Beatrix Ruf

Beatrix Ruf.

Photograph: Rineke Dijkstra

Hours after a press conference in Amsterdam last April, ____on the occasion of being named the director of the Stedelijk Museum, Beatrix Ruf grabbed a taxi to the airport. She was due back in Zurich, where she had served, since 2001, as the director and chief curator of the Kunsthalle Zürich, one of Europe’s most influential contemporary art institutions. Ruf’s driver grilled her for a bit about art. Seeing that she was unusually informed, he blurted, “Ah, you’re the new one!” before telling her precisely what the Dutch expect from her. “We want edgier art and to get to know things we don’t know,” he said. “We want experiments.”

He had unwittingly sized up his passenger perfectly. The discerning Ruf, as the dozens of leading artists she’s worked with will attest, loves debating the merits of the next big thing and divining it years before anyone else. She has organized the first solo museum exhibitions for art stars like Wade Guyton and Seth Price, as well as newcomers like Helen Marten and Ed Atkins. Early in her tenure at the Kunsthalle, she commissioned major works from Isa Genzken and Rosemarie Trockel and in 2012 oversaw a survey by the pioneering artist Sturtevant two years before she died. At the start of her career, Ruf gave showcases to Marina Abramovic, Peter Doig, and Urs Fischer.

Ruf’s interest in Fischer was triggered by the way he transformed everyday objects; in 2000, she offered him a show at the Kunsthaus Glarus, outside Zurich, where she was the director at the time. “She said, ‘Let’s do it in three months,’” Fischer recalls. “She’s always interested in what’s newest, what pops up where, and why.” The pieces exhibited there, which included Fischer’s dismantled studio from London and his first giant sculptural candle, are now considered iconic. While loyal to the artists she’s nurtured, Ruf, Fischer notes, doesn’t simply “age with her old crew,” as some curators do. “She has strong opinions, but they’re in motion.”

And so was Ruf herself one day this past November in Amsterdam, as she assumed her duties at the Stedelijk. The institution reopened in 2012 after a major renovation and expansion that took eight years, during which period the museum was only partially open and lost traction with its public. At 55, Ruf cuts a striking figure, with her short black hair and kohl-lined eyes. Conversations with her are punctuated by frequent cigarette breaks; to welcome her, the museum built outdoor ashtrays on a balcony next to her office. It was her first week on the job and the German-born Ruf was already a proficient Dutch speaker, the result of two weeklong immersion programs.

Her gleaming white office is in the new wing, which was designed by the Dutch architectural firm Benthem Crouwel and resembles a giant porcelain bathtub. As she showed me images of Tony Oursler’s fantastical X ERGO Y on her laptop, Ruf explained that the work, which is about conflicting notions of progress, would be projected daily on the facade throughout the winter. This marked the first time that a work would be screened on the facade. More radically, the museum will stage a yearlong survey of the artist Tino Sehgal’s live artworks, with one piece being performed each month in a different room, forcing Ruf and her staff to continually clear exhibition halls and reassess how the Stedelijk’s collection of modern and contemporary art is displayed. Earlier that day, she said, Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands, a keen collector of contemporary art, had held a meeting at the Stedelijk, and did I know that the artist duo Gilbert & George got their start as living sculptures on the museum’s staircase in 1969?

Whereas some directors align themselves with institutional agendas, Ruf prefers to stay close to artists, says the artist Liam Gillick. On visits to their studios, she stays late into the night conversing, and she often entertains them at her apartment in Zurich, “with its well-stocked bar and every new art book,” Gillick says. Her network is vast. She helped to build the stellar collection of the Swiss publisher Michael Ringier; curated the 2006 Tate Triennial, and, along with such art world heavyweights as Hans Ulrich Obrist and Gillick, is a key adviser to the LUMA Foundation, overseen by the Swiss impresario Maja Hoffmann.

Few directors of major museums continue to keep their hands in the process “at that one-artist, one-artwork level,” notes Wolfgang Tillmans, whose seminal 2012 “New World” exhibition inaugurated the expanded Kunsthalle Zürich. “But Beatrix is hands-on with everything.” That ability to juggle constituencies may owe something to growing up the daughter of the mayor of Singen, the German town near the Swiss border, where Ruf was raised. After completing studies in psychology, ethnology, and museology at the University of Zurich and at the Vienna Conservatory, Ruf studied dance in New York and later worked as a freelance curator, choreographer, and critic. Her first job was at Kartause Ittingen, a museum in the basement of a former Carthusian cloister outside Zurich, where she put together large-scale installations with Jenny Holzer and Abramovic. Her training as a choreographer, Gillick says, has likely contributed to her facility to “envision how things could be without having to look at them.”

For her debut show at the Kunsthalle Zürich in 2001, Ruf commissioned the performance duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset to “choreograph” a remodeling of the museum, and she moved the administrative offices into a tiny corner space so they could have the run of the place. She gave Guyton his first solo museum show in 2006 and then invited him back in 2013 to work on-site, without either of them knowing what he was going to do. In the end, he made the largest paintings of his career—50-foot works that spanned the length of the museum’s walls—making the art and architecture all of a piece. “Beatrix can identify the radical or untapped potential of an artist’s work and then figure out how to push the work to express itself most fully,” Guyton says. “Her method is to encourage the work to make history, rather than trying to fit it into some existing narrative.”

The Stedelijk’s own history is a vibrant one. Fischer, who lived in Amsterdam from 1993 to 1995, remembers how “it was a place that really mattered, and then it just drowned.” One of Ruf’s goals, she said, is to make its radical past visible in a really lively way; another is to re-engage visitors by stimulating what she calls “good arguments” with them. “You have to ask questions,” she insisted. “I don’t think it’s interesting to confirm what you know. I’m just too curious for that.”

Photography assistant: Hans Den Hartog Jager.