew that the Royal Academy had just had this big expansion,” he says. “And I knew that also needed further bedding in and further thinking about. For instance, how to strategically take all of this forward.
“So there was a piece of work to be done about the future strategy of the organisation and the strategy around programming. For example, [looking at] what types of exhibitions we would be doing, looking at the income model. Because the Royal Academy has never had any public subsidy. From 1768, when it was founded to the present day, it’s been pretty much independent in that regard and self-sufficient.
“But that’s challenging at the best of times. I really needed to look at the income model. Of course, the strategic conversations that we started last autumn have all been slightly shelved, because the needs are now very different ones.”
The impact of COVID-19
Like other museums and cultural organisations around the UK, the Royal Academy was forced to close its doors temporarily as the country fought to stop the spread of coronavirus.
“Going into the crisis, we had 97,000 friends. That’s substantial, and our biggest source of income. And that’s, of course, not dwindling, but it is slightly decreasing over time when you’re closed. And even now that we’re reopened, we are at 20% – 25% capacity. We are losing more money than we are making.”
“So, we need a sort of handbrake turn, as it were, where we have to see very quickly what is a sustainable model for the RA, without being able to fall back on a grant in aid, however big or small? And how do we keep that sustainable, in the short term with very small audiences and then not really having a clear idea of when things might recover?
“Aso, we really have to think now – if you only have a much smaller amount, what is then the essence of the RA? What’s really the core, what is it that we, come hell or high water, must preserve? That’s the thinking that needs to go on right now.”
The core essence of the Royal Academy
On the topic of this core essence of the Royal Academy, Axel Rüger says:
“The essence, first of all, is that it is an artists association. It was set up on the initiative of a group of artists in 1768. And it has its royal decree because King George III gave it his blessing. Ever since then, the monarch has been our patron.
“One of the core elements was a school. Because Britain was slightly lagging behind the continent in terms of having a formalised Academy, with academic training for artists. So that is what the Royal Academy was set up to do.”
“In order to finance that, and also to support the artists and their professional position in the market, the Summer Exhibition was created. So that was a conduit for artists and an outlet for their work. So, those are really the founding elements of the Academy, the core elements that we need to protect and preserve.
“At the moment, it is really about preserving a core amount of money, where we feel fairly confident that we can do that, and that we have an audience for that. Some of our bigger ambitions, we have to park for a while.”
A balancing act
Rüger likens it to a tightrope act:
“On the one hand, you must preserve what you have,” he says. “But at the same time, you cannot lose all ambition. We have a fairly big standing in the exhibitions world, in what types of exhibitions we are doing. So we must not be turned now into a sort of provincial exhibitions place, because we lose all our vision or cut our ambition away with the money.
“That’s one thing. And also many artistic organisations know, and certainly, it has been recently pointed out to us very emphatically, that we don’t reflect the public that lives on our doorstep, in our case within London and Greater London.”
“The makeup of the population is very different from what we reflect in our institutions. Both in terms of staff, but also in terms of programming, and that needs to be addressed.
“How do you do that with very limited resources? And can you afford really to try to reach out with potentially more adventurous and more risky programmes to a wider audience, when all your instincts tell you to play it safe? To do what you know, and what you do best, rather than taking too many risks?
“That is, going forward, for many of us, an interesting challenge.”
The Royal Academy reaches out online
In some ways, the lockdown may have helped the Royal Academy in this mission to reach a wider audience. Like many other cultural institutions, it responded to the period of closure by introducing new digital initiatives to engage with people. For instance, the #RAdailydoodle on Twitter and #MindfulMoments on Instagram.”
“That jump from analogue to digital is something that everyone is grappling with,” says Rüger. “And of course [during the lockdown], we all had a huge boost in terms of our digital reach. Even those who were not so strong digitally, all of a sudden found themselves being beleaguered by people who are looking for beauty, for inspiration through art and for things to do.
“I personally believe we receive far too little credit for it that. Cultural organisations during the lockdown have been performing an essential service.”
To charge or not to charge?
Many museums and galleries have been putting content online for several years already. But the financial impact of the pandemic poses some new questions about whether or not this digital content should be free, says Rüger.
“Now, we had already gone down that garden path, collectively, all of us that have put our collections and sometimes our exhibitions, research materials, image data banks, etc. for free on the internet. It was this kind of tacit understanding that, on the internet, it ought to be free, and it’s for maximum access.”
“To turn this around now and all of a sudden say, ‘Well, actually, now we need money’ and put all of it behind the paywall is not easy, because the expectation is that it’s all available. You can draw an analogy with newspapers, early on in the digital rush, they threw themselves out there digitally. And now they are trying to pull it back and trying to put more and more stuff behind paywalls.
“We, as museums, constantly struggle with this concept that we need to be open for free. Especially here, the national museums are free in terms of admission, except for exhibitions. So how do you then justify being free physically, but putting stuff behind the paywall online? Especially when the understanding on the internet is always that a lot of stuff is available for free.
“Much of our success so far has been that it is so widely available. Now in terms of the translation, whether that translates to physical audiences or grows our audiences is something where the jury is still out. At the moment, COVID still stands in the way.”
Social media at the Royal Academy
The Royal Academy recently recruited Adam Koszary to its social media and content team. Koszary is well-known for his previous work on the Twitter account of the Museum of English Rural Life, where his famous ‘absolute unit’ tweet went viral. This is indicative of the Royal Academy’s desire to speak to a different audience.
“I think you have to start with a different voice in order to reach an audience or hope to appeal to an audience,” says Rüger. “And this has certainly helped. It is a slightly irreverent tone and more direct.
“The RA is very much seen as this august institution. It is 250 years old, one of the oldest in the country, and our spaces are reasonably palatial. So it doesn’t necessarily always feel like the most accessible, most down to earth institution. We’re certainly hoping to change some of that online.”
The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition
The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is a much-loved fixture on the UK arts scene and Rüger has described it as the most democratic art show. This year, for the first time in history, the Summer Exhibition is taking place in winter, as a result of the pandemic.
“It is certainly part of our DNA, he says. “The Summer Exhibition is the founding exhibition of the RA and has never been cancelled in 252 years. It is the biggest open submission exhibition in the world. It is democratic in that there is no real hierarchy in the galleries, in terms of what is displayed and how it’s displayed.
“You walk in and you don’t really need to have any knowledge. It’s much more immediate, if you like, rather than an art historic type exhibition where it’s always assumed that you need a lot of prior knowledge to appreciate it.”
In addition to the Summer Exhibition, the Royal Academy also hosts temporary exhibitions. Some popular examples from recent years are its 2019 Antony Gormley exhibition and its 2015 Ai Weiwei exhibition. Talking about deciding what kind of show to produce, Axel Rüger says:
“Everyone who is in programming, and that is not only in exhibitions and culture but also in the entertainment industry, knows that it is always a balance.
“You try to strike [a balance] between the things where you feel reasonably confident, the ones you know there will be an audience for and that will be popular, and then doing also the things that are slightly more challenging, or that you feel people should know and that your mission drives you to do.”
“I don’t have the magic formula to know which exhibitions are going to be successful, and which ones are not. It’s often surprising, sometimes exhibitions where we thought there would big audiences fail. And we’ve also had surprise hits.
“You can do something you think is a guaranteed success, but can also be tipping into overexposure and doing too much of it. And it’s very difficult to determine where that tipping point really is. So it is about constantly searching for that balance.
“It is also one of the tragedies of COVID, I think, going forward, that the more experimental things, the riskier things will be under a lot more pressure. Because of the lack of funds and a certain perhaps reticence also of the public. And also a somewhat conservative development we are now seeing in many of our societies.”
Axel Rüger on professionalism
Axel Rüger is known to demand excellence and professionalism of his staff and has spoken about how careers in the arts must be treated as a true profession.
He talks about the importance of “a recognition, within our own sector, that it is actually a professional one. And that not everyone can just walk into a room and hang an exhibition. This is not a hobby, this is actually a profession for which people have studied. A museum is a complex organism of many different professions.”
“But the more fundamental problem is that we are not taken particularly seriously. It’s always considered the nice decorative things that we afford ourselves when we are flush. It’s not seen as necessarily particularly essential, it’s often dismissed as a hobby and as unprofessional.
“So it becomes a sort of vicious circle and I think that we need to break out of it. We need to treat it ourselves much more as a profession. We need to show also to the outside world, more emphatically, what it takes nowadays to run a cultural organisation. They are highly developed professional organisations and we need to get that out there.”
Having the skills to bring to the table
“My favourite example that I always cite in this case is a very clear indication of this. Many people say, ‘But I love the arts and of course I see that you’re professional’. Now, look at the boards of trustees of all the arts organisations you can think of. You will find many prominent business leaders and CEOs from many companies on those boards.
“Conversely, look at the non-executive boards of any of those companies, how many of the directors of the Opera House, of the National Theatre, of the National Gallery and so on, sit on those boards? Not a single one. I had these discussions in the Netherlands a lot and also with many CEOs. I remember one saying to me, ‘Well, what do you think you have to bring to the table?'”
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“The question alone is a bit of an insult. I said ‘I run a medium-sized organisation, I have 400 staff, I have millions of turnover. The collection that I’m responsible for is probably worth several billion. I have a global brand. I communicate in 12 languages with our public’.
“‘We talk to the press, stakeholders, everyone involved, up to the royal family. So tell me what I’m not doing?’ Then there was a sort of stunned silence and everyone said ‘I’d never thought of it this way’.
“It’s still the old boys’ network, it’s still this business among business. I honestly believe that only if we make that step can we show to people in practice what we know, and what our experiences are and what we can contribute.”
To counteract this, Axel Rüger also talks about the importance of proper leadership training. He himself was one of the first people to go through the Clore Leadership programme:
“I think [training] is very important. And it’s also important to understand what leadership, in that sense, really means. In terms of thought leadership, but also, that notion around professionalism, what that involves, and so forth.”
There’s a real change happening to the current generation of leaders and the upcoming leaders
“This type of training is immensely important. There’s a lot, fortunately, of this type of training out there. And I think there’s a real change happening to the current generation of leaders and the upcoming leaders. But, as ever, these things take a while and it’s a journey.”
The problem of rudeness
Axel Rüger has also previously expressed concerns about the growth of rudeness and bad behaviour towards others in society.
“There is a harshness of tone in public life and public debate and it goes hand in hand with this enormous drive for individualism and everyone producing themselves on social media. And I’m afraid that train has long left the station. It’s a bit difficult to catch up or rein that in again. At the moment, I’m trying to see how we at the Royal Academy can make our staff more resilient.
“This is becoming the new normal and that I find really problematic. But it has to do also with our educational system. It has to do with the current debate, and current leaders in this country, in America and other countries. It’s not helping that we don’t seem to agree anymore on any kind of common rules of decency or respect another person’s opinion.”
This goes back to what he mentioned previously, about not valuing and accepting people’s expertise:
“Now everything is up for interpretation and emotion. People can say ‘well, I just don’t believe you’. Whether the earth is round is not actually something that you believe, or not. It’s a physical fact. We seem to be regressing back to Galileo, almost, not believing him and still saying the earth is flat.”
“People think, ‘As long as I believe it, it’s my truth and that’s as valid as your truth’.
“It’s a complicated mix of things. But it’s leading to rather objectionable behaviour in public life and, particularly, the service industry is at the receiving end of this. I hope that eventually, maybe the tide will turn. Or that a new kind of focus on manners might arise again.”
Art as a comfort
Talking about what he felt was a comforting piece of art, the Royal Academy’s Axel Rüger chose Hans Holbein the Younger‘s Derick Berck of Cologne. In this, the subject is holding a piece of paper which says something to the effect of ‘someday this will be a joy to remember’.
This 500-year-old painting is also referencing something from 2000 years ago. It’s a universal sentiment. When asked if one of the purposes of cultural institutions is to communicate complex ideas and feelings, Rüger says:
“Broadly speaking, [they] expose us to ideas and inspire us to think, but also give us maybe a different idea about something. For that particular painting, I chose it when I was about to sit my university exams. And the preparation period was fairly gruelling. And so you know, that slogan, when it said on the painting, ‘One day, it will be pleasant to remember’ is something that resonated with me, but also because of this stoic image of the sitter.”
The purpose of cultural institutions
In conclusion, Axel Rüger says, “Art can, of course, speak to you in many, many different ways. I was in Munich recently and Marina Abramovich has now an operatic performance there about Maria Callas. And it’s not really an opera experience, but a sort of hybrid of that. It was incredibly inspiring. It really made you think about the whole art form and about the dialogue between music and imagery.”
“You just never know what art might inspire you to think about or how it may resonate with you. I’m lucky, working in this industry. I’m constantly exposed to different new things and let myself be inspired or just entertained.
“I think also, particularly over the past months, an important quality of art is consolation, sought in times of crisis.
“That’s also the biggest sadness of the COVID-19 crisis. What cultural institutions and arts institutions would do best in a crisis is to welcome people in. To embrace them, to expose them to beauty and to offer an escape. But that solace and consolation is something we were not able to offer. That is one of the biggest sadnesses around this whole crisis.”
The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is now running until 3rd January 2020 and can be booked online.
Background image by Fraser Marr