What Brought documenta to the Brink of Bankruptcy? Auditors Find a One-Word Culprit: Athens

Costs to co-host the exhibition in Athens sent the budget spiraling.

The Fridericianum, the primary venue of documenta in Kassel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Ever since it emerged in September that curator Adam Szymczyk’s hugely ambitious, two-country documenta 14 led the historic art show to the brink of financial collapse, the art world has been wondering: What caused the enormous deficit?

Now we have an answer. The independent auditor PriceWaterhouseCooper presented its report at a board meeting for documenta’s parent company on Wednesday, estimating the deficit for fiscal year 2017 at €5.4 million ($6.3 million). According to the audit, the primary cause of the shortfall was documenta’s satellite location in Athens, which went significantly over budget because of added personnel, transportation, space, and security costs. Without Athens, the report says, documenta would have ended the year with a profit.

Although documenta’s bankruptcy was narrowly averted by emergency loan guarantees from its state owners, the bailout triggered fears of government restriction of artistic freedom. It also led to fierce debates over what went wrong, the increasing pressure to stage large-scale art events, and the viability of international biennials in general.

The board has not yet detailed any consequences as a result of the report, according to a press release on the website for the city of Kassel, which owns 50 percent of documenta’s parent company along with the state of Hesse. It is expected, however, that the board will not renew documenta CEO Annette Kulenkampff’s contract when it expires in mid 2019.

“The necessary steps must now be taken to put documenta on a solid new footing in the long term,” said documenta chairman and Kassel mayor Christian Geselle in a statement.

The first step in that process will be to commission an external evaluation of existing personnel, as well as the organizational and financial structures of the company, with an emphasis on risk management optimization.

“We already started setting the course for a successful documenta 15,” deputy chairman and Hessian culture minister Boris Rhein said in a statement. “With today’s decision we ensure that documenta can take place as planned in 2022, and that it will continue to be the primary destination for art lovers from around the world and that it will be on a solid footing in the future. Documenta is a treasure for the cultural landscape of Hesse which we must preserve.”


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