Interview Museums United Kingdom

Director of Tate Modern compares job to producing a hit TV drama

Chris Dercon on successfully mixing old and new art and disagreeing with Nick Serota about fashion shows

Dercon says programming Tate Modern is similar to producing "Homeland"

Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern since 2011, compares his job with running a public broadcasting company. The day before we met, he had held a brainstorming session with the Tate’s curators about its programme. “You start with set ideas and you come up with a completely different idea thanks to serendipity,” he says. “Everything is interconnected.” It all sounds democratic—Nick Serota, Dercon’s boss, came too—collegiate and unbureaucratic for a big museum. “It’s not ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘Mad Men’,” he says, referring to TV series with a named creative producer in charge. “It’s ‘The Wire’ or ‘Homeland’, with each episode directed by someone else.”

Dercon was born in Belgium and studied art history, theatre and film theory in Amsterdam. An arts journalist before he became a curator, he was the founding director of the Witte de With contemporary art centre in Rotterdam. He then became the director of the city’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, overseeing its expansion and renovation. Before Tate Modern, he ran Munich’s Haus der Kunst. We met a fortnight before Frieze, when Dercon was just back from Vienna, having attended the opening of Ed Ruscha’s exhibition at the Kunsthistoriches Museum, “The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas” (until 2 December).

The Art Newspaper: Frieze London added Frieze Masters this year. What do you think of the trend to link historic and contemporary art?

Chris Dercon:
I hope people will be aware that these things that were produced a very long time ago have a complex life in terms of reception and transmission, and these complexities are very important to deal with. It will be very sad if people do it in a superficial way. An old work will be incredibly angry with you if you do that.

When you start getting into what Ed Ruscha has done, it’s fantastic. I think it’s important that we start to question the contemporaneity of contemporary art. Maybe we need to stop talking about the newest new art, and start talking about new techniques and definitely new audiences.

What was the attraction of working in London?

There was the personal contact with Nick Serota. I got to know him when I was at the Witte. We were the first to do retrospectives of artists such as Hélio Oiticica and Paul Thek. And in Munich, I was the first to do a retrospective of Amrita Sher-Gil. Nick Serota was more aware than most people of the importance of these artists. I decided I have to go to places I was envious of. I was envious of what the Tate has been doing since 2003 with Latin American art, since 2008 with Middle Eastern art, more recently with African art, and soon with South Asian art.

Every move you make as Tate Modern’s director is scrutinised. How do you cope with that?

I got scrutinised at the Boijmans because of the situation in the city of Rotterdam—the city of Pim Fortuyn [a critic of multiculturalism]—and in Munich because I became the director of the private kunsthalle of Mr Hitler. It was about elitism and wanting to become a multicultural society in Rotterdam, and history and the way you deal with history in Munich. So to be scrutinised is normal.

I imagine Nick Serota is a tough boss.

We have a long-standing dialogue about the future of museums because of what I did with architects and what he did. We have a long-standing discussion about multicultural society. He knew I was interested in other media, and he knew the shows I did. So the dialogue was not new. The only thing we didn’t agree about was that I did so many fashion shows in Rotterdam and Munich. That’s still a joke—a long-standing joke.

Were you concerned that most of your time would be spent raising the funds to build Tate Modern’s extension?

I’ve been addicted to [fundraising] since [working at] PS1. Alanna Heiss [the director] and I had to lay off people during the summer because we couldn’t pay them. Once the shows were in place, it was much easier to get people enthusiastic. That’s how I worked in PS1; that’s how I work here. Because I’ve been working almost like a soccer player, going from Brussels to New York to F.C. Rotterdam to Bayern Munich, you get to meet so many enthusiastic and generous people.

There’s always a fear that public institutions will become a plutocrat’s vanity project. Where do you draw the line with collectors?

I like to concentrate on those collectors who share our beliefs. There are many who want to work with new forms of public-private partnership: the Falckenbergs, the Goetzs, Dimitris Daskalopoulos, Bernardo Paz, Anthony d’Offay to name a few. There are many examples of mega-rich private collectors who see the benefits of working with public museums. I like to concentrate our time on them.

And where do art fairs fit into your schedule these days?

I can’t go to them all. It’s very important to be in Basel, and in Miami, given my Latin American connections. I’m not hopping in and out of airports. I did that. Now the curators have to do it.

This interview first appeared in The Art Newspaper, Frieze daily paper, 10 October

More from The Art Newspaper


18 Oct 12
14:55 CET


I got no reply from the President of the Royal Academy about Pussy Riot Art. Such is the nature of totalitarian capitalism? If Madonna,Sting, Sir Paul and Yoko Ono are free to speak and intervene and Nick Serota etc are just being passive and silent then how politically correct of the artworld elite/management.

18 Oct 12
18:16 CET


I'm an old contemporary artist who has decided to make my unique art known before my time is up. I started doing historic art and switched to abstract because I believe it is the ultimate art expression overcoming cultural and religious boundaries. One thing that troubles me is the large movement today toward simply throwing paint on a canvas and calling it modern art. True art (be it abstract or realism) is very intense and challenging. My plan is to produce some simple videos about my work that I hope will eventually save my work from extinction (my family hates what I do). I don't paint for fame or a fast buck. I paint because I must paint. It is my destiny. If anyone who might read this is curious I'm starting a Facebook site at: Artist Dale Alan Hammond. This was an interesting article, thanks.

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this