Tate Modern Finds Its Match

Published in The Wall Street Journal Europe, March 18, 2011.

Waiting outside a basement meeting room at the Tate Modern in February, Chris Dercon greets museum employees filing past. He knows them each by name. "Oh, we just had such an interesting meeting!" he exclaims as he introduces two women from the museum's Learning Department. They beam.

Mr. Dercon isn't due to take up his post as director of the Tate Modern until next month, but the 52-year-old Belgian already seems to feel at home. He shares a vision with Tate director Nicholas Serota to redefine the role of the public museum to fit our age. "I've always been dreaming and thinking and writing and provoking thoughts, hopefully, about the museum of the future. And I would very much like to be part of a museum for the future, which I do think is Tate Modern," he says.

Originally from Lier, Belgium, Mr. Dercon studied art history, theater and film theory in Amsterdam, then started working as an arts and culture correspondent for the Belgian public broadcasting service before becoming program director at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, now MoMA PS1 and part of the Museum of Modern Art, in 1988. Two years later, he returned to Europe to take over as director of the Witte de With contemporary art museum in Rotterdam, leaving in 1996 to lead the city's principal art museum, the Boijmans Van Beuningen. In 2003, Mr. Dercon moved to Munich to become director at Haus der Kunst, where he helped transform the art institution into one of the most exciting in Europe, which, in turn, set him up for the job at one of the most exciting museums in the world.

In taking on the role at Tate Modern, Mr. Dercon is moving from a position of relative freedom, as head of a horizontally structured art institution, to a large museum with a myriad of departments and hierarchies. But he isn't worried about that. "I love to work with big teams," he says. "I like to work with constraints because I don't see them as limitations, but as incredible challenges. How can you still take liberties within these constraints? How can you do the things you really want to do?"

One of his most defining and, at the time, controversial acts at Haus der Kunst was what he called the "critical reconstruction" in 2005: stripping the structure of the building—originally commissioned by Adolf Hitler in 1933 as a center for German art—of all the post-1945 additions that had been made to bury its dark past. The reconstruction was accompanied by the opening, for the first time, of the Haus der Kunst's archives, and caused some stir in Munich's conservative art world. Mr. Dercon broke other unwritten rules too, combining blockbuster exhibitions (think Anish Kapoor and Gerhard Richter) with coups like co-funding Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's project "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," which went on to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, and eschewing traditional exhibition circuits in favor of lesser-known locations, like Istanbul or Sharjah, U.A.E.

People who have worked with Mr. Dercon note his passion for his work and his ability to enthuse others, to listen and reach compromises. Mr. Dercon is said to be among the best-connected people in the art world today, partly because when he wants to meet someone, he simply picks up the phone and calls them.

"He might come across as provocative, but he isn't," says Thomas Weski, who was deputy director at Haus der Kunst between 2003 and 2009. "He questions things, and sometimes he might not be aware of his style. But that's not his aim. His aim is to change the perception of art, the presentation of art and the hierarchies of art."

Mr. Dercon is a staunch believer in the public museum's role as a unique testing ground, a place of learning and development. "Where else in our society can you work in an environment where you don't have to take anything for granted? Where you can say, 'Let's interrupt. Let's start things anew. Let's interrogate ourselves?'" he says. "Also, it's the only environment where you can constantly look at the present and the future through the eyes of the old. In the media, there's a dictatorship of the very new. In a museum, you bring things together that only have a meaning because they are in a museum or because you juxtapose them with other things. That's an amazing, amazing form of geniality. And also, museums never have to be finished. It's a constant process of transformation."

More than just being a hotbed for radical thought, however, he believes that public museums today have a responsibility to society that extends beyond art. "People start to ask us questions at Tate Modern—questions that have nothing to do with art," he says. "It's as if people don't feel represented anymore by their local football club or by politicians or by the media, and they're looking for another form of parliament, a form ofagora." He recalls that day's meeting with the museum's Learning Department. "People are starting to use the museum, sometimes for something completely different, beyond art—to talk about life. It's more like a civic society. And we're very good at that, at museums, to think what a civic society is. We're very good at combining diversity and unity."

Mr. Dercon thinks that visual arts have failed, over the past decade, to give anything back to the cultural disciplines they've so heavily borrowed from. He is fascinated by culture in general, ranging from cinema to architecture, from philosophy to cooking; he can be highly intellectual yet doesn't shy away from the profane.

As a consequence, talking to Mr. Dercon is a little like chasing a rabbit zig-zagging through a field. "People in Holland call me a bookshelf that has fallen over," he says. In the matter of a minute, he jumps from Michel de Certeau's concept of creative misuse from "The Practice of Everyday Life" ("one of my Bibles") to Horace Walpole and serendipity, and from there to Munch's interest in photography of shadows and what that means for our understanding of the films of Peter Watkins.

"A mind like fireworks," is how his friend, the German industrial designer Konstantin Grcic, describes it. "Chris is a person who always continues; he never stops or accepts things as set," Mr. Grcic adds. "Like [Swiss-German curator[ Hans-Ulrich Obrist and [Dutch architect] Rem Koolhaas, he's someone who absorbs everything that happens in the world, and that leads to ever-new impulses."

That may be the reason why Mr. Dercon is so dismayed by what he says is the failure of many museums to rethink their role and organization, particularly when it comes to architecture. In his opinion, there hasn't been any innovation in museum architecture since the building of the Louvre museum on the site of the old palace in 1793 and the Altes Museum in Berlin in the 1820s, with the repurposing of buildings (like Tate Modern's Bankside Power Station) being "one little development" and grand architectural projects like the Guggenheim museums no more than "a footnote." "It's a footnote because it's a fantastic piece of architecture, but it's not a fantastic museum organization," he says. "In terms of the physical organization of a museum—what it means for a collection, for the floor of education, for the floor of temporary exhibitions, the shop and the hall for interdisciplinary experiments—we've done very, very little."

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Dercon will play around with the Tate Modern's architecture, as he did in both Munich and Rotterdam. For the time being, his priorities lie elsewhere; he plans to consolidate Tate Modern's international influence and intellectual heritage. That includes moving cultural productions into the digital sphere. "People expect more from us than ever before," Mr. Dercon says. "So we have a responsibility to be even more international in terms of acquisitions, in terms of exhibitions and in terms of using social media. We have to expand the museum."

Mr. Dercon calls himself a producer—a connector of people, of ideas and disciplines, and of dots. "The reason I think we should do exhibitions is to figure things out, to understand anew the work of an artist and the complexities surrounding it." Is that why he favors interdisciplinary exhibitions that place different artists and art forms side by side? "If you take interdisciplinary as really starting to think in between the images, yes. It's the 'infra-thin' of Marcel Duchamp, this in-betweenness, that's what I'm really interested in. Ai Weiwei did this installation at Haus der Kunst, an enormous carpet, an exact replica of the floor tiles at Haus der Kunst. That carpet presented the infra-thin, the in-betweenness between the history, its makers and its users. And now we know that Ai Weiwei is fascinated by Marcel Duchamp!"

Commenting on an upcoming Joan Miró exhibition at the Tate Modern curated by the team at the museum in collaboration with Barcelona's Fundació Joan Miró, he notes the accompanying screening of films by Pere Portabella, Miró's friend and associate—the combination allows the work of each artist to provide insight into the work, motives and significance of the other. "We all know Joan Miró from a children's room. But there is another Miró, who made amazing collages and who's a national symbol. And how do we know that? Because of Pere... and voilà!"

In the end, Mr. Dercon says, his work is about making sense of an increasingly complex world. "We have to deal with the fact that we get smaller and the world gets bigger. We have to create an equilibrium between the two. And that's the reason why I work in a museum. Developing audiences to come in, to discover the meaning of the sentence, 'Who am I?'" He pauses. "I mean, maybe that's the reason why I'm here, why I'm doing this."