A photocopied postcard from artist Richard Tuttle hangs on Tate Modern director Chris Dercon’s wall, instructing him to “mix the drawings around the room” just before a 1981 gallery show he was organizing. Although maddening at the time, Tuttle’s message was to become Dercon’s motto: “Once the order has been found, everything can be changed around.”
“And do you know what I’m doing now? I’m mixing everything around,” Dercon, in a navy open-necked shirt and jeans, says in his London office, lined with tomes on art, film, dance, and philosophy. He pulls books out at frequent intervals to illustrate a point and to underscore the breadth of his engagement with art across disciplines.
A tall, striking presence with white hair and a booming voice, Dercon has been on the job at Tate since April 2011, and in that time he has applied his “mixing” dictum diligently. Under his aegis, the underground oil tanks of the former power station have been opened up as dedicated spaces for performance, film, and installation, and Tate has embarked on a major drive to acquire and exhibit recent African artworks as part of a more international focus. The 54-year-old Belgian has said his mission is to radically rethink the role of the museum in the 21st century. “We’re already doing that in terms of creating an urban plaza to make a very democratic institution,” he says in his Flemish-accented English.
Comparing his current role heading one of the world’s most popular art museums to that of an ocean liner’s captain, he remarks with a laugh, “If there are any achievements it’s navigation, and it’s really not like the Costa Concordia,” a reference to the cruise ship that crashed into rocks off the coast of Italy last year.
Conversations with Dercon often spin off on unexpected tangents as his ideas prompt lateral associations; he regards the shipwreck as a metaphor for the dangers of unrestrained capitalism and excessive expansion, clearly something on his mind as construction noise drones from an extension that will increase Tate Modern’s display space to around 145,000 square feet.
The new complex is due for completion by 2016 and will include a ziggurat-shaped building designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, with whom Dercon has worked in the past. He envisages the Tate of the future as a beacon of learning akin to the ancient library of Alexandria, and plans on his wall (next to the Tuttle postcard) show that half of the new building will be devoted to learning, research, and social spaces.
The choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, whose performance Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich inaugurated the Tanks last July, describes Dercon as a cross between Don Quixote and Niccolò Machiavelli. “With Chris, you always have the notion of dreams and actual deeds. He connects opposites,” she says. “He’s not afraid to provoke people, to challenge them.” The Tanks’ other opening programs—from a video installation by Korean artist Sung Hwan Kim to a multimedia installation by American artist Suzanne Lacy to a light and film piece by British artist Lis Rhodes—gave an idea of the museum’s ambitions for the raw concrete spaces. Such offerings could be seen as risky compared with past blockbuster shows, such as Joan Miró and Damien Hirst, that have proved so popular at Tate Modern. But Dercon likes to take chances.
At Haus der Kunst in Munich, where he was director from 2003 until his move to Tate, Dercon’s first show confronted Germans with Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s kneeling sculpture of Adolf Hitler, who had commissioned the building in 1933 as a museum for national art. Dercon also opened up the museum’s archives, stripped away postwar additions that papered over the building’s Nazi past, asked Herzog & de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas to produce a master renovation plan as part of a “critical reconstruction,” and invited artists to reinterpret the Fascist architecture.
As an introduction to his extensive 2009 exhibition, Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei plastered the museum’s facade with 9,000 schoolchildren’s backpacks spelling in Chinese characters, “She lived happily in this world for seven years,” a quote from a parent of a girl killed in the Sichuan earthquake a year earlier when shoddily built schools collapsed. Less poignant but equally eye-catching was American artist Paul McCarthy’s transformation of the building into a kitsch Bavarian flower box by covering the roof in gigantic red inflatable flowers.
McCarthy’s 2005 installation, requiring holes to be cut in the roof, was just one element of a logistically demanding retrospective that included the erection of a colossal fort indoors, video performances by actors, and a street parade of horse-drawn covered wagons accompanied by an oompah band. The artist, famed for his envelope-pushing performances involving vomiting, ketchup smearing, and bodily orifices, was impressed by Dercon’s openness to outlandish ideas and the lengths to which he went to support the artist. “Every aspect was complicated. I pushed the limits,” McCarthy admits. “A lot of people would have put their foot down. In a certain way, I never found his limit.”
Dercon’s risk-taking hasn’t always paid off. Prior to Haus der Kunst he was director of Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen from 1996 to 2003, where he had a dispute with the staff over his plans to deaccession the museum’s sole Mark Rothko painting, which he says would have freed up funds for new acquisitions and for the building’s extension. “This fight is what everybody in the Boijmans remembers if you talk about Dercon,” says Friso Lammertse, the museum’s curator of Old Master paintings, who was working there when the crisis erupted in 1999. In the end, the city mediated, and the Rothko was not sold.
Dercon recalls a close friend’s warning as he took on the directorship: “Chris, watch out. A museum like the Boijmans is like an ocean liner. It’s so difficult to steer, if you do this”—Dercon turns an imaginary rudder—“it might have great effect, but it’s also dangerous because you might run into the cliffs.” The experience was surely the closest Dercon has come to a personal Costa Concordia, although it appears to have done no lasting damage to his career.
Born in 1958 in the Belgian town of Lier, Dercon developed an early interest in the arts and became obsessed with performance as a teenager. “I was a really, really bad Belgian artist,” he says, recounting a performance in which he sat on stage reading through the Oxford Companion to Art as his punk band played riff after riff for hours. He became disillusioned with the commercial art world after working at Baronian-Lambert Gallery in Ghent from 1981–83 and tried his hand as a freelance producer of arts documentaries.
His first real curating break came in 1988, while working at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, New York, under its founder, Alanna Heiss, where they put on experimental shows by the likes of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, Austrian Franz West, and American Paul Thek. Heiss says she and Dercon shared an insatiable fascination with the unconventional side of society and burned the candle hard at both ends in the name of artistic research—and fun. She remembers him as “a high-wattage person” with “breathtaking” language ability and exceptional talent.
Hans-Ulrich Obrist, codirector of exhibitions at Serpentine Gallery in London, also highlights Dercon’s “incredible energy field,” noting that the two of them have installed many shows at dawn.
Dercon speaks six languages fluently. His German nickname “UNESCO Vertreter” (representative of the United Nations cultural body) reflects his strongly international perspective that stems partly from his youth in Belgium, home to a large African immigrant population, and from his experience working in the multicultural melting pot of Rotterdam, where he co-founded the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art before heading the Boijmans.
His international bent was undoubtedly a draw for Nicholas Serota, head of the Tate consortium of museums, which previously lagged behind its peers in building modern and contemporary collections. The institution now wants to lead the way in acquiring seminal non-Western artworks to reflect a more comprehensive history of art over the past century. “He’s given the Tate a license to explore new areas, to think about the rest of the world,” Serota says of Dercon. Last November, Tate announced a two-year program devoted to African art, including shows this year by Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi and Meschac Gaba from Benin, both of whom Dercon has championed in the past.
“Every piece we want to acquire should be a form of bifurcation to create, with a minimum of effort, the greatest effect,” Dercon explains. So Tate’s recently purchased painting Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams 1 (1962–63) by El-Salahi has been hung alongside Karel Appel, Dorothea Tanning, and Robert Motherwell. The artist, who now lives in Oxford, is grateful that his work has not been confined to a geographical category. “Okay, I’m an African. Okay, I’m an Arab. But I prefer my work to be looked at as the work of an individual. Chris understands that very much,” El-Salahi says.
“We’re not going to create an atlas,” Dercon insists. “And if we speak about Africa, it’s through a form of criticality, like Meschac Gaba.” Gaba’s sprawling 12-part installation Museum of Contemporary African Art (1997–2002), which Tate has also bought, was a reaction to the dearth of spaces, apart from ethnographic museums, that were exhibiting contemporary African art when he moved to Europe. While at the Boijmans, Dercon supported Gaba’s project, befriended the artist, and was later a witness at his wedding, which was performed within the work itself. “He really takes care of artists,” Gaba says. “Sometimes he would ask, ‘Meschac, do you have enough money to live on?’”
Dercon peppers his speech with words like “Afropolitanism,” “hic et nunc,” and “heterotopia,” and he references philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas and Gilles Deleuze, which can come across as pretentious. “He’s almost too involved in his own understanding of himself as an intellectual,” says Heiss. “What I found more interesting than his intellectual goals was this almost childlike belief that he and artists could make a difference.”
The conviction that art is a vital force for civic good and an integral element of democracy remains fundamental to Dercon. Hailing from the more ideological European continent, he is appalled by British government’s plans to exclude art from the core curriculum in schools, and by the view that art is a luxury. “I. Can. Not. Believe. It. Somebody has to explain to me where it comes from,” he says, shaking his head. Part of the problem, he suggests, is the notion of art as entertainment in Britain. “If culture is about entertainment, if culture is about celebrity, and not about creating a civic form of glue, then I think we are missing the boat,” he says.
The live-arts program in the Tanks at Tate Modern is in part a response to the public’s tremendous appetite for participatory experience, as seen from the popularity of the museum’s Turbine Hall commissions, which have had visitors sunbathing beneath Olafur Eliasson’s gigantic indoor sun and interacting with Tino Sehgal’s storytellers.
“Is it still worthwhile to talk about new art?” Dercon asks. And then he answers himself. “I think it’s much more worthwhile to talk about new techniques and new audiences. The real challenge for the development of art is maybe the fact that we have a true new audience who want much more from us and from art than to judge and admire. They want to use art and museums almost as a kind of platform to explore the human condition.”
Dercon’s decision to have his office on the same floor as the visitor learning and education departments reflects the importance he attaches to Tate’s social role and its new public, which he wants to involve more in the creative process. “Today, to be really cool and sexy is to be sharing,” he says. “Inclusivity instead of exclusivity. Let the private collectors in the private museums do the exclusivity game.”
Dercon has a German wife, Sonja Junkers, who is an associate director at the Swiss gallery Hauser & Wirth in London, and they have four children. The family has a home in the Austrian Alps, and they are big skiers and hikers. By way of hobbies, Dercon has a large collection of ceramics and textiles and enjoys watching challenging cinema and dance—what he calls “mental sports.”
A curious hybrid of a populist outlook and highbrow tastes, he values his friendships with filmmakers, dancers, architects, and designers, who inspire him to “mix things around” in the visual arts. One of his main achievements, as he sees it, is keeping a distance from the celebrity art scene, which he finds insular and uncritical.
Turner Prize–winner Jeremy Deller is impressed by Dercon’s evangelical zeal. He recounts how the Tate Modern chief produced a hefty file of press clips on him during a recent panel debate. “I thought it was hilarious,” Deller says. “I think he keeps them for lots of artists. It’s like he’s still got this boyish enthusiasm for art and cutting stuff out and making scrapbooks.”
Elizabeth Fullerton is a London-based freelance writer and a former foreign correspondent for Reuters.