Axel Rüger: Living With Van Gogh
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
The popularity of the Van Gogh Museum goes unmatched. On an average day, visitors experience 4 hours wait time to gain entrance (even after the Museum’s expansion of a new entryway to welcome the 1.9 million visitors annually). And while most major art museums see admissions income at an average of 15 percent of their operating budget, the Museum’s budget of €45 million is generated from 50 percent of its ticket sales.
impactmania spoke with Axel Rüger, director of the Van Gogh Museum. Rüger offers insight on the responsibilities that come with managing such a beloved organization, the social impact role of museums, and shares what he has learned from “living” with Van Gogh.
Where does this worldwide passion and mania for Van Gogh come from?
Van Gogh is a bit of a rock star, really. It’s a combination of factors. First of all, his art is really accessible — all the subject matter is rather everyday: still life, flowers, landscapes, ordinary people — no dignitaries whom he portrays.
It’s also aesthetically accessible. We like the colorfulness of it. The works come off largely as happy and cheerful, particularly from the French period onwards. Also, there’s almost sort of a haptic quality to the very energetic brushwork, appealing to our modern sensibilities as well.
The other aspect is that he had a very short career and was extremely focused. We know a lot about him becoming an artist and his motivations because he wrote a lot about it in his letters. The correspondences are an enormous aspect of that whole phenomenon.
He writes in depth in his letters about art and about other art forms that inspired him. He reflects on the bigger questions of life, his relationships, and of the trials and tribulations of becoming an artist. And of course that he was very, very focused…I mean, almost sort of slightly maniacal and extremely disciplined as an artist — and then of course the tragedy of his life.
There’s the illness; the incident with the ear, of course, has created this enormous myth around him. Then the early suicide. If you really want to become famous and create a myth around you, you have to have great talent and not really fulfill that promise.
When you die too soon, people will always be left with the question, “What would have happened if”— a question that fascinates people to this day.
What have you personally learned from “living” with Van Gogh all these years?
One is admiration — even though he was personally probably a very difficult person — his unrelenting effort and passion for what he was doing; he didn’t look left or right, but followed his path. That is impressive in and of itself. He taught himself, so he was not even trained by many other people. That determination is interesting.
You also learn the incredible privilege it is to work for a very prominent and much liked organization, thanks to the artist. Working here, there are a lot of opportunities to work with other parties while having an extremely dedicated and motivated staff. Everyone is very proud of working here, turning this organization into an extremely ambitious one — this is hugely inspiring.
How you nurture that and sort of slightly steer it, which is of course also the challenge, allows you to learn a lot from the opportunities that present themselves everyday because the museum is so attractive, since the art is so attractive.
It must come with great responsibility, too?
Well, it is. It’s an enormous responsibility and the expectations are also high since we’re so prominent and so many people travel from all over the world to come here.
Then of course, what you deliver must be of absolute top-quality, which ties in with the sort of incredible ambition of this organization. Perfect is about good enough. For most people who work here, there’s this sort of perfectionism, which can sometimes be daunting.
Everything the museum does is also immediately in the press. If it’s a discovery, it’s immediately worldwide news. Even now with this exhibition on Van Gogh’s illness: On the Verge of Insanity, which in the scheme of things is not that sensational, has been in the press all over the world. The impact is enormous; therefore, the expectations are also considerable. Yet, we’re still a cultural institution; we’re not swimming in money. We also have to find ingenious ways to consider the impact with limited resources.
How does your role add to Van Gogh’s legacy?
Well, an ever-deeper understanding of this person, of his motivations, of his character, and of his art, obviously, because over time, the image has been evolving off Van Gogh.
Vincente Minnelli’s, Lust for Life, the film with Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, is a very, very romanticized depiction of Van Gogh’s life, but that is such an overwhelming image that people love…the image of the crazy artist who is out of control.
The truth is anything but. When he worked, he was very much in control. He was very focused; he was very disciplined. He practiced, and practiced, and practiced, because he wasn’t a natural when he started.
That understanding has been evolving and gives a stronger and deeper sense of who he was, how he worked, and the use of his materials and all of that.
We ask all our interviewees who their impact makers are. Who has left an imprint on your professional DNA?
Early on I knew an American museum director, Maxwell Anderson. The last museum job he had was as a director of a museum in Dallas. He gave me advice early on when I was not even a student yet, but was toying with the idea of going into art history and possibly a museum career.
Anderson gave me a great piece of advice. He said, “You should get as much work experience as you can while you’re studying because millions and millions of people study the history of art and many people want to get into that field. You have to have something that distinguishes you somehow from the rest.”
It turned out that that piece of advice — namely, that I always try to do internships and have meaningful relevant jobs on the side, thereby building my network — was extremely helpful to get the first jobs.
Then later on, Neil MacGregor, who was the director of the National Gallery when I started there and later became the director of the British Museum, has been influential, as well as other colleagues along the way.
What is the future of the function of a museum? Where do you think we’re heading?
We are in a rather special role and the thing is that there is a positive and a worrying tendency. The positive one is that museum visits are on the increase in a fair number of places and that they’re very popular and attract many people.
In the age of digital reproduction and being confronted with a flood of images everyday, there is still the appeal of the original — the aura that is still as strong as it has always been and keeps fascinating people.
People, after all, also remain social beasts. Of course, you can see everything on your computer screen at home. But people also still go to concerts despite high-end, high-quality recordings. People still go to the movie theaters more than ever despite DVD and streaming and everything else because they also want the social experience with it — that’s true for museums as well.
The flip side is that I sense an ever-widening gap in our business between the haves and the have-nots. That is to say that the institutions that have prominent names and are very famous attract more, and more, and more people, because generally in our society, we hold a lot of fascination and attach a lot of value, and quality to the big names.
People travel to London for the weekend, go to the British Museum, are part of the 7 million visitors they have now on an annual basis, but when they’re back at Newcastle, or back in Dordrecht, they may not necessarily go to their local museums.
That is sort of a really unfortunate development in any sense: people go for the sensation, the big names, and for the starry things. By definition, local museums are, of course, more limited in their resources, more limited in their star power as it were, in terms of their programming and so on.
What else would you look to, besides the number of visitors, as a measure of success?
The most obvious is the number of visitors.
Through the financial system, fundraising, and income generation. You also look at what kind of reviews you get. Thanks to social media, you can measure what kind of impact you have. Do you get feedback? Do people respond to it? Do they engage with you?
Another important measure of success for us is how “happy” and how motivated the staff is and how much company pride there is.
Do you have a painting that represents you in the museum?
I have never really thought about it, because you work with it every day. I don’t know if there’s a painting that represents me. It’s always difficult to make these immediate connections but it’s also one of the challenges with Van Gogh, because his biography is so powerful.
People always want to link it very directly and want to see traces of his persona and life story in his work. These connections are always difficult to make because usually it doesn’t quite work like that.
In our museum, one of the works I feel connected to is the Wheat Field with Crows. It’s always falsely assumed that it is his last painting.
It has this sort of enormous energy with a slight atmosphere of doom. That’s not my personality at all; I’m far too optimistic for that, but the sort of power, rich contrast, and energy that comes from that picture, I find very impressive.
What would be a passion project for you?
Well, we’ve just done one, which was the realization of a new entrance and extension of the Museum. It was a major effort, and you have to put all your passion into it to realize it.
Otherwise, I think it is really seeing what’s now going on in the world what really, really worries me; why I think the cultural sector will have to try to find a different voice and stance.
The sort of hate you sense more and more; also the vitriol with which also now the political arguments are being voiced with. I mean how can you descend to a political culture, whereby, one of the presidential candidates is being called by the followers of the opposing party that she deserves to be executed.
That is a degree of brutality in our discourse nowadays is what I find absolutely shocking, as well as the readiness to deploy physical force, death, and destruction — just because of something of someone you’re not happy with.
I find that really alarming. For example, in terms of the UK with the Brexit, you can clearly sense it was hardly a vote on the EU. It was much more a vote on the dissatisfaction within the system in their own country and the alienation of parts of the society.
I think these are huge alarm bells…one has to think about how we address this and this sort of culture. There’s also a role for the cultural sector in all of this.
Give me an example of what that would be.
Well, it’s a good question. I think we’re just only now waking up to this, because for many of us you realize and I think for me the Brexit was much more of awake-up call.
We, big cultural institutions in the cities, also live in a certain bubble and you realize that contact with vast parts of society are underdeveloped or not even there, not even in awareness. How we tackle that, I don’t have the recipe for that yet but I think it will be one of the major concerns.
It’s interesting you bring that up because we just spoke with a Brazilian newspaper executive. He says with the digital fragmentation, there’s a lot of gossip and not factual information in the media that causes polarization and nationalism.
Yeah, because so much rides on emotion and then when you see also the sort of hate and vitriol that’s also being spread via the Internet, and of course, everyone now feels that power to voice their opinions. These opinions do not always contribute in a meaningful way to the discourse.
Give me a word that describes your journey so far.
Given from what we have just talked about, it’s “international”. I’ve been living now for 23 years abroad. Most of my career has been away from my home country, always living in other circumstances, speaking in another language. I have a lot to be thankful for…a world that has become more international, more open.
It terrifies me to death, all these notions. With Britain now saying that we must keep the foreigners out, with Donald Trump saying that because there have been terrorist attacks in Germany, that Germany has been infected by terrorism; and therefore, Germans now need extra screening before they will be allowed into the United States.
Whereas, of course, visas have been abolished for Germans and for many Europeans traveling to the United States. All of these sorts of isolationist tendencies terrify me. Because if anything, I benefited enormously from free movement in Europe, from having a reasonably generous scholarship from the EU, studying in Great Britain at one of the greatest universities in the world, Cambridge.
All of that, that ease with which you move, then if you put your mind to it and you learn the local language, you sort of live with that and converse in that. That is who I am, and this is who I have become over the years.
When young people come for advice, I always try to impress upon them that they should get out of not only their comfort zone, but really out of their environment, at least for a while.
Get out there and experience other cultures. Traveling is just not enough. Traveling is great but once you have to find out how you register your gas and water in a country, that truly reveals how you deal with the mentality, the bureaucracy.
The biggest challenge is how we develop our reach for the global community. The museum is a physical spot here. It’s limited in its capacity.
How to respond while not being able to open a second museum elsewhere because our collection is just too small and too fragile to let it travel endlessly. That’s one of the biggest challenges: other ways to engage with our audience, globally.
“On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness” is on view until September 25, 2016. Featured Photograph: Jan-Kees Steenman. Courtesy Van Gogh Museum.