Reviews mixed on Tate Modern boss' move to Berlin

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 May, 2015, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 May, 2015, 10:37pm
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The announcement that Chris Dercon, the director of London's Tate Modern, is to move to Berlin to take up the leading post at experimental theatre the Volksbühne has received a mixed response in Germany, with some cultural experts calling it a triumph and others a dangerous departure.

Dercon, who will take up his position as artistic director in 2017, recently described Berlin as "the new cultural capital of Europe". But he will join the city's rich and varied theatrical landscape at a time of deep division and amid big questions over its future.

There is already a suspicion that Dercon, a Belgian who has proved himself a towering figure of the art world but has had little experience in theatre, is being brought in - on the back of his track record for creating crowd-pulling shows - to make the Volksbühne a more events-driven house, where the focus will be on making profits rather than experimentation.

But Berlin's mayor, Michael Müller, who is also the city's cultural minister, says Dercon's experience coupled with his ability to make connections between different disciplines makes his appointment a valuable one for a city that is still trying to find its identity.

Announcing to Berlin's lower house of parliament the replacement to current artistic director Frank Castorf, who has run the house for a quarter of a century, Müller says: "We know how important the work of the Volksbühne is, especially now, but for this very reason, after 25 years of successful work, it's also important to embark on new beginnings."

He says it's fitting that the house, situated in the centre of the former East Berlin on Rosa-Luxemburg Platz and is hugely important as an icon of the East German theatre scene, is known for its "openness to new things", including "different expressions and genres, and looking at how they can be combined".

Attempting to quash fears that the theatre may in the future stage only guest performances, Müller says it'll retain its status as a repertory and ensemble theatre. He says subsidies will be increased, bringing its budget up from €5 million to €22 million (HK$191 million) - a dream scenario for anyone who has worked in Britain's often dog-eat-dog cultural scene. There are also plans to use the former Berlin airport, Tempelhof, as a new staging platform for the Volksbühne.

The fact that yet another major cultural figurehead has been poached from London by Berlin is being viewed as a major coup for the German capital. Neil MacGregor, the outgoing director of the British Museum, is to take a key role in steering the €600 million Humboldt Forum cultural project in Berlin.

The appointments of MacGregor and Dercon come just as British conductor Sir Simon Rattle is winding down his tenure in the German capital after what will be 15 years as the artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic to return to London to take up the post as music director of the London Symphony Orchestra in 2017.

The Volksbühne - under Castorf, 63, the "Meister of the never-ending theatre evening" - has a reputation for lengthy, avant garde, often physically messy and fragmentary theatre. It is often said that theatregoers fall into two camps: those who love it and those who hate it.

Yvonne Büdenhölzer, head of the Berliner Theatertreffen, one of the best-known theatre festivals in the German-speaking world, says that while she values Dercon's work, she questions whether an art curator has a place in theatre. "He is certainly an artist who stands for new ideas," she says. "But whether that's right for the Volksbühne, which has its roots in classical and repertory theatre, I'd be rather sceptical about that."

Dercon is not new to Germany. Before joining Tate Modern, he spent eight years at the helm of Munich's Haus der Kunst, where he won praise for his combining of fine art with architecture, fashion design and film, as well as for rescuing the house from the curse of its past when it was the institute that Hitler used to gather what he considered to be the best of German art.

The Guardian