Hans Ulrich Obrist, Okwui Enwezor, and Rem Koolhaas Sign Letter Supporting Chris Dercon’s Appointment

They accuse the employees of the Volksbühne of narrow-mindedness—and worse.

Outgoing Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon was revealed as the new director of the Volksbühne, Berlin in April. Photo: 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair via YouTube
Outgoing Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon was revealed as the new director of the Volksbühne, Berlin in April 2015. Photo: 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair via YouTube.

The vehement discussions surrounding Chris Dercon’s appointment as the director of Berlin’s Volksbühne theater have just gone up a notch.

On June 20, longtime staff and freelancers at the theater penned an open letter addressed at the Mayor of Berlin and the city council, protesting Dercon’s appointment and expressing their concerns over a “sellout” of their artistic standards. They also warned against a ripple effect across state-funded German theaters.

Now, a number of high-profile personalities from the art world, including uber-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist; Okwui Enwezor, curator of the 2015 Venice Biennale and director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst (where Dercon had served as director before taking up his post at Tate Modern); starchitect Rem Koolhaas; Carolyn Christov Bakargiev, director of Castello di Rivoli in Turin; Adam Szymczyk, director of Documenta 14; as well as artists Peter Saville and Phillipe Parreno, among others, have all signed a letter also directed at Berlin’s mayor Michael Müller expressing their support of Dercon.

“Dercon is not only eminently positioned to lead the Volksbühne; he is also a bold and inspired choice,” they write, adding “We applaud the Berlin Senate for inviting him to Berlin.”

But the letter is not all words of encouragement. After making a point of bolstering the Berlin Senate’s decision, the signatories go on to offer their view of the thinking that inspired the letter penned by the theater employees: “Given its derisive tone and the a priori judgment of a cultural program that has not yet been realized, the substance of the open letter makes it clear that there is a different agenda at work,” they opine. Not mincing their words, they continue:

At its crudest, the open letter is about power, and the abuse of the privilege conferred by public employment to defeat an individual’s vision. In the single-minded pursuit of an agenda of public co‐optation, the signatories of the letter have bypassed all objective standards for serious debate and have descended to 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. 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.

In the opening lines, the signatories explain why they’ve decided to add their voices to the ongoing “public circus.” They write:

because the main goal of the open letter [by the employees] was intended as a mechanism to reverse the directorial mandate vested in Mr. Dercon by the Berlin Senate, we did not want to stand aside and witness a miscarriage of justice being perpetrated. Nor did we want to sanction, without public comment, the tactic of public denunciation undertaken by Mr. Dercon’s detractors to damage his professional credibility and impugn his personal integrity.

Nicholas Serota, Rem Koolhaas, and Chris Dercon attend the Fondazione Prada opening Photo: Courtesy Fondazione Prada

Nicholas Serota, Rem Koolhaas, and Chris Dercon attend the Fondazione Prada opening. Photo courtesy of Fondazione Prada.

However, their concerns over the effect that the initial letter might have had on the city senate’s decision have possibly been in vain. Already on June 21—one day after the theater’s letter had been published—the Berlin Senate replied with a statement free of any accusatory language. The benign, bureaucratic reply states that Dercon will present his plans and program for the theater when he takes up the position in 2017, and not earlier.

In the official statement, Dercon also takes the opportunity to calm the theater staff’s fears over losing their jobs, stating: “There will be no major change in staff, nor will the professionals unions be in any danger.”


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