Heavyweight Support For Chris Dercon Appointment At Berlin’s Volksbuhne Theatre Arrives

Chris Dercon

Serpentine Director Hans Ulrich,  2015 Venice Biennale curator and current Director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst Okwui Enwezor, architect Rem Koolhaas, Director of Documenta 14, Adam Szymczyk,  and graphic designer Peter Saville have signed a letter showing support for former Tate Director Chris Dercon. 

The letter sent to Berlin’s mayor Michael Müller on Monday says, “Dercon is not only eminently positioned to lead the Volksbühne; he is also a bold and inspired choice, We applaud the Berlin Senate for inviting him to Berlin”.

Dercon declared that dialogue over his plans for the Volksbühne was used to raise questions about Berlin’s future.“The fact that I am coming from the visual art world and London causes suspicion”. Mr. Dercon added.“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.”

The appointment of former Director of Tate Modern Chris Dercon as Director of Berlin’s Volksbühne Theatre has not gone smoothly. 172 actors, designers and theatre employees have penned an open letter to the city senate and German culture minister Monika Grütters stating “deep concern” over the change-over at the cultural institution. 

The appointment of Dercon by Berlin’s culture senator Tim Renner bitterly replaces the current theatre director, Frank Castorf,who has run the theatre for 25 years. Renner has made no bones about his disapproval of Castorf’s semi- permanent reign at the Volksbühne. Like all state-funded theaters in Germany it is funded by the Senate. 

Dercon’s new role was announced in April 2015. The appointment was greeted with disapproval. Die Zeit reported that several high-profile theater directors were concerned that Dercon’s appointment could transform the historic Volksbühne into a “festival house.”

The letter by the directors at the Volksbühne stated; “We are not afraid of the new,” the signatories stress, but point out that following a general assembly with the future management that took place in April, they felt that “there will be no new forms and artistic challenges at the Volksbühne. A conceptual line of artistic and structural development of our theater is not apparent in the remarks Chris Dercon and his program director Marietta Piekenbrock have made.”

“In the banality of [their] promulgation we fear the sellout of our own artistic standards and a weakening of our potent drama theater operation,” they added:

“This is not a friendly takeover. It is an irreversible turning point and a break in the recent history of the theater. This change represents historical leveling and razing of identity. The artistic processing of social conflict is displaced in favor of a globally extended consensus culture with uniform presentation and sales patterns. We miss in the conceptual designs of the future director everything that makes this theater unique: politically engaged art, a specific theater concept, a steady repertoire and ensemble, and a vision for the unique potential of the house’s own workshops. We fear that in view of these plans, our skills and capacities are not needed. We fear job cuts, up to the negation of entire trades. … a weakening of the existing potential will lead to a weakening of the Volksbühne; once these are destroyed, they will be permanently lost. This could have a devastating ripple effect on the entire German city theater landscape”.

“The signatories state that the letter is not directed at Dercon himself, but rather at the decision makers: “Our criticism is directed at the Berlin’s cultural policy: in the name of an alleged internationalization and diversity it is working hard to destroy the originality and diversity with which the Volksbühne is associated. We see the this as a threat to the future of the theater!”

Photo: P C Robinson © artlyst 2016