Beatrix Ruf Resigns From Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum After Accusations of Conflict of Interest

Did Ruf's activities as an independent consultant interfere with her decision-making?

Beatrix Ruf
Photo: Robin de Puy

Beatrix Ruf, the German-born director of the Stedelijk Museum and a regular on the art world’s “Most Powerful” lists, announced her resignation from the Amsterdam museum at a press conference this morning.

Her sudden resignation comes after nearly two weeks of heated discussions in the Dutch media about allegations of conflicts of interest. Ruf has come under fire for lack of transparency in negotiations with major donors and continuing to run an art advisory service while she served as the museum’s director.

In the press release, Ruf writes her decision to resign is “in the interest of the museum, considering the speculations in the media in recent weeks, which may have an impact on the reputation of the museum.”

The Background

In a report by the Dutch paper NRC from earlier this month, journalists Daan van Lent and Arjen Ribbens investigated a donation from German collector Thomas Borgmann that was announced last year, of 600 works, including pieces by artists Wolfgang TillmansLucy McKenzie, and Cosima Von Bonin. Additionally, Borgmann was to make a long-term loan of a group of 10 monumental works and major installations by Isa Genzken and Martin Kippenberger.

However, the reporters found that the donation was a part gift, part purchase, and came with a contract that stipulated that the museum would buy six works by German artist Michael Krebber from the donor at €125,000 each, as well as a monumental installation by Matt Mullican for €750,000. Set to be paid in three instalments, by 2018 the museum will have spent €1.5 million on the donation.

From November 26, the entire first floor of the Stedelijk Museum’s old building has been reserved for four months for an exhibition of the Borgmann collection—a detail that the NRC report claims is linked to another clause in the contract, which says that the collection is to be displayed for at least two months, accompanied by a catalog. The museum must pay a €250,000 penalty if these two conditions aren’t met.

In addition to what they describe as a lack of transparency concerning the contract, the journalists claim that the donations, as well as shows staged at the museum, include a limited group of artists linked to certain galleries that Ruf regularly works with, both in her role in Amsterdam where she has served since 2014, as well as in her previous position at the Kunsthalle Zurich.

Ruf’s Art-Advisory Agency

Following the initial article, NRC ran a follow-up piece on October 12 that stated that the museum was looking into Ruf’s secondary activities. Besides her position as artistic director at the Stedelijk Museum, the paper found out that Ruf runs a private art-advisory named Currentmatters.

Registered in Switzerland, the company made a total profit of at least €437,306 in Ruf’s first full year as director of the Stedelijk, in 2015. (NRC got the numbers from the company’s annual report filed with the Swiss chamber of commerce.)

The name of her consultancy company is missing from the list of external activities Ruf has included in the museum’s annual report.

Ruf has faced recent criticism when a fake Mondrian that the Stedelijk received from an unnamed Swiss collector, described in the article as a close connection of hers, ended up on loan to another museum, the Bozar in Brussels, where it was spotted as a forgery by a Mondrian expert.

A Call for More Transparency

Museums benefit from the international stature and the contacts with leading collectors of the directors they appoint, and there is a growing pressure in the increasingly professionalized art world for these high-profile roles to combine curatorial expertise with a certain degree of entrepreneurship. In European institutions, which largely rely on government subsidies, potential conflicts of interest are scrutinized to a greater extent. The Stedelijk Museum is, since 2006, a foundation supervised by an advisory board, and receives subsidies from the Amsterdam municipality. In 2013, it was the fourth most visited museum in the Netherlands.

In that respect, the paper draws attention to the fact that in addition to her role at the museum, Ruf is involved in about 20 other activities around the world, ranging from sitting on juries for various art awards to being the head of JRP Ringier Kunstverlag AG, the publishing house of Swiss collector Ringier, where she has been active for nearly two decades. (The mention of this activity was missing from the museum’s report, due to a “processing error” according to a museum’s spokesperson.)

Under Ruf, the Stedelijk also exhibited art from two members of the museum’s supervisory board, the collectors Rob Defares and Cees de Bruin.

According to the NRC, Ruf seeks permission from the advisory board if she borrows art from a private party with whom she has ties, and that the board has always given permission to exhibit works of art owned by its own members.

Control over the Stedelijk’s ethics policy is entrusted to the supervisory board. However, the journalists ask, if members can interpret ethical codes that directly involve their own handling, how transparent is the museum policy?

In an official statement sent to artnet News prior to the announcement of Ruf’s resignation, the Stedelijk Museum “distanced itself from the content” of the NRC report, as it “does not see itself reflected in the image projected by the articles.” 

The organisation acts in accordance with the Cultural Governance Code, also with respect to loans and acquisitions.

The Stedelijk Museum handles the acquisition of new works and donations with great care. This was also the case regarding the agreements negotiated with the collector Thomas Borgmann, which were thoroughly scrutinized at the time, and subsequently approved….

Finally, the Stedelijk Museum states that, due to a data processing error, the supplemental activities of both directors, and the members of the Supervisory Board, were not stated accurately in the annual report. The error has now been rectified.

Announcing her resignation this morning, Ruf said, “I value the interests of this outstanding institution, and place the interests of the Stedelijk first, above my own, individual concerns. In light of that, I feel that this is an appropriate moment for me to step down. I wish the museum every success in the future because that is what the Stedelijk, its exceptionally dedicated staff, visitors, and supporters, wholeheartedly deserve.”

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