“It’s like finally becoming a big producer,” Dercon said, beaming. “It’s great! If you look at the typology of art museums, with a couple of footnotes like the Guggenheim and Centre Pompidou, not much has happened since the Louvre. From the very beginning I’ve thought that there should be a new type of art museum. Tate Modern is the place to do it.”
At 52, Dercon looks not unlike a midcareer James Coburn (if he shopped at Margiela). Tall and tan with short white hair and a beard, he has a rollicking laugh and is prone to theatrical gestures and opening one shirt button too many. His conversation veers from critical theory and an essay he wrote on the future of museums to the joys of soccer, traveling to Beijing with Miuccia Prada, and the exquisite textiles he found in Ethiopia. He is so passionate and knowledgeable that he manages to be endearing even when showing off and name-dropping, both of which he does quite often.
“Chris is a larger-than-life character—a showman,” said Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London. “He has tons of energy, great charm, huge ambition, and he makes things happen. If he wants to realize a vision, he’ll see it through no matter how crazy and challenging it seems.”
“He is an extraordinarily persuasive and stubborn combatant,” noted Alanna Heiss, founder of PS1, who worked with him there. “Chris will fight to the end to defend his artistic beliefs, and his stamina is great. He is one of the most hands-on people I have ever encountered, and this will be quickly apparent at Tate Modern. He will be found in the ticket office and the cafeteria, rewriting press releases and rehanging whole shows.”
Born in Lier, a quiet city near Antwerp, Dercon is “the eldest and the black sheep” of five children of an engineer father and a mother who taught fashion design. He discovered contemporary art in his teens, and became so obsessed with performance art that he started making it himself. “I was such a bad artist!” he groaned. “So bad that I said: ‘No. Stop.’ And I went to university.”
From 1981 to 1988, Dercon variously tried his hand at selling art, curating, teaching, art criticism, dance, theater, and making documentaries for Belgian television and radio before landing a job at PS1. By 1990 he had returned to Europe, where he founded Witte de With and then became director of the Boijmans. For his first major exhibition there, the German-American conceptual artist Hans Haacke festooned the main galleries with pieces from the museum’s archive to explore the relationship between collecting and displaying. “It was the most fantastic show—a new paradigm on an epic scale,” Blazwick recalled.