Entrepreneurial Studies Director Stephen Rueff
Entrepreneurial Studies Director Stephen Rueff

NEXT: You and David Barnhill run an organization called SuperMonster市City! Tell us a little more about this celebration of monsters, superheroes, and villains.

Stephen Rueff: David is a childhood friend who never stopped collecting toys. He has 200,000 toys, posters, games, TV commercials, films, and lots of good stories. We assemble touring exhibits from his collection. He’s a very animated and magnanimous person who brings the characters to life and I curate them considering social, political, and reflective cultural contexts. Our 2015 Goldstein Museum of Design exhibition received the title of “Best Museum Exhibit” from City Pages and we contributed one hundred pieces to Toys of the '50s, '60s and '70s, a nationally traveling exhibition developed by the Minnesota History Center. We like monsters—they’re empathetic characters who work through anxieties or stresses that children and adults both have.

You’ve worked as a performer, designer, manager, and producer, and have toured the globe with Blue Man Group, Meredith Monk, and Bill T. Jones. What was that like?

There’s a lot of responsibility to work with artists of that caliber. My role would range from tour manager to technical director, and even though you’re not the direct creator, it’s important to make their creative voices heard and ensure that they can be seen as close to what the artist’s true vision is.

When we were traveling, some people spoke English, but when you got to the stage hands, not as many, so I created cheat sheets for up to eight different languages. They would say things like, “Left, right, up, down, faster, slower, louder, softer.” I had those sheets laminated and in a three-ring binder next to me when I was on the headset. There were a lot of little things like that.

I was the tour manager for Blue Man Group when they started performing their first shows in New York City in 1991. They were very disciplined. After shows, a lot of the artists would go out and have beers, but Blue Man Group would usually go to a restaurant with their notebooks and go through every moment of the show to examine what worked, what didn’t, and why. They’re not successful by accident.

Meredith Monk works in non-narrative, non-linear singing that doesn’t have words, and to see how she communicates ideas through the universal sound of voice and music and see people weeping, it’s just like, “Wow.”

Stephen Rueff

How has that experience translated to how you work with entrepreneurs?

I use the same mindset of supporting an artist’s vision when I’m working with entrepreneurs. I like helping them find the bridges and remove as many barriers as possible to what it is they want to do, and sometimes that means they need to change the product or service as they had originally envisioned. I was hired by the Ordway because I had worked with so many artists on original works. We produced twenty-two original musicals in seven years. To do that, you have to assemble a team, then you have to figure out what the creative vision is and make sure everybody’s creative vision is aligned, and then give them tools and a budget. It’s a special skill set and those are the same skills I use when working with entrepreneurs. It’s this idea of figuring out what impact they want to have in the world and then helping them get there.

Tell us more about using this kind of big-picture thinking to assemble a team for the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change Grant.

I met the team behind the 2016 Bee Arts exhibition at MCAD and did some consulting with them. I brought some members of this group together with another team I’d worked with before on a project that was on Native American mounds in southern Ohio. They were interested in applying for the 100&Change grant but didn’t have an idea. I helped bring those two groups together and developed the content and ideation, so in some ways I was a team member, but I was using my entrepreneurial knowledge.

When 60 percent of the people don’t make the first cut to even be reviewed, you’re doing something right. And to demonstrate to the people that are going to hand you one hundred million dollars that you actually have a viable idea, that is in the scope, that is going to make an impact globally, with a team of people that is actually going to implement it—that’s saying a lot. I am really proud that I was able to pull a team together and keep us focused.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

The joy of discovering what is possible with artists, designers, and entrepreneurs when they don’t know how to go beyond what they’ve originally conceived. Taking it to that next stage of viability. To me, that’s magic.

What is something no one at MCAD knows about you?

I live in a house that was built by my great-great-grandfather for his daughter as a wedding present.

Stephen Rueff


This story originally appears in NEXT, the magazine of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.