With his thick-rimmed glasses, bushy eyebrows and sober attire, there is something of the headmaster about Martin Roth. From a distance he is an intimidating presence. But get him talking and that instantly melts away; the director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is amiably self-effacing and refreshingly incapable of taking himself too seriously.
When MONOCLE meets Roth in his office in the red-brick V&A, trolleys are trundling along on the pavement outside. “They are building the Alexander McQueen show,” he says (the exhibition went on to break the museum’s record for advance bookings). In his unmistakably German accent, Stuttgart-born Roth remarks on the unfortunate timing: “I think they deliberately wait until I have an interview and then go past,” he says, laughing.
Roth has been director of the V&A for close to four years, orchestrating a series of highly acclaimed exhibitions and overseeing plans to build new B&A outposts: one on Dundee’s waterfront in Scotland, another in the Olympic Park in east London and a third in Shenzhen, China. But he isn’t patting himself on the back yet; when asked about his greatest achievements so far he responds: “Come back and see me in five or 10 years.”
This offers a glimpse of Roth’s ambition. He came into the job in 2011, having previously impressed as the head of the Dresden State Art Collections for 10 years. The V&A enjoyed a very successful decade under Sir Mark Jones but since Roth took over – the first non-Brit to run a British national museum – its annual visitor numbers have swelled by more than 400,000 people to a record 3.7 million.
Accessibility has been one of the central tenets of Roth’s tenure so far. “That was always a driving force for me: how can we serve society in an even better way?” he says. This spring has already seen an exhibition called All of This Belongs to You: an eclectic series of installations that questions the role a public institution should play in society. “I was always interested in the museum as an institution and in understanding what it can do,” he says.
For all this introspection and idealism however, much of Roth’s day-to-day work is spent managing a large institution of more than 700 employees. He is keen to demystify the role. “There’s always this attitude that if you’re a director you come late to the museum, write a few handwritten letters, have a long lunch, then go to the golf course,” he says. “I start at 5 o’clock in the morning and quite often it’s 11 or 12 o’clock when I finish. It isn’t an easy job. You have to fight for it.”
One of the most difficult tasks Roth has is getting the best out of his team but it is one he seems to relish. “I’m here to challenge people but not control them; that’s a management style from the corporate world and I hate it.” For Roth, V&A employees must be creative as well as efficient. “We’re not working on a conveyor belt; this is a place of inspiration.”
Nonetheless, Roth’s own role as director is not so far removed from the duties of a corporate CEO. “Probably 90 per cent of it is the same,” he says. “Only the content is different. I think it’s all about having a clear hierarchy and speed in decision-making. You also need this in business.”
That’s not where the affinities end, either. Roth has always championed the role companies can play in supporting cultural institutions as both sponsors and collaborators. He values the corporate perspective: “It’s great to work with bmw or Jaguar or a bank because it gives you a reality check.” There’s also the fact that, as a museum director in the 21st century, it’s impossible to turn your nose up at corporate money. “In the 1990s the attitude was: ‘Here’s culture and here’s business’,” he says, using his hands to outline two separate boxes in the air. “I think, finally, it’s the exact opposite now. We worked very hard to change it.”
Roth is quick to acknowledge that he has benefitted from this change in attitude. His first directorship, of the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden, began in 1991 when he was just 36. “I started to be in high positions more or less with Perestroika, the reunification [of Germany], a New World Order, China opening. For me it was like jumping on a surfboard and I’m still on top of it,” he says, smiling. “I grew up in a time when we thought we could do anything and I’m still convinced we can.”
Usually languid and laconic, Roth suddenly becomes more animated when he is defending the relevance of culture. “It is important and it can contribute a lot to the change of a society,” he says. Perhaps more so now than any time in recent history, “in times of Pegida in Germany and Ukip and [Marine] Le Pen,” as Roth puts it. “All of our collections are deeply international. It is a question of peacekeeping and international exchange.”
Despite the rise of far-right parties across Europe, Martin Roth believes culture in our societies is in rude health. “[UK prime minister David] Cameron is sometimes criticised for not going to theatres enough,” he says. “If this is already the level of criticism then I think it’s a good time. I can remember ministers in Germany who didn’t know what a theatre was.” He might be exaggerating a little to underline his point but it’s a theme he warms to. “There is a general openness to culture today; that is an amazing change. It is a golden age.”
What time do you like to be in the office at your desk?
I wake up at 5 and go to work for 9 o’clock.
What’s the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or on the job?
It’s about quality, whatever your background.
What’s your management style?
I try to be a supporter and a facilitator. I give my team a lot of freedom, confidence and trust and I expect the same in return.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
I like the German idea of a Doppelspitze: two people to control and inspire each other.
Do you want to be liked or respected?
We all want to be liked and loved but in the end it’s about being respected.
What does your support team look like?
I have a PA who looks after the daily stuff. She also reads my emails for me – I get 200 a day. I also have a researcher and an international assistant.
What technology do you carry on a trip?
An iPhone 6 Plus and a personal phone as well.
Do you read management books?
I find them too far from reality. After 30 years I’ve learnt what I need to know.
Do you run in the morning? Have wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
I get up early, sometimes for a run. Wine with lunch? Are you kidding? I don’t really socialise with my team; as a boss, you have to accept people will want to keep a distance.
What would your key management advice be?
Create an environment of trust and confidence.