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Issue 144

Interview: Chris Dercon

Jennifer Higgie and Sam Thorne talk to the new director of Tate Modern about the museum’s plans for the future

BY Jennifer Higgie AND Sam Thorne in Interviews | 01 JAN 12

Chris Dercon, Director of the Tate Modern, 2009

Previous to his appointment at Tate Modern, Belgian-born Chris Dercon was director of Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany (2003–10) and the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the Netherlands (1996–2003). He was a co-founding director of Witte de With, Rotterdam (1990–95).

Jennifer Higgie  You’ve been in London since April – how have you found it?

Chris Dercon  I know London very well. From the early 1990s, I was on the board of Iniva. I was also a consultant for the Arts Council on the Tate Modern project from 1995 to ’96, so I’ve been part of it from the very beginning.

Sam Thorne  What do you see as the main changes in London over that period?

CD  One has been a clash between the enthu­siasts, or the people who make very little money, and the presence of international global capital. On the positive side, the galleries have got more and more interesting. Not just the big ones: the smaller spaces like Hotel and Cabinet, too. It’s incredibly courageous to be doing these kinds of programmes. You’ll also find me at Raven Row, because I’m interested in questions of how to display new media. If you ask me my favourites, I’d start with the South London Gallery. I love it there – for one thing, they show Belgian artists!

JH  You’ve argued that, if you look at the typology of art museums, aside from a couple of footnotes like the Guggenheim and the Centre Pompidou, not much has happened since the opening of the Louvre in 1793.

CD  It’s true that if you look at the development of architectural space then nothing much has happened. Tate is part of the family of museums converted from old industrial buildings. It’s not part of the family that I’d call the ‘American museums’, or the kunsthalle-type spaces or André Malraux’s ‘maisons de la culture’ in France. What is new about Tate Modern is that it has a problem: the influx of visitors. It’s no longer a question of developing audiences, but of coming up with new ways to engage them. The viewer can now access the museum in a completely new way: people want to do things with us via blogs, social networks like Twitter and Facebook, as well as via Tate Online. They are, of course, interested in our ‘magic decisions’ – why this artist is shown and not that one – but they’re even more interested in asking us questions. So we’ve realized that we are a mass medium, but we don’t yet understand the rules. The authority of the museum is not endangered, because in this accumulation of cultural goods you need somebody who is a kind of selector, juror or editor – which is a great responsibility. But the control of information, which is something different from editing, is going to be increasingly lost. The museum will come to be used in many different ways.

ST  Could you talk a little about the newly formed African Acquisitions Committee? My understanding is that it comprises mostly private collectors?

CD  It’s exactly the same idea as the Latin American Acquisitions Committee, which was the first of these committees and was started ten years ago, consisting of a group of individuals with many different kinds of expertise in the region.

ST  Are there issues of conflicts of interest?

CD  There are potential and perceived conflicts, as in any industry, and you have to manage and to be aware of these. Only around 40 percent of Tate’s funding comes from the government, and the rest has to be raised. So you will have conflicts of interest, but Tate is very conscientious and has a number of processes in place to make sure that we resolve these when they come up.

ST  What are these processes exactly?

CD  The most important thing is that you identify what the conflicts are and that people declare them. We have guidelines and policies to help manage all our acquisitions. I’ve just been in Africa as a consultant for the Goethe Institut, and you have to be aware that there are countries and regions in which there is no public sector distributing any money, so the cultural infrastructure is run by private foundations or local entrepreneurs. The Bamako Photo Biennial, for example, is mostly funded by French sponsors.

ST  In the context of deep cuts to culture budgets in Western Europe, do you foresee that institutions may come to rely too heavily on private collections?

CD  The question with public/private partnerships is no longer if we want to work together, but how we want to work together. There will be different shades of grey. The smart people who have collected in depth – like Harald Falckenberg in Hamburg or John Kaldor in Australia – are working out ways to collaborate with the public sector. For example, the Goetz Collection’s films and videos are being shown every three months at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, the D. Daskalopoulos Collection was exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery here in London, and there’s also the great example of ‘Artist Rooms’. But we have to learn from the mistakes of the past and from what is happening today. We’re going to have to reinvent the way we run museums, and this will be based on private/public partnerships.

ST  Tate was slow to start collecting moving-image work, as well as work from Eastern Europe. Where do you see the major holes in the contemporary collection?

CD  We do a lot with moving-image work and – in terms of acquisitions – with collecting film. Film is not like a Rembrandt: you can always find a good copy of a John Ford, for example, so it’s never too late to acquire! We’ve only just started to work on the African collection, but I don’t like to use the word ‘contemporary’ in the contexts of Africa, Latin America or the Middle East. We’re Tate Modern, of course, but when you’re talking about these regions you’re talking about modernities in the making. For me, it’s much more worthwhile to find two or three seminal pieces from the 1950s and ’60s than to find the ten best pieces from last year. Eastern Europe probably constitutes a hole in every major museum, apart from the Generali Foundation – of whose collection I am proud to say I was an advisor on.

Rendering of the Herzog & de Meuron design for the Tate Modern extension, due for completion in 2016. Courtesy: Herzog & de Meuron

JH  Will you be curating exhibitions at Tate Modern?

CD  With the extension currently being built next door, it’s most useful for me to work like an editor-in-chief, like a producer, like a fundraiser, like a change manager. The curatorial staff here is extremely good; it’s really a pleasure to work for them.

ST  When will the extension be completed?

CD  By 2016, at the latest. As you know, the Oil Tanks – or what I call the Robert Smithson subterranean circles – will open in summer 2012.

ST  What will the Oil Tanks programme encompass?

CD  It will be a live programme, comprising screenings and performances. I call the Oil Tanks the museum’s ‘lunar wings’. The age-old question of museum display has always related to daylight, which has also led to major costs and frustrations, but these days museums require darkened spaces. The Oil Tanks are perfect in this sense; they are flexible and you can do anything within them.

JH  How does it affect your programme when you know that you are going to have millions of people through the door rather than thousands, as you did in Munich and, before that, in Rotterdam?

CD  It doesn’t affect the choices I make. For example, I showed Gerhard Richter at the Haus der Kunst, as well as Amrita Sher-Gil, which was a show we also shared with Tate, and at Munich we were a partner institution for the Gilbert & George retrospective that Tate organized. What large audiences do affect is that they expect many different things other than the show. This is the reason why the Turbine Hall has been so successful: it’s not only a free space, but it slows you down – it’s like a cathedral. You walk from the west to the east, then at the end you have this big tabernacle. The difference is that the candlelight is the cloakroom and bookshop!

ST  Rem Koolhaas has noted that, from Doris Salcedo’s fissure through to Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s disaster movies, the Turbine Hall commissions have had an apocalyptic tendency.

CD  He didn’t mean catastrophic so much as entering these spaces has become a kind of bodily exercise, in which you’re becoming part of something – like Geppetto being eaten by the whale. Artists are aware of that and start to play with that. Art, as Hal Foster once wrote, is becoming a kind of anthropomorphic fetishization process: fashion plus art, or design plus art, film plus art. What is most astonishing today is architecture plus art. It’s like a binary code, where art soaks everything. Art doesn’t have its own cultural space any more.

ST  Foster has also argued that there’s a post-Bilbao effect of museums trying to become images. I wonder what you think about the relevance today of spectacular, boom-period architecture, like the Herzog & de Meuron-designed Tate extension, to the ongoing financial crisis?

CD  That’s an interesting question. Because we have so many visitors, half of the spaces are not for art but for people. The extension will mean that everything will be better integrated; it will provide more space in which to display the collection and will deliver different types of exhibition spaces. It will make us more flexible.

ST  What are the museums you’re currently most excited about?

CD  I very much like the Reina Sofía in Madrid, which has to do with the fact that Manuel Borja-Villel treats his collection as a kind of universal archive. That’s a fascinating thing. But for the moment my favourite is Christoph Schlingensief’s opera village, a cultural centre in Remdoogo in Burkina Faso. Museums will become different – they will become community centres and art schools. You have to be radically different and to rethink the notion of the museum, not just in its physical substance but as a social organization.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world. 

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.