Documenta Battle Shifts from Finances to Artistic Independence

Documenta, the world’s foremost large-scale exhibition, will remain non-profit and is financially set for 2022. But two big issues relating to its artistic independence are still very much contested.

Museum Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Mathias Völzke / Documenta.

What is expected from an exhibition like Documenta? For many of its visitors and stakeholders it is surely to offer orientation, a distinct take on the present, even a definition of the world of art. However, in naming his 2017 edition “Learning from Athens”, and in splitting it up between its home venue in Kassel, Germany, and the Greek capital, artistic director Adam Szymczyk, according to his critics, instrumentalised art and exploited the event for a didactic exposition of the world’s problems.

In Germany, Documenta is mainly referred to as “die Weltkunstausstellung” – the art exhibition of the world. It has a significant history that goes back more than sixty years, and each exhibition, held every five years, is debated heavily. It relies on strong curatorial statements and is not only a vehicle for the art on display, but perhaps even more a proposition for an infrastructure for art and its discourse for the next couple of years. It offers a model; that’s why it is so important.

Only days before Documenta 14 was about to close its doors to the public, a small German newspaper, Hessische/Niedersächsische Allgemeine, suddenly had a scoop: pitting the two iterations in Athens and Kassel against each other, the newspaper proclaimed “Financial fiasco: Athens Documenta ate up 7 million Euro”. An outcry across international media followed, and reactions were swift and generally damning. The news article, published on September 13th, also mentioned that an independent audit was under way.

Arnold Bode, founder of Documenta.

As a result, Annette Kulenkampff, the executive director of Documenta, came under heavy fire. Right-wing populists even demanded that she and Szymczyk must face court trials. However, they are not the first Documenta officials to be threatened over budget issues. Of all 14 Documenta exhibitions, 12 generated a deficit, including those curated by Arnold Bode, the founding father of the institution. He was eventually ousted for his inability or unwillingness to stick to the budget. His successor for the fifth Documenta in 1972, Harald Szeemann, went over budget by a whopping 40%. He was also threatened with imprisonment. In comparison, Szymczyk and Kulenkampff went only 15% over budget. At the same time they managed the unparalleled task of realising two exhibitions in two countries – nearly for the price of one.

As is a somewhat hushed-down tradition, the state of Hesse and the city of Kassel, the proprietors of the exhibition organization, offered financial guarantees in order to make sure all payments were taken care of and to save the Documenta as an institution. However, involving an external auditing company signified a new turn of events. Art world professionals rightly feared that it was an attempt on the part of the locally based supervisory board to find a way to restructure Documenta as a whole. It was signalling the will of the politicians to put local, operational and financial aspirations first, and thereby undermine the artistic independence of Documenta.

The archive as a strategy

From the moment she took up her position in 2013, Annette Kulenkampff’s position had been to resist the reduction of the world’s art exhibition to merely being the biggest social event in the art world. Instead she wanted to give Documenta more permanence in Kassel and proclaimed it her ambition to strengthen the role of the Documenta archive, to tie it more closely to the organization, and to prolong a Documenta-professorship at the local art academy. After two months of discussions about the finances of Documenta 14, on 27 November the supervisory board and Kulenkampff announced her resignation over exactly this conflict of interests. It coincided with a turnaround in German public opinion: while Documenta 14 was running in Athens and Kassel, the verdict amongst critics had been evenly split in the for and against camps. With the announcement of the deficit, this changed and Kulenkampff became the subject of a chauvinist narrative, portrayed as a weak woman unable to keep the ego of the male artistic director at bay. And many established critics made up their minds to proclaim the exhibition not only a financial shamble, but also an artistic failure.

Harald Szeemann surrounded by artists on the last day of Documenta 5, Oct. 8, 1972. Photo: Balthasar Burkhard.

However, support of Szymczyk and Kulenkampff has also been evident. Just a few days after the publication of the news story on 13 September, Szymczyk and his colleagues published a response stating that the curatorial team had repeatedly sought and received approval of their financial decisions from all responsible parties. He added that the exhibition, even if it sold fewer tickets and books than the previous instalment, still generated 130 million euro in income for the city of Kassel and the region. Anyone was free to compare this to the 7 million euro deficit.

Parallel to this, national and international commentators started to discuss the merits of Documenta 14 in more favourable terms. Catrin Lorch (Süddeutsche Zeitung), lauded its ability to arise suspicion in the art industry. Elke Buhr (Monopol) noted that the dual exhibition actually delivered on the promise of changing perspectives. Raimar Stange (artreview) acclaimed it for successfully reflecting “on politically urgent questions such as the refugee crisis, neoliberal globalisation and right-wing politics”. And Frans Josef Petersson stated here at Kunstkritikk the need to reclaim the narrative of Documenta 14 as a radical exhibition.

Then, in December, eighty of the participating artists finally published a public letter defending the exhibition’s artistic concept and its directors. In a rather detailed account, the artists pointed out that the exhibition in Athens and Kassel should be looked at as a whole, and the idea that only the Athens edition had produced the deficit was nonsense. Also, the artists noted the structural weaknesses of the legal construction of the Documenta, with an supervisory board composed of mostly local and regional politicians.

By mid-January another public letter started circulating in social media, this time penned by the directors of five public German art institutions. By the time of writing, it has garnered upwards of 1300 signatures, including directors of top-ranking international institutions.

The fight put into five demands

The message of the letter, entitled “Open Letter on the Future of Documenta”, was condensed into five key demands for a restructuring of the Documenta organization. It called for 1) an “international expert advisory board” to help develop a set of binding criteria for the exhibition in the future, 2) to maintain the legal status of the organization as a non-profit, 3) to develop the academic backbone of the exhibition, such as the Documenta archive, 4) to adapt its budget to the ambitions of an international exhibition, and 5) to keep Annette Kulenkampff in her position, “since she has given Documenta such a promising orientation”. The five points provide a reasonable outline for summing up the debate, which at this point is more promising than only a few weeks ago.

Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of Documenta 14.

To understand the first demand, the request for an international expert board, it is necessary to look at the organizational structure of Documenta. It is co-owned by the city of Kassel and the state of Hesse, and the supervisory board is the top administrative body. It is made up of twelve representatives, five each from Kassel and Hesse, and two from the federal cultural foundation. The supervisory board appoints an international findings commission, which disassembles after it has selected the artistic director.

The rationale behind adding an “international expert advisory board” to this structure is very simple: it would safeguard the artistic ambition of Documenta. In situations when an ambitious artistic director seeks to push the institution to its limits, an international advisory board would complement the locally based supervisory board in a crucial way.

Considering the second demand, Christian Geselle, the mayor of Kassel, at the city’s new year reception on 22 January, stated that the legal status of Documenta as a non-profit organization will be maintained. This is surely a victory for the art community. It grants Documenta a high level of independence and upholds the situation where city and state hold the ultimate financial responsibility.

This will probably also affect the future of the Documenta archive, which hopefully will stay under the wings of the Documenta organization rather than the city archive. In recent years the Documenta archive has intensified its work, focusing on academic analysis, reappraisal and mediation. The Documenta archive keeps reminding the public of the history of the exhibition and its legacy, not least the evident importance of uninhibited artistic freedom.

The fourth point, the finances, also seems to move into the right direction. As mayor Geselle at the same reception announced Documenta 15 in 2022, Volker Bouffier, prime minister of the state of Hesse, was quick to promise an increased budget. It appears as if the politicians had understood that they needed to reclaim the narrative of Documenta not only as a “radical exhibition” but also as a vital institution.

Annette Kulenkampff holds the post as executive director of Documenta until
June 1st 2018.

The fifth and final cause, concerning Kulenkampff’s future, may be lost. That does not mean that her resignation was fair or wise. Many believe that letting her go was tantamount to sacrificing the least ego-driven figure involved, and one that had showed integrity throughout towards both Adam Scymzyk and Christian Geselle. She had sounded the alarm bells relating to the budget early, even before the show started, and was afterwards able to explain the necessity of every expenditure. Arguably, it was the involvement of members of the supervisory board in the local and national elections, which were going on at the same time, that lead to them not paying sufficient attention or take action.

It seems, in other words, as if the battles over Documenta’s organization and finances are about to be settled. However, the issues relating to its artistic freedom – condensed into the two demands of installing an international board of experts and developing the archive – is still open for debate.

Mayor Christian Geselle has so far not commented on said demand for a board of experts, so this question is not yet on the agenda for the existing supervisory board. It will probably require hard lobbying from the art world to call this question to their attention. When it comes to the Documenta archive, it will be up to the new executive director to secure its budget and status as a functional academic institution for the years to come. Kulenkampff herself would probably be the one best qualified to do this job, but given the way that organizations of this significance operate, it seems futile to hope for her reinstatement. Raising the point, however, hopefully brings the art world’s demands on this important position to the attention of the supervisory board who will select her successor.