documenta 14 Employees Carried Bags of Cash to Athens and Other Irregularities From the Startling Auditor’s Report

The full report, out in November, may carry legal consequences for those responsible.

Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk with first team members of documenta 14. Photo ©Nils Klinger, courtesy of documenta.

Will the truth about documenta 14’s deficit ever come to light?

One week after the preliminary auditor’s report, the central question still persists: Where did the money go? As the company behind the quinquennial, documenta gGmbH, and artistic director Adam Szymczyk keep mum on the matter, and as the board’s remarks still err on the side of caution even after the shareholders approved the €8 million in guarantees this past Monday, it seems like it’s up to regional press to do the digging.

And they are revealing scads of aberrations.

According to a recent report by the Swiss paper NZZ, unexpected costs in Athens, combined with personal and political interests, led to lack of oversight—and, allegedly, borderline-illegal money transports.

The first warning signs came in the fall of 2016, when 60 additional artists were added to the list of participants. Back then, the CEO of documenta gGmbH, Annette Kulenkampff, asked for a budget increase from €29 to €34 million (just over $40 million), making assurances to the press in March that her claim had nothing to do with an unforeseen deficit.

documenta is financed by the State of Hesse and by the City of Kassel, which are the shareholders, and is also supported by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes, the Federal Cultural Foundation. The position of chair of the supervisory board traditionally goes to the mayor of Kassel, and Bertram Hilgen held this office from 2005 to 2017.

Half of documenta’s budget is provided in advance, while the other half remains to be generated by documenta through ticket sales, fundraising, and sponsorships.

According to HNA, which was the first outlet to break news of the deficit, the initial report by auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) shows that another surprise soon followed: In February 2017, Szymczyk advanced a new idea to transport the collection of the cash-strapped Athens Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) to Kassel—a budget-busting conceit that would involve shipping some 230 additional works of varying sizes from Greece—and threatened to resign if his plan was rejected.

Hilgen reportedly agreed to Szymczyk’s plan without informing the shareholders (the report by PwC does not indicate whether this constitutes a breach of trust). What’s clear is that the concept of bringing documenta to Athens, with which Szymczyk won the position of artistic director in the first place, was approved on condition that only 10 percent of the overall budget would go to the Greek part of the show. At the beginning of the year, €2 million was earmarked for Athens, but in the spring documenta announced that the budget could not be broken down by location, as it was “a single artistic project.”

Another eyebrow-raising detail in the report is the fact that on June 12, Kulenkampff informed the board chair, Hilgen, that a deficit of €2 million was to be expected. But on July 13, she went on German radio saying, “there are no financial inconsistencies which we would not have explained, or which we cannot explain. And there is also no lack of transparency. No, they do not exist.” By July 31, the deficit had grown to just under €7 million.

And yet, Kulenkampff did not inform the new chair of the board, Christian Geselle, of the deficit until four weeks later. (Hilgren’s mandate ended on July 22.)

Although the supervisory board is obliged with the duty of confidentiality, it appears that a whistleblower leaked the news to the HNA, or the public would have never found out about the near-bankruptcy of the internationally renowned exhibition. However, some of the more curious details didn’t need to be leaked.

In a public lecture this past August, Kulenkampff divulged that “anyone who dared took cash with them, up to €10,000,” when flying to Athens. Even interns were asked to carry coffers full of euros, allegedly because cash withdrawals in Greece are capped at €120, and many of the service-suppliers in Athens demanded cash payments.

Another detail obvious to documenta visitors was that many of the works from the Athenian EMST collection, which were shown at the Fridericianum in Kassel, had been acquired in 2016 or 2017, while the show was being prepared. Whether documenta funds were used to purchase works that are now permanently owned by EMST is not yet clear. The full report by PwC is expected to be released in November, and may carry legal consequences for those found responsible.

artnet News has reached out to documenta gGmbH with a request for comment, but did not receive an answer by the time of publishing.

While many questions remain to be answered, it seems that documenta’s insistence on silence fuels the fire. Rumors, meanwhile, have begun to circulate in the German press that Adam Szymczyk may soon be named the director of EMST in Athens.

One thing is sure, though: the money was not spent on personnel. In July, the HNA reported that staff in Athens were initially offered an hourly wage of €9, but the contract went to the agency Manpower, which paid temporary workers only €5.62 per hour. “This may sound meager, especially compared to the figure that was previously communicated,” a company spokesperson told the paper, “but this is still more than €2 above minimum wage in Greece.”

Update, October 2: EMST director Katerina Koskina replied with the following comment:

No documenta funds were used by EMST in order to enrich the museum’s permanent collection of artworks. Whether some of the artworks that were part of our “ANTIDORON. The EMST collection” exhibition were acquired during 2016 and 2017 is a matter of the museum’s acquisition policy and does not relate to documenta 14.

It is EMST’s policy and right to continuously enrich its permanent collection with artworks; especially now that we have overcome the administrative obstacles preventing the museum from fully operating in its new premises in Athens.

The EMST and documenta 14 collaboration was conceived and realized according to the rules and standards of professional exchange between cultural institutions with a common aim of supporting art and culture while leaving no room for speculation of any kind of unclear exchange.

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