WHEREVER HE WORKS, Chris Dercon pins a cluster of photographs, sketches, and notes on his office wall. “I call it my collage,” he explained. “It’s very, very important to me—a collection of the things I like to look at every day.” At his last gig—as director of Haus der Kunst (literally, House of Art), in Munich—these included a photograph of a smiling Patti Smith, Dercon’s notes for a Martin Margiela monograph, and a story about him in a German tabloid newspaper. The headline reads chris dercon is bad-mouthing munich again. “Ha!” he roared. “I’d been complaining about the crazy dogs in the city.”
Let’s hope the dogs are better behaved in London. Dercon has just moved there to become director of Tate Modern, which last year received more visitors (five million) than New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim combined. His Munich collage has gone into storage, except for one piece—a quotation from filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard: “Vague ideas must be confronted with clear images.”
On paper Dercon is the ideal candidate to oversee Tate’s international collection of modern and contemporary art. (Its British holdings are housed at Tate Britain, an 18-minute boat ride along the Thames.) The Belgian-born Dercon held top jobs at MoMA PS1 in Queens and the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam before a dazzling eight years at Haus der Kunst.
At Haus der Kunst, Dercon turned a respectable provincial art museum into a cultural dynamo with epic exhibitions, like the one for which the American artist Paul McCarthy covered the roof with giant inflatable flowers. Haus der Kunst also helped fund the Apichatpong Weerasethakul film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes film festival. And Dercon made international headlines in 2009, when the Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei underwent emergency brain surgery while installing a show at the museum. Ai blamed the Chinese authorities for his injuries, and Dercon issued regular updates on the artist’s condition to assembled TV crews.
“The first time I met Chris, I thought: Wow! So much energy!” said Hans Ulrich Obrist, codirector of the Serpentine Gallery in London. “He’s very entrepreneurial, very courageous, and very innovative. He has done outstanding exhibitions wherever he has worked—really interesting experiments and big blockbusters. It’s very rare to meet someone who can do both, and that’s what Tate Modern needs.”
It also needs Dercon’s dynamism and his zest for cajoling cash from donors now that the museum is planning to double in size. Originally Tate had hoped to open its 92,000-square-foot addition, designed by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, to coincide with the London 2012 Olympics, but the recession struck and the museum couldn’t raise the $350 million in time. Instead, the cavernous oil tanks that once fueled the midcentury power station that houses the main museum are to open next year as film and performance galleries while Tate comes up with the remaining $175 million necessary to complete the project.