Chris Dercon’s stormy tenure as the director of Berlin’s prestigious Volksbühne Theater has come to an abrupt end. The Belgian museum director and art historian announced his resignation today, effective immediately. According to Berlin’s cultural administration, Dercon and Berlin’s culture senator Klaus Lederer mutually agreed the time was right for him to step down.
According to the official statement, both parties concluded that “the concept of Chris Dercon did not work out as hoped, and the Volksbühne needs a fresh start immediately.” The news was first reported by local news broadcaster rbb.
Dercon’s yearlong tenure was marked by turbulence. His appointment to lead the so-called People’s Theater became a flashpoint for debate over the gentrification and hyper-professionalization of the arts in Berlin. Founded in 1914, the venue has a long history of presenting radical, populist theater and is considered one of the city’s most significant cultural institutions.
Trouble began as soon as it was announced in 2015 that Dercon, at the time director of Tate Modern, would succeed Frank Castorf, the theater director who had presided over the Volksbühne for 25 years.
Before Dercon’s arrival, more than 150 actors, designers, and other employees affiliated with the theater published an open letter expressing “deep concern” over the appointment, which they felt represented “historical leveling and razing of identity.”
Things did not improve after Dercon arrived in Berlin in early last year. Several longtime actors involved with the theater were either not rehired or walked away. Meanwhile, his program—which included performances by artists including Tino Sehgal and Yael Bartana, as well as dance choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Jérôme Bel, and Alexandra Bachzetsis—received mixed reviews from critics.
The situation took an ugly turn last summer, when feces were anonymously left on Dercon’s door over two weeks in August. He told Deustche Welle that he was considering leaving Berlin as a result. Then, in September, squatters occupied the theater to protest what they regarded as Dercon’s corporate approach. After several days, police removed the demonstrators from the premises.
It is unclear how much support Dercon had from public officials. Berlin’s culture senator Klaus Lederer took on his role after Dercon was appointed by the previous culture senator, Michael Müller, and his secretary of state for culture, Tim Renner. Lederer had publicly expressed ambivalence about Dercon’s approach and even suggested that he wanted to “re-think” the appointment.
artnet News reached out to the Volksbühne for comment, but the theater responded that Dercon will not be giving any statements about the news today. Until a new director is appointed, Dercon’s tasks will be taken over by the new acting director Klaus Dörr, the theater’s former managing director.
What Dercon will do next, and who will succeed him, is up for speculation. One wonders if German art magazine’s Monopol’s April Fool’s Day joke about Dercon heading the next edition of documenta might not be such a hoax after all.
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