The following is a translation of an interview with Annette Kulenkampff, the managing director of Documenta 14, conducted in German by Kolja Reichert. The interview was originally published in Frankfurter Allgemeine on October 2, 2017. See →.
Why has documenta been accused of mismanagement for the past few weeks? Because its managing director Annette Kulenkampff hasn’t been allowed to talk. Here, she breaks her silence.
Ms. Kulenkampff, documenta has a deficit of 5,4 million euros. To avert insolvency, the city and state approved guarantees until mid-2018 amounting to eight million euros. Where did the money go?
The deficit first became apparent in June 2017. One of the causes was that for the first time in the history of documenta we developed a security concept. This was a long process that began in the fall of 2016. The police imposed many constraints on us that simply cost additional money. This security concept was signed one day before the press conference in Kassel. Only in retrospect could we reliably calculate the costs at around 400,000 euros. We are talking about an exhibition with large dimensions; extra costs are proportionately relatively high.
Was the supervisory board informed about these extra costs?
On June 12, we notified the former chairman of the supervisory board that there was a possible deficit of two million. We had a million left in the documenta account from previous years. The shareholders would have needed to grant their approval in order for this money to be used. At this point, visitor numbers were twenty percent higher than those for the 2012 documenta. Against this backdrop, we and the then chairman of the supervisory board, Mayor Bertram Hilgen, felt that we would be able to manage. Every previous documenta worked with deficits and hoped that they would be balanced out by the visitor numbers at the end. It’s always a wager on the future. Up until the halfway point, visitor numbers rose dramatically, and at halftime they were 17 percent higher than in 2012. If things had continued this way, we would have managed, financially, as with every previous documenta. But the maximum capacity of this city and this exhibition is reached at 900,000 visitors.
So you informed the supervisory board?
We informed the respective supervisory board chairman. On July 19, we informed Mr. Geselle, Mr. Hilgen’s successor, about the situation. In addition, the energy and air-conditioning costs in Athens were higher than expected, something that was unforeseeable. We don’t know whether these costs will amount to the 400,000 euros that we had planned in.
Now we’re at 800,000 euros. 4,6 million are still missing.
The security concept also required personnel. We planned other costs quite high, too, for example the dismantling of the Parthenon. We don’t know what the grass looks like beneath it. This could cost 50,000 euros. Or it could cost 100,000 euros.
You estimated 50,000 euros?
We planned in 100,000 euros. Then the travel costs were much higher due to the nine-month long Public Programs in which 200 participants from around the world participated. Travel costs depend on current flight prices, and hotel rooms here in Kassel became considerably more expensive than they had been at previous documenta exhibitions. And in Athens we had to increase the number of security staff because there were actual attacks on the exhibition. Plus we had to pay invigilators an extra bonus. There are always people at documenta who say if you don’t do that I’m going on strike.
How much did the solution cost?
Approximately 400,000 euros. There were also higher transport costs. It became apparent relatively late that differences in packaging and security regulations had an effect. The shipments to the venues before the opening are often urgent, so due to time constraints money can’t really be saved by combining several transports. The return shipping has not yet happened, but we expect the overall shipping costs to be about 500,000 euros higher than originally planned. In the meantime VAT in Greece has risen to twenty-four percent. Of course that has an impact.
That all sounds very transparent. So why did the supervisory board engage the auditing agency PWC?
They wanted to be sure. We have a permanent independent auditor. documenta is always audited, also by the State Court of Auditors (Landesrechnungshof). There is nothing that is not audited. This is a gGmbH (a nonprofit private limited company) that partly works with public money. Our CFO Frank Petri has been doing this for thirty-five years in the same, extremely accurate way. Not a cent can be spent without our knowing what it was spent on.
There has been talk of cash transports to Athens.
Yes, we did that. In order to implement a documenta like this one you need a cash fund. We went through difficult political times in Athens. We began work before Syriza, before Tsipras, before Varoufakis, before the financial crisis, before the capital controls, which means that you can only withdraw 430 euros a week. So we brought cash with us to Athens—which is completely legal—and put it in a safe. This cash fund is accounted for just as verifiably as everything else.
Can you rule out that bribes were paid in Athens?
Can you rule out that there was illegal employment?
That means that every cent of the estimated 5,4 million euros can be accounted for?
And as soon as all of the accounting has been provided in Athens, regardless of PWC, reliable accounting books will be available?
Absolutely. The auditors were engaged because the supervisory board wanted a double audit of the situation. PWC was at our premises for two weeks and we gave them complete access.
And what remains for PWC to do until November, when the procedure is expected to be completed?
In principle, the report is finished. There are things that still have to be audited. There will be no instance of anyone doing something incorrectly. Of course, it’s always possible that we made a mistake somewhere. But no one will have spent money without our knowing what for and how.
So why did you allow the public to have this impression for weeks without doing anything?
The chairman of the supervisory board and his deputy expressed the wish that documenta itself should not make a statement.
In other words, the new Mayor Christian Geselle (SPD) and Hesse’s Minister of Cultural Affairs Boris Rhein (CDU). How much trust has been lost between you and the supervisory board?
I find it problematic that what was supposed to be confidential information was passed on from the ranks of the supervisory board. Otherwise my relationship with the supervisory board is untroubled.
The newspaper Hessische Niedersächsische Allgemeine (HNA) quoted from the not-yet-published audit report.
On September 12, the HNA suddenly reported that documenta had squandered millions. We don’t know where this information came from. I think it’s definitely a problematic situation when members of the supervisory board cannot talk about things without worrying that they will be in tomorrow’s newspaper. Many have written that we have a deficit of seven million euros. That’s simply not true.
What is true? Can one say that you have a 5,4 million euro deficit?
One can say that we might possibly have a deficit of five to six million euros. The 5,4 million euros are a projection and not the current status, as has often been wrongly reported. Right now, we still have a plus in our account. The deficit has to be viewed against the backdrop of two exhibitions that each lasted 100 days. And we succeeded. Which is a small miracle. The whole team worked day and night—which is essentially why it worked out.
Would you endorse the statement made by the curatorial team that the value creation system of large exhibitions needs to be reviewed?
It should at least be evaluated fairly. Estimated conservatively, documenta visitors spend around 200 million euros in Kassel and the region over 100 days. And Kassel airport benefited from the special flights between Athens and Kassel. I’m sure that means a slight reduction of the deficit for the shareholders, who are also the city and state, regarding the airport. So there is an enormous economic value creation, as well as a cultural one.
Does this justify the deficit?
No, those are two different things. We exceeded a budget due to circumstances that we could not foresee and that we couldn’t have influenced. This is bad; it should not have happened, and we have to bear the responsibility. But it makes sense to consider whether documenta should be financed differently. This betting on the future is very risky and not a sustainable model.
The HNA reported that when additional costs were needed for the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens (EMST), Szymczyk threatened to step down. Did something like this happen?
There is always the risk that someone will throw in the towel. It’s always a struggle. The EMST was crucial for Adam Szymczyk. And documenta 14 would not have worked without the EMST.
In such a case, do you see yourself as an advocate of the artistic director or as his opponent and an advocate of future documenta exhibitions?
Both. You are responsible for ensuring that the artistic director’s ideas are realized in the best possible way and with the financial means available.
Did you allow yourself to be put under pressure by Adam Szymczyk?
One is always under pressure when someone states: this has to happen, otherwise the whole thing won’t work. documenta is vast and there are many different interests: you aren’t dealing with just one or two artists, but with more than 160, and with more than ten curators.
Do you have a concrete suspicion about which member of the supervisory board passed on the information?
Can you explain the underlying political interests?
It was difficult that there was a new chairman of the supervisory board during the end phase and someone took over a role without being able to know everything that had happened previously. In addition, it was right before the German federal elections.
Can documenta survive in its present structure?
The structure we work in here hasn’t changed for thirty years. Nor has the number of employees in the administration, although in the meantime the documenta archive was added and the scope of documenta has increased many times in the last thirty years. documenta will be in danger if it becomes a political plaything due to its organizational structure. It might be a good idea to consider different legal or organizational forms for the company.
What do you have in mind?
The possibility of the federal government taking on a different kind of responsibility has been discussed.
Can the supervisory board survive in its current composition?
It would be helpful if apart from politicians the supervisory board were staffed with more people from the art world so that the challenges of organizing such an exhibition could be tackled by a greater number of experts.
Image of Annette Kulenkampff via Frankfurter Allgemeine.