New Royal Academy boss Axel Rüger interview: ‘It’s an exciting time in the arts — there’s a palpable sense of a new generation’

There’s a “new vibe” around the Royal Academy, according to Axel Rüger, the academy’s secretary and chief executive.

He says David Chipperfield’s 2018 renovation of the RA’s Burlington Gardens building, with new galleries and facilities, has infused it “with a whole new level of energy, with possibility”. And there are also major changes in terms of the people that run the place. Its first female president, the artist Rebecca Salter, was elected just before Christmas — “a lovely and historic moment”, as Grayson Perry tweeted.

Meanwhile its artistic director since 2014, Tim Marlow, has just left to lead the Design Museum. And Rüger, who describes his role as “the person who is responsible for the daily operation of the organisation”, joined from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam last year. So the three top positions at the academy are either newly appointed or vacant.

This is Rüger’s first full interview since he started last May. We meet in the RA’s Grimshaw Library, one of two spaces, along with the grander room next door, for the use of the Royal Academicians — about 130 artists and architects who are Rüger’s ultimate bosses, represented by Salter as president.

Once regarded by many as a bastion of conservatism, with the artists largely white and male and mostly traditional painters and sculptors, they’re now a more diverse bunch, both in the media they use and in their gender and backgrounds — for instance, three key figures in the British Black Arts movement, filmmaker John Akomfrah, painter Lubaina Himid and multimedia artist Sonia Boyce, have all joined in the last five years. 

Rüger admits that it feels “like a major change” in the academy’s history “and that’s exciting”. He was born in Dortmund in 1968 and studied art history in Berlin, Cambridge and Ontario. He joined the National Gallery in London as curator of Dutch Paintings 1600-1800 in 1999.

Before he moved to the Van Gogh Museum in 2006, where he achieved record visitor figures, he was among a group of ambitious young arts professionals who took part in the first Clore Leadership Programme in the UK, intended to prepare them for directing cultural institutions in the future. And now they are: among his fellow alumni are Maria Balshaw, now overall director of the Tate, and Erica Whyman, deputy director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Rüger feels that there’s a shift happening across our arts organisations: “There is really a palpable sense of a new generation.”

The Rüger effect won’t be felt for a while, as exhibitions are planned years ahead, but he’s excited about the 2020 exhibitions. Picasso and Paper, opening on January 25, is the year’s first blockbuster, but the most eye-catching show is September’s Marina Abramović retrospective— “a big departure for the academy”, Rüger says, in dealing with performance art.  Abramović will create new works for the show, but don’t expect to see her performing some of her radical early performances.

“In this exhibition, Marina, because of her age and so forth [Abramović is 73], could not and will not be present in the exhibition every day and do a piece there… these extreme things that she did to herself and with herself are just not feasible.” Among the questions the show will ask is how you give longevity to performance art like Abramović’s “and let it live into the future”. Younger artists, “people who’ve been trained by her and been through the Abramović method”, will re-perform seminal works.

I start to ask a question about whether he will make any changes to the more conservative Summer Exhibition, loved by many members of the public, loathed by most critics. But before I finish, he jumps in: “No, emphatically not. I’m a huge fan of the Summer Exhibition. I think it is possibly the most democratic exhibition there is in the world.” 

The RA is in a “unique position” in that it has “the freedom to do exhibitions from ancient times to the present day and everything in between”, Rüger explains, because while it has a small and impressive collection, it isn’t defined by it, unlike most museums. But it has to make sure it has a regular flow of big hits, because it gets no direct funding from government, unlike Tate and other national museums. It must raise all its money itself, through ticket sales, through its 97,000 friends, who pay up to £185 a year, through its shops, cafés and restaurants, and through fundraising. 

This means that the RA is more vulnerable than some arts organisations to the potential economic effects of Brexit. There are implications for the academy “if the economy goes south”, says Rüger, whether because of Brexit or wider global economic conditions. But he is clear that “if we don’t get a decent trade deal with Europe, that is a problem”. 

He says he “didn’t let” Brexit influence his decision to take up his job at the RA: “The opportunity was just too great and too interesting.” He adds: “The academy has been around for 250 years and I keep saying it will ride out this storm as well.”

But he can only keep his feelings about this subject in check for so long. He admits to being “greatly troubled by what’s going on, not only in this country but also in many other countries around us”. Even as a teenager, he “wanted to have an international existence”, he says. “I absolutely 100 per cent do not subscribe to this notion that has sprung up in this country [expressed by Theresa May in 2016] that if you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

As a proud global citizen and European, he says, “everything that happens right now goes against every fibre in my body.”

He doesn’t wish to criticise those who voted to leave the EU — “If that’s what they want, I mean, we can agree to disagree about it.” But, he says: “What I find really difficult and problematic is the whole public discourse around it. The fast-and-loose-ness with which we play with facts or ‘alternative truths’ or whatever … that in the public debate really objectionable, egregious things can be said and the next day be waved away with, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t quite mean it like that.’” 

He laments that “this gives licence to a hardening of tone and to saying things that actually should be unsayable in public life at any level”. Brexit is “one expression” of this worsening discourse, he says. “But there are other election results all over Europe that are all pointing to these inward-looking, nationalist, individualistic, xenophobic kind of tendencies, and that I find really horrifying.”

But Rüger is as well-equipped as anyone to lead the RA in this new era. It’s something he has prepared for, consciously choosing to put aside his curatorial ambitions “to devote time and interest and develop some knowledge around security, around estates, finance, fundraising, marketing and 20 other disciplines I could mention,” he explains. “I firmly believe that [leading an arts organisation] is not something you should just stumble into because it is the logical next career step, for a bigger salary and more status.”. 

“The director of a cultural institution is a profession, it is not a glorified gentlemen — or gentlewoman — curator with a little bit of directorial gloss. These are highly professionalised, very complex institutions that you need to run, and you need to want it, in all its dimensions.”

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