more from the New York Times:
LONDON — When Berlin’s city government announced last year that it was hiring the director of a major art museum here, Chris Dercon of Tate Modern, to run the Volksbühne theater, it might have been an occasion to celebrate a bold new experiment at an institution known for pushing artistic boundaries.
But the appointment has laid bare long-simmering worries about the direction of Berlin’s arts scene. In appointing Mr. Dercon to replace Frank Castorf, who has led this storied theater for more than two decades, critics say that officials are forsaking an artistic tradition of locally produced, politically and aesthetically unconventional programming. Instead, they see an effort to redraw the theater’s mission to make Berlin a more attractive and marketable destination for tourists and for the internationally minded millennials who have moved into many of that city’s trendiest districts.
In June, about 200 staff members, freelance artists and technicians affiliated with the Volksbühne, which the Belgian-born Mr. Dercon is to take over next year, wrote an open letter objecting to what they said were his plans to revamp the theater — moves that they warned could ignore its traditions and leave little room for current staff members.
“In the name of internationalization and diversity, they are in danger of becoming contributors to the destruction of originality and obstinacy, which has gained the Volksbühne an international reputation and worldwide recognition,” the letter read, referring to “decision-makers in the field of cultural policy in Berlin.”
On Friday, Mr. Dercon’s supporters responded with a letter of their own, addressed to Berlin’s mayor, Michael Müller, and written by Okwui Enwezor, the director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, where Mr. Dercon worked before moving to Tate. Signers included Ulrich Wilmes, the chief curator at the Haus der Kunst; the architect Rem Koolhaas; Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London; and the choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker.
“If the city accedes to a narrow-minded and self-interested coup d’état,” the letter said, “it will have succumbed to cheap innuendo and failed to defend the professional basis upon which Mr. Dercon was appointed. Berlin will also relinquish all claims to being an open city, a cosmopolitan place where professionals can accept an appointment in good faith.”
The office of Tim Renner, Berlin’s secretary for cultural affairs, under whose purview the Volksbühne falls, has said that there are no plans to reduce the theater’s staff and that Mr. Dercon and his program director are still firming up plans in consultation with staff members.
Built in 1914, the Volksbühne made its reputation as a center for theatrically daring, sometimes politically subversive performance in East Berlin, when the city was divided in the postwar years. Sometimes under threat from the East German authorities, the theater staged left-leaning, politically subversive plays that were some of the first to incorporate multimedia, like film, onstage.
In interviews, Mr. Dercon, who oversaw the recent expansion of Tate Modern, has expressed interest in turning the theater into an interdisciplinary space comparable to the Park Avenue Armory in New York and the Culture Shed planned for the Far West Side of Manhattan.
Though he has recently worked in the visual arts, Mr. Dercon, 57, was involved with avant-garde theater groups in Belgium and the Netherlands throughout the 1970s and ’80s. At the Haus der Kunst and Tate Modern, he has championed collaborations between visual arts venues and performing artists.
In an email responding to the criticism, Mr. Dercon said, “In many places in the world new, different theater experiences are being probed.” He added, “Germany and especially the Volksbühne should not stay behind such fascinating developments.”
Mr. Castorf took over the largely state-funded Volksbühne in 1992 and gained a reputation for hourslong abstract productions: heady, highly German stage tomes that drew raves for pushing the limits of what theater could look like (and, some would say, what audiences could endure).
The dispute over his succession began last year when Mr. Castorf announced in the publication Die Zeit that the Berlin government had offered him only a short contract extension, effectively forcing him out.
Many in the city’s theater industry protested that decision. Some of the criticism was directed at Mr. Renner, who has worked as a music producer and was characterized as having overly commercial instincts for the city’s heavily subsidized arts culture.
The complaints intensified with Mr. Dercon’s appointment. “Somehow the decision to hire Dercon has been taken as an offensive intervention in the very integrity of German aesthetic production, of what is particular and characteristic of the German ensemble theater tradition,” said David Levin, a professor of theater and German at the University of Chicago.
Speaking by telephone, Mr. Levin added that for some, Mr. Dercon had become “the institutional and personal embodiment of the threat of gentrification.”
In his email, Mr. Dercon acknowledged that the debate over his plans for the Volksbühne dovetailed with broader questions about Berlin’s future.
“The fact that I am coming from the visual art world and London causes suspicion: The 1 percent? The art market? Objects? Neoliberalism?” Mr. Dercon said.
“I prefer the ritual of the theater to the ritual of the hedge fund,” he added. He said that in addition to bringing in new work from abroad, the Volksbühne would draw on many “fabled ‘German’ theater traditions.”
“The current conflict at the Volksbühne could be seen as typical for a city in transformation,” Mr. Dercon said in the email. “The old and new Berliners will more than ever have to learn to live and work together.”