As it turned out, it was too new and too epic for the Dutch arts establishment. “I was very unhappy at the Boijmans, and they got very unhappy with me,” Dercon explained. “I was way too young and inexperienced to radicalize an institution so fast.” He left for Haus der Kunst, where his first exhibition featured the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s shrunken sculpture of the man who had commissioned the building in 1933—Adolf Hitler.
“Seeing this hyper-realistic little Hitler was so shocking for everyone because of the history of Haus der Kunst,” said Konstantin Grcic, the Munich-based industrial designer and a close friend of Dercon’s. “We Germans have had to learn how to deal with that period of our history, but it is still problematic. Chris came here as a Belgian, saying, ‘Let’s be honest about it.’”
He roped in Herzog and de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas, a friend of Dercon’s from Rotterdam, to advise him on what to do with the building. The white paint and paneling covering the floors, the Nazi symbolism, and many of the walls were stripped away; the World War II bomb shelter in the basement is being converted into a film and video art gallery. Dercon is to return to Haus der Kunst for the gallery’s opening on April 9, and again in the fall for his grand finale, an exhibition he is curating about another of his “obsessions,” the mid-20th-century Italian designer Carlo Mollino.
At Tate Modern, Dercon faces very different challenges. He spent eight months shuttling between there and Haus der Kunst, getting to know his new team (“incredible”) and the collection (“astonishing treasures”), and has now settled in London, where his partner, the German gallerist Sonja Junkers, will join him this summer. His new institution is not only much bigger than Haus der Kunst but much more successful, critically and commercially, than the latter was when he arrived.
However, Dercon is undaunted by Tate Modern’s massive scale. “That’s the attraction,” he said. “I’ve done difficult things for 100,000 people; now I want to do them for 300,000 or 400,000.” Isn’t he wary of the financial challenge of raising more than $150 million in a deepening UK recession when the government is slashing arts funding? “No! And I’ll tell you why—because I am absolutely addicted to fundraising!”
He will surely face the scrutiny of the voracious British media, which rarely resists poking fun at Tate and is seemingly unable to understand how the museum could have become so successful by taking something as baffling as contemporary art so seriously. He also seems unintimidated by what many in the art world suspect may be his biggest challenge: forging a working relationship with his new boss, the patrician über director Sir Nicholas Serota, whose calculated restraint has so far defined Tate’s public persona and who is known for his intellect and political finesse but not for delegation. “Don’t forget that I’ve had incredibly interesting sparring partners before, like Alanna Heiss—wow!” Dercon said, laughing. “I’m used to being challenged. People expect to be challenged by me. And Nick has known me for 15 years.”