The smiley and friendly museum director – who is feared by his own staff

Ralph Keuning was praised by the outside world for putting Museum De Fundatie in Zwolle on the national map, but gave his own staff nightmares. Despite a damning report about his management style, he can stay on, but he has to tolerate a fellow director next to him. Who is this ‘mister Fundatie’?

Rutger Pontzen

The allegations that came out last week were certainly not tender. He would be a ‘narcissist’. Employees felt ‘blown down’ by him and had ‘nightmares’ because of his ‘erratic’ and ‘authoritarian’ nature. Especially when he was ‘on the warpath’ and they were ‘chased out’ and ‘cracked to the bone’. The complaints were the reason why the Supervisory Board ordered an independent investigation into the culprit, director of the Museum De Fundatie in Zwolle, Ralph Keuning.

Few who have met Keuning (60) – during openings, during tours and lectures, on TV, on the radio – will have suspected that these complaints had been among the staff for quite some time. Ralph Keuning, isn’t that the flamboyant man who slaps everyone on the shoulders, who always speaks in a friendly but extensive manner, who records the radio spots for his exhibitions with pleasant diction (‘I love that voice very much’, he confessed) and as is considered a popular figurehead of his museum. Cheerful. passionate. Binding. Not removing.

Mister Foundation. Always recognizable by his moody dark outfit (shoes, pants, jacket, sweater, glasses, sometimes a long leather jacket) and raven black hair with an artistic white lock. A tall figure that towers over everyone. Also the man who brought the museum out of the provincial doldrums and breathed new life into it. Famous saying: ‘I don’t want to babysit the store. I want to score.’

Nick & Simon

After taking office in 2007, he got off to a good start. He got rid of the dusty image. Managed to breathe new life into the collection of the previous director and collector Dirk Hannema accused of collaboration. Started programming more contemporary art and over time managed to give a new dimension to the concept of ‘sandwich programming’. By ‘programming everyone’ and choosing artists who had a ‘high communicative value’, such as Ans Markus, Jeroen Krabbé, Jan Cremer, Nick & Simon. And by at the same time sticking to his own preference: socially engaged art, mostly from Germany – the Germany of the Weimar Republic and the former GDR, that is. With exhibitions by various figures such as Werner Tübke, Neo Rauch and George Grosz, artists who, according to him, address the ‘great ideological themes’: identity, wealth and poverty, power and counter-power, social society, Europe.

He graduated from Weimar’s Germany: writing a thesis on the renowned anti-Nazi collage maker John Heartfield. After the Utrecht University and Berlin’s Freie Universität, it brought him to the Neue Nationalgalerie in the German capital. And then, through various positions at the Kröller Müller Museum and as director of the Nieuw Land Heritage Center in Lelystad, in Zwolle in 2007. And yes, he’s only 60, with a view on something even more beautiful.

With his sandwich formula, he managed to attract a massive audience for a medium-sized museum in Overijssel to the former Palace of Justice on the Blijmarkt (and the annex: Het Nijenhuis Castle in Wijhe). The number grew from 20,000 visitors a year to 250,000, many of whom had never seen a museum inside before. “I am a missionary,” he told the newspaper. “I believe you should make it easy for people to go to a museum.”

Incidentally, the sandwich formula also concerns Keuning’s directorship itself. Just as enthusiastically as he talks about art, he talks about entrepreneurship. In particular about the financial importance of the museum as an inseparable part of the city and population of Zwolle. He likes to do calculations about it. Like this one: if all visitors, in addition to the entrance fee, spend 50 euros in the city center on their lunch and purchases, the municipality will receive 12.5 million euros annually.

Museum de Fundatie with the striking ‘cloud’ on top of the building.Image ANP

The artistic entrepreneurship gave him the necessary credit from the same government, so much that his wish to expand was generously honoured. In 2013, Princess Beatrix opened the egg-shaped extension of 55 thousand light blue tiles – the ‘cloud’ – that architect Hubert-Jan Henket had designed for the roof of the neoclassical building.

‘Strong directive’

It now appears from a staff meeting held on Thursday about the allegations against Keuning that the sandwich model has also begun to determine its own character after fifteen years as a director: he is friendly to the outside world, but a jerk to the staff. The conclusion at that meeting, based on external research, was that the current director’s ‘method of communication’ is indeed ‘experienced as strongly directive and often confrontational’. The solution: he gets a co-driver next to him. This is specially charged with personnel and organization.

According to the Council, the cause for the tension in the organization was the great ambitions of Keuning and the extraordinary growth of the museum. During the consultation, the director announced that he had considered the ‘impact’ [van] his leadership style and enthusiasm’. He has offered his “sincere apologies” and promises to get well.