Documenta Is in Full Meltdown as Curatorial Search Committee Resigns En Masse

Announcing their resignation, the committee questioned whether "there is a space in Germany for an open exchange of ideas."

A Documenta poster hangs in front of the pillars of the Fridericianum during the opening day of the Documenta 15 modern art fair on June 18, 2022 in Kassel, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

The entire curatorial search committee for Documenta 16 has stepped down in response to the recent resignations of two of its members, Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger and Ranjit Hoskote, each for different reasons relating to the Israel-Hamas conflict. The shock move comes amid wider turmoil within Germany’s cultural sphere over what should be protected as free speech.

The Finding Committee, originally a team of six, was tasked with appointing the curator(s) for Documenta 16, which is slated to take place in 2027. The quinquennial in the German city of Kassel is one of the most important events on the contemporary art world calendar, rivaling even the Venice Biennale.

The resignations of Hoskote and Ettinger were announced on November 13. The committee’s remaining four membersGong Yan, Simon Njami, Kathrin Rhomberg, and María Inés Rodríguezannounced their resignations just three days later, on November 16.

The group co-signed a letter in which they said that the “emotional and intellectual climate of over-simplification of complex realities and its resulting restrictive limitations” made it “impossible for us to conceive of a strong and signal exhibition project, and consequently to allow for a responsible continuation of the selection process to determine a curatorial concept for Documenta 16.”

Hoskote, a cultural theorist and curator, stepped down just four days after the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported, on November 9, that he had signed a petition condemning an event planned by the Israeli Consulate General at the University of Mumbai in 2019. The event explored the relationship between right-wing Zionism and Hindu nationalism.

When this news was made public, Germany’s culture minister threatened to withdraw state funding from Documenta 16. Shortly afterwards, Documenta asked Hoskote to publicly distance himself from the petition. Instead, he chose to resign, saying his sympathy for the Palestinian people had been misrepresented as supporting Hamas. He added: “It is clear to me that there is no room, in this toxic atmosphere, for a nuanced discussion.”

Documenta’s managing director, Andreas Hoffmann, thanked Hoskote for his decision in light of the charges of anti-Semitism made against Documenta 15. “We need to consistently distance ourselves from all forms of anti-Semitism,” he said. “The events of summer 2022 must not be repeated. This is the only way to achieve a genuine new beginning.” For his part, Hoskote feared the events could “negate Documenta’s historic openness to a diversity of positions.”

Visitors to Documenta 15 stand in front of the Fridericianum after the opening. The institution’s columns were painted with black paint by Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi and inscribed with white symbols and signs on themes such as peace, solidarity or sustainability. Photo: Uwe Zucchi / picture alliance via Getty Images.

Separate to Hoskote’s departure, Israeli artist and theorist Lichtenberg Ettinger also resigned, citing her distress over the situation in the Middle East, which “is tragic from all angles.” In the first instance, she requested that the selection process be paused due to her “incapacity to be effective” during meetings held from October 12–13, connecting remotely from Israel and “paralyzed under rockets.” As the proceedings had reached an advanced stage, her request was not granted.

After these departures were announced on November 13, the remaining four members and Documenta’s management considered a range of paths forward. These included postponing the selection process during the Israel-Hamas conflict or finding replacements and completely restarting the search. In the end, the remaining committee members decided they no longer wished to participate.

In a letter explaining its decision, the group acknowledged that “in view of its past, Germany has distinct social and political responsibilities. The great sensitivity towards all anti-Semitic tendencies bears eloquent witness to the extent to which the nation has internalized this responsibility.” It said this “deserves the greatest appreciation, especially now, when alarming signs of deep-rooted anti-Semitism are once again making themselves felt around the world.”

However, “this awareness of special responsibilities runs the risk of being misused for opinion politics in order to suppress undesirable approaches and their broad and open discussion right from the start,” the group warned. “Instead of debate and discussion, over-simplification and prejudgments are thus all too easily substituted.”

These conclusions seemed to imply that the political climate at present is not suitable for organizing an event like Documenta 16. “In the current circumstances we do not believe that there is a space in Germany for an open exchange of ideas and the development of complex and nuanced artistic approaches that Documenta artists and curators deserve,” they said. “We do not believe that any acceptable conditions can be created in short term and consider it to be disrespectful of Documenta’s legacy to simply remain content with the current situation.”

In a statement in response to the resignations, Documenta said that it “respects this decision and thanks everyone involved for their commitment.” The organization said there would be a revamp of the selection committee, but did not comment on whether Documenta 16 would proceed in 2027 as originally planned.


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