Members of the AfD of the Kassel city council, filed criminal charges. The head of Documenta, Adam Szymczyk, Managing Director Annette Kulenkampff and the former Supervisory Board Bertram Hilgen, are accused of embezzlement and other crimes.
The reason given by the AfD for the legal move is, inter alia, “dubious cash transactions” which were executed “deliberately taking into account a deficit of at least 5.4 million euros” that needed clarification by the public prosecutor.
Despite dire financial difficulties, and with its organisers admitting that it’s still unclear how it made use of its $44 million budget, Documenta enjoyed its 14th exhibition earlier this year with a focus on “refugees”.
In August, the AfD had criticised a sculpture by Nigerian-American artist Olu Oguibe. The work consists of a black, 16-foot obelisk etched with an unashamed political message: the bible verse Matthew 25:35: “I was a stranger and you took me in.” The phrase is repeated on each of the structure’s four sides in English, German, Turkish, and Arabic.
The AfD has described the sculpture as “disfigured art”. Kassel city council member Thomas Materner, a member of AfD, caused controversy with his description which Documenta fans said “sounded like” the Nazi term “degenerate art”.
Materner has meanwhile doubled down, calling the work “disfiguring” because of its pro-migration message. He has threatened that AfD would hold demonstrations at the monument “after each terrorist attack carried out by a refugee or immigrant”.
At the request of the Austrian newspaper, Der Standard, the Documenta responded: “There will be no statement from our side.” Kulenkampff told the Süddeutsche Zeitung however that the allegations were baseless.
Documenta’s leadership has been sued by the AfD’s council members, because they say the festival has clearly misappropriated funds, according to a report by Henri Neuendorf in artnet. Neuendorf says the scandal has set off a debate about political and economic “threats to artistic freedom”.
This year’s Documenta took place in Athens, Greece as well as Kassel, an expensive decision which meant that the state of Hesse and the city government had to step in at the last minute to act as financial guarantors, with each contributing a $4 million loan to keep the festival’s creditors from pouncing.
Faced with imminent bankruptcy, the demise of the non-profit documenta gGmbH was only averted because the state of Hesse and the city of Kassel took over guarantees.
When the dramatic news of possible bankruptcy struck, a special meeting of the Supervisory Board was held in Wiesbaden on August 28, 2017, and Documenta director Szymczyk was not invited. Also “it seems certain that Annette Kulenkampff will lose her job as documenta CEO” German daily HNA reported.
Where the millions have disappeared to, is still unclear. In the meantime independent auditors have been sent to the offices of the non-profit, and according to HNA information, the Athens site is said to have cost much more than was planned.
The number of visitors has also declined: instead of a 20 percent increase, a drop of three percent was expected. Meanwhile, official requests for information were blocked.
In September, a group of over 200 “artists and intellectuals”, including Jonas Mekas, Alvin Lucier, Antonio Negri and Geta Brătescu signed a letter in support of the festival’s leadership, reported artnet, praising Documenta’s focus on “social justice”.
“What we do not need is a neoliberal logic, as well as its institutional critique, that does not allow the possibility of alternative methods, stories, and experiences,” the letter by the “artists” read. Unsurprisingly, most depend on handouts from Documenta.
Far removed from “institutional critique”, the Nigerian sculpture is actually undiluted institutional propaganda, critics say.
The lawsuit specifically targets artistic director Szymczyk, CEO Kulenkampff, former board chairman and mayor Christian Geselle, as well as current board member and sitting mayor Bertram Hilgen.
Documenta managing director Kulenkampff instructed employees to offer the merchandising products to visitors waiting in line at the exhibition halls – offensive marketing, which can also be interpreted as a act of desperation.
Earlier this year, the AfD became the first anti-immigration party to win seats in the German parliament. The party’s busy year has also included previous conflict with Documenta.
An independent audit of the festival by PricewaterhouseCoopers is due to be published by November.