Next year, the Volksbühne, Berlin’s second-largest state-owned theater, will welcome Tate Modern’s director Chris Dercon as its new head, following 25 years under the leadership of German director Frank Castorf. The announcement has not sat well with the community associated with the 100-year-old stage who fears major, forthcoming overhauls that threaten German theater aesthetic traditions; ringing endorsement, however, has arrived from an international group of curators, artists, and other art world luminaries who describe the appointment as “a bold and inspired choice.” Among them are director of Munich’s Haus de Kunst Okwui Enwezor, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Rem Koolhaas, and Phillipe Parreno; this week, Ai Weiwei also publicly shared his support for Dercon.
The controversy centers around open letters: in June, 90 staff members and 80 freelancers of the Volksbühne sent one to the Berlin House of Representatives expressing deep concern that Dercon will trade long-established artistic standards for “a globally extended consensus culture with uniform presentation and sales patterns.” Volksbühne means “People’s Stage” and was established in 1914 as a working-class theater committed to the experimental.
“In the name of internationalisation and diversity, [cultural policy makers] are in danger of becoming contributors to the destruction of originality and obstinacy which has gained the Volksbühne an international reputation and worldwide recognition,” the letter reads. It also relays worry over job cuts and liquidation of parts of the playhouse’s technical staff.
In response, Dercon’s supporters penned a letter in early July criticizing the Volksbühne’s workers for their fears over rebranding. Dismissing it as prematurely judgmental and “derisive” in tone, the writers accuse Dercon’s critics as “employing fear and censorship to oppose ideas they may not support.
“The concerted public circus that surrounds the appointment of Mr. Dercon, the lack of decorum in the reception of his appointment, and, above all, the inability of his detractors to accord him even the most minimal courtesy, should be professionally embarrassing and damaging to a city of Berlin’s global stature,” the July letter reads. “If the city accedes to a narrow-minded and self-interested coup d’etat, it will have succumbed to cheap innuendo and failed to defend the professional basis upon which Mr. Dercon was appointed. Berlin will also relinquish all claims to being an open city, a cosmopolitan place where professionals can accept an appointment in good faith with the freedom to think adventurously and create beyond the conventional bounds of institutional structures.” It concludes by emphasizing his decades of successful experiences in the museum field and by commending the Berlin Senate for the appointment.
The Senate itself released a statement a few weeks ago, noting that it takes the concerns of Volksbühne’s seriously but that they are “unfounded.” And the latest to chime in on Dercon’s future directorship is Ai Weiwei, who, in an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung, simply said that everything today runs with a commercial interest, which shouldn’t be seen as problematic.
Dercon, who once ran the Haus der Kunst, has said he hopes to introduce more interdisciplinary programing into the space, much like New York’s Park Avenue Armory does. In the Senate’s press release, he urged that the theater’s staff members need not worry about job losses, and that they will all to contribute to a program that connects the present with the playhouse’s vibrant history.
“In many places in the world new, different theater experiences are being probed,” Dercon told the New York Times in response to the complaints. “Germany and especially the Volksbühne should not stay behind such fascinating developments.”