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Why is Tate Modern director Chris Dercon leaving to lead Berlin's Volksbühne?


Chris Dercon, an art historian and documentary film maker, will leave the Tate Modern in 2017, after directing the museum for six years and overseeing a building expansion. He will direct Berlin’s Volksbühne, or “People’s Theater,” which has been led by Frank Castorf since 1992. The decision to hire Dercon, a Belgian national with much curatorial but little theater experience, seems surprising, especially given Volksbühne’s rich history in Germany’s cultural fabric. (Dercon does have a degree in theater studies, but no experience leading performance institutions.) Opened in 1914 to stage plays affordable for the working class, Volksbühne was severely damaged amidst World War II, and rebuilt in the 1950s. It has since become known as a center for discourse-driven “post-dramatic” theater. Even in Berlin, where the burgeoning theater scene is healthily state-funded, there’s not much overlap with the city’s art world, adding to the confusion about hiring a director of a fine arts institution to lead a theater. As Volksbühne is also a considerably smaller institution than the Tate Modern, this seems potentially a step down for Dercon–by any logic, the paring seems weird.

Die Zeit reports that with Dercon’s appointment will also come a significant budget increase–up to 22 million Euro–and the possibility to use the former Nazi airport Tempelhof as an additional venue. Die Zeit points to Dercon’s history of cross-genre cultural programming at Tate, and previously Haus der Kunst in Munich, as a draw to Berlin’s mayor and cultural senator, Michael Müller, who hired Dercon. Dercon also designated the Tate’s newly expanded Tanks as a site for live performance, perhaps also adding to his qualifications for the Volksbühne position.

What are your thoughts on Dercon’s hire?

*Image of Chris Dercon courtesy


Greit decision! I think his previous experience at the Tate would be very important to any kind of cultural institution. Performance venues in Berlin need much more financial support to create a diverse production because its performance venues and its playhouses in general aren’t enough to provide a large amount of projects which could be shown to audience like it’s in City of London. It is necessary to invest more money in support young/not well known artists of Berlin and I hope it will be done under Mr. Dercon’s direction at the Volksbühne.
I wish the Volksbühne good luck and many successful projects!


It’s weird, but not super-weird, given both Dercon’s interests and Volksbuehne’s–or at least Castorf’s–interest in working with visual and video artists like Meese and Schlingensief. I’d much rather see Dercon take over than a theater director, since pretty much any theater person after Castorf would have pulled Volksbuehne in a more conservative direction. Maybe Dercon just missed Germany?

The worry, on the other hand, is that VB just winds up getting fully colonized by Based-in-Berlin style art-world theatricality.


Agreed through and through. I think what seems most concerning to me is the scale shift, Müller drastically increasing Volksbühne’s budget, and internationalizing the theater’s scope to appeal to a commodity driven contemporary art context. I’m also worried that art world theatricality might take over here, and know that the impetus to internationalize comes hand in hand with “coolness” while waving goodbye to the support of less art world savvy local artists. I think we need better contemporary art leadership in Berlin, but not at the expense of redefining pre-existing institutions, which seems to be the case here.

Though I certainly don’t foresee Dercon’s leadership taking Volksbühne in this direction, this story makes me think about MoCA North Miami’s board’s attempts to internationalize, which led to the creation of a new museum and a ton of missteps, court cases, and other controversy.

P.S. This is Karen on the e-flux account!


Yeah, I totally agree. This was my (unstated) worry–it’s also just…you know, VB had a really punk relationship to the city, and to the other theater and arts institutions around it–it absorbed a lot of money but it was really politically, locally, engaged, and ornery, in a way that I can’t really imagine a massively funded VB being.

On the other hand, maybe that is the point. Castorf’s VB was the expression of a certain kind of Berlin. That Berlin is over and done, and and a glammed-up, “cool”, de-localized VB is probably going to be just as expressive of the city Berlin is now.

Last point: discipline/institution-crossing is only electric to the extent there’s boundaries to cross. I wonder how electric it is if Volksbuehne becomes more like Performa and less of a foil to to
“conventional theater”


Actually, it’s far from settled that the Senat will increase the VB budget, since Berlin has to conform to Germany’s zero debt regimen in the near future and is already on the brink to insolvency. If VB gets more money out of the budget, there will be cuts somewhere else. If this happens, the infighting we have seen before the announcememt will be nothing compared to what will be going on then.