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What's behind Wim Pijbes' directed departure from the Rijks?

For now, an unusual course of action in terms of cultural governance. Unsatisfactory also because of the many questions it raises: Wim Pijbes rather unexpectedly announces his departure as chief director of the Rijksmuseum on 1 March 2016, opting for a director position at a new private museum from 1 July 2016 (Front Linden) from the billionaire Van Caldenborgh. Just as unexpectedly, he steps down from there after three months. According to his media statement, he was not given enough space. Without, however, providing any further explanation of this experience. What is that all about?

What insufficient space? A director at Rijksmuseum level has the quality of shaping his own space himself, however much formal final responsibility lies at a higher level. And: for quite some time, Pijbes has consulted with the founder/owner about his new appointment. In fact, he signed himself up with Van Caldenborgh as the director of the new museum. Clear agreements on his mandate were reportedly made (at the end of June).

Rijksmuseum culturally slammed

The Rijksmuseum's 2015 annual report rolled off the press in August this year. In 2015, Pijbes still bore full responsibility. In the report, the Supervisory Board also provides regulatory information on cultural governance, the quality of supervision and the relationship with management. We read that the council is active in many areas, although it all remains very much in the process sphere. Many consultations, with each other and also by phone, with the business council and with some important stakeholders.

The board also (obviously) discussed with and about the management. Nothing in this report shows that the council also raised the issue of management continuity. And even its own management report is silent on the impending departure. This is strange, as this is a top cultural institution with a turnover of just under €120 million and a staff of over 600. Surely it should be possible, even in somewhat veiled terms, to put continuity into words and give direction to the development of this management policy?

First questions

None of this and that is where the first row of questions begins: did the supervisory board not foresee that the director was looking forward to a new position? In the end, was the board not confident in the quality of builder Pijbes to shape the Rijksmuseum in a new phase (diversity!)? Was Pijbes himself disappointed in the Rijksmuseum's strength to realise its museum function in a digital and globalising era? Does the new cultural machine, which the new Rijksmuseum has become, perhaps require a new type of cultural entrepreneur (from marketing to innovation)?

All this raises the following hypothesis: Wim Pijbes was looking for a way-out from a museum that, despite all the praise regarding renovations and exhibitions, is still culturally shuttered. And Pijbes would then not be the leader to replace the bulkheads. A directed departure is obvious in such a case.

How bad is the relationship with Van Caldenborgh?

Founder/owner Van Caldenborgh tells media he is surprised by the departure of the new chief executive. Surprised? The two have known each other for years! Pijbes was an advisor to Van Caldenborgh and - as mentioned - presented himself as the new director in the talks. According to communication from the founder, the new director barely showed up because of a long holiday.

From the methodology of cultural governance are conversations between a chairman of the board and the director-designate of an intrusive nature. After all, what is at stake is the strategic position of an organisation? This is especially true of an entirely new museum with big ambitions. The conversations then revolve around strategic goals, communication, funding and organisation. The outcome is not always committed to paper, but the conclusions are etched in the memory of the interlocutors. Then the new director goes to work and personal contact offers a solution if there are questions and/or ambiguities.

Amateur Museum

Would all that have been lacking here? Perhaps if this is an amateur museum that has just opened its doors, but not at the level of Van Caldenborgh and Pijbes.

This leads me to the second hypothesis: Wim Pijbes knew from the very beginning that he would quit after a short time after the new museum gave him a way-out had provided from his position as director of the Rijksmuseum.

How to proceed?

Hypotheses should be followed by testing through further research. For such an investigation, a number of issues are critical, namely:

  1. Wim Pijbes provides insight into the actual motives surrounding his departure from the Rijksmuseum and Museum Voorlinden. He also discusses the wishes and opportunities he has formulated for himself (a.o. at Tate in London?). Both the Rijksmuseum Supervisory Board and the founder/owner of Museum Voorlinden should respond to these motives substantively, not just procedurally. The dual, sudden departure of the director of two top institutions cannot remain shrouded in mist.
  2. The Rijksmuseum Supervisory Board explains how communication with the director about his departure took place. What considerations played a role in whether or not to insist on or prevent a departure? And how did the board anticipate possible changes in the management in recent years, including the functioning and possible departure of the director?
  3. The founder/owner of Museum Voorlinden tells how the talks went to arrive at the appointment of the new director and how communication took place until his departure. Van Caldenborgh also talks about the actual activities of the new director since his appointment. This is to ascertain whether actual functioning has taken place. And what does it mean that Pijbes will still be involved as director?

The information requested here is needed to fully flesh out the concept of cultural governance. This concerns the quality of supervision and the relationship between supervision and management of multi-million dollar cultural companies. The current information is too brief and does not fit within the premier league in which those involved function professionally.

And what do the media do?

Finally, a word on the media. Wim Pijbes is rightly considered a highly qualified museum director. A powerful man with many (international) networks. For all its appreciation of the person, the press seems to neglect its own task of bringing the facts of the case to light.

In this sense, the 'Pijbes case' is also a wake-up call for established cultural journalism.

Giep Hagoort

Giep Hagoort (1948) studied law at Utrecht University and obtained his PhD from Nyenrode University in 1998. In 2007, Giep Hagoort was appointed professor in the Faculty of Arts at UU in the field of Art and Economics. Hagoort is a lecturer in Art & Economics at the Faculty of Arts and Economics at HKU and chairman of the knowledge circle of the same name. He is also dean of the Amsterdam School of Management.View Author posts

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