Chris Dercon Heads to Paris to Oversee the Grand Palais’s Blockbuster Shows and Ambitious Revamp

After a torrid time at Berlin's Volksbühne, the Belgian director is now a major player in France's national museums.

Chris Dercon. Photo ©Klaus Haag.

Chris Dercon is moving to Paris where he will be in charge of the Grand Palais, its blockbuster shows and big revamp. Following his awkward exit from Berlin’s People’s Theatre, the Belgian museum director will oversee Paris’s largest and most prestigious exhibition venues as it moves to a temporary home near the Eiffel Tower.

France’s new culture minister Franck Riester named the Belgian curator, who is a former director of London’s Tate Modern and Munich’s Haus der Kunst, as the new president of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux–Grand Palais for the next five years, starting in January 2019.

The RMN is an umbrella organization for around 20 institutions. Part of Agence France Museums, the RMN works in partnership with prestigious museums, including the Musée du Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Palace of Versailles. It organizes large temporary exhibitions in Paris, oversees acquisitions for permanent collections, and manages their dissemination, including loans to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. 

The Grand Palais is a venue for blockbuster shows that draw on French and international museum collections as well as the “Monumenta” commissions of large-scale installations that rival those in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. The venue also hosts the international art fair, FIAC, Paris Photo, and the city’s most spectacular fashion shows by brands such as Chanel and Hermès.  

“Chris Dercon will take up his duties in a context of transformation of the institution, in a changing museum sector, and with the implementation of the master plan for restoration, upgrading and development of the Grand Palais,” reads a press statement from the French ministry of culture. “With his experience as head of prestigious international institutions, through his vision of art and the role of cultural institutions in the 21 century, Dercon will give the new Grand Palais a unique place in France and in the world, and further expand the public of this great institution,” the statement continues.

Dercon is coming on board at a pivotal time for the French institution, as it will be move to a temporary venue in 2021, while the 19th-century Grand Palais closes for a €466 million ($532 million) renovation. The “Ephemeral Grand Palais,” a 19,000-square-meter temporary space facing the Eiffel Tower on the Champ de Mars, will host events for 44 months from January 2021 through to the end of the Summer Paralympic Games in 2024 during the revamp.

The 60-year-old art historian and museum director has had an illustrious career but he suffered a set back after he moved from London to Berlin. In 2015, he made the surprise announcement that he would be leaving Tate Modern before its expansion was completed to direct the Volksbühne theater in Berlin. There he faced backlash over his lack of experience in the theater, with many reading his appointment as an exemplar of the rapid gentrification and hyper-professionalization of Berlin’s art world. Heavy criticism from various cultural figures, including an open letter signed by 150 people and tactics including a squatter occupation of the theater, pushed Dercon out after just a year. He announced his sudden resignation in April.

Shortly before he resigned, he wrote a comment piece for The Art Newspaper expressing his interest in Saudi Arabia that will be useful as France proceeds with a huge and lucrative deal to develop the kingdom’s cultural infrastructure. “Now that there is suddenly so much money flowing through the kingdom for the promotion of contemporary art and artists, members of the international art world will be waiting to jump on to the bandwagon of cash,” he predicted. He noted that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s patronage may be a mixed blessing.

Dercon began his career as a journalist for the Flemish daily newspaper, de Standaard. In 1998, he became director of programming at PS1 Contemporary. Between 1990 to 2003 he ran the Witte de With contemporary art center and the Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, before moving on to direct Munich’s Haus der Kunst, and then Tate Modern.


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