By Nancy Nesvet
As Globalism and Nationalism dominate current world news and politics, economic disparities of the Global South and northern Europe causes verbal and policy battles across all markets. We hinted in the last Business of Art blog at the consequences for documenta 14, but here provides an update on its future policy decisions.
Splitting the fair between Kassel and Athens has been cited for the 5.4-million-euro loss. Documenta’s director, Adam Szymczyk, took the job on the condition that the exhibition be split between Athens and Kassel. Half of Kassel’s 2017 documenta was financed by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, the German Federal Foreign Office and the City of Kassel. The other half came from private funds: Volkswagen and Sparkasse Finance Foundation and Kassel’s daily entrance fee. Originally, 10 percent of the budget (2 million euros) was to go to Athens, but it was later agreed that it was one exhibition and Athens was awarded more. This February 2017 decision to escalate funding was to cover the shipment of 230 works from the EMST, the Athens Museum of Contemporary Art, to Kassel. As Greece allowed cash withdrawals from banks of only 120 euros each time, employees who agreed, carried additional cash (up to 10,000 euros) to Athens. The cash went to fund the Athens exhibition.
The economic situation was the result of director Szymczyk’s philosophy and interpretation of the purpose of documenta. The original mission statement by documenta founder Arnold Bode included “to encourage conversations in contemporary arts that oppose the spectres of nationalism” in its mission statement. The reason Szymczyk took the job on the condition that documenta be split between Athens and Kassel was to include the Global South and end the eurocentrism of documenta. Although documenta had, in the past, forayed into Afghanistan and other global venues, they had never held the exhibition in the Global South. He saw the shipping of artwork from the EMST representing the trail of refugees to the European mainland. As Germany’s far right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party sued documenta for misappropriation of funds, we may sense a political bias against this documenta. As reported in Hessische/Niedersachische Allgemaine, AfD went so far as to call United States-Nigerian-based artist Olu Oguibe’s central obelisk at Kassel, “I Was a Stranger and You Took Me In,” “ideologically polarizing and deformed art.”
In December 2017, 200 artists who had participated in documentas signed a petition objecting to the show’s obsessing over profit and asking for a new structure holding Documenta outside Germany, maintaining its non-profit status, funding its public art program and funding the permanent research-based Documenta Institute in Kassel.
It seems that director Szymczyk won. And he should. The subtitle of documenta 14 was “Learning from Athens.” Not only did documenta learn to better financially administrate but to insist, as he did, on carrying out their mission. It’s great that Documenta visitors made the return journey to Athens. Next time, documenta must appropriate more money, and manage better but hey, that’s something they learned. More importantly, the art world, or at least the German funders also learned that an international exhibition cannot ignore nations not rich enough to contribute funds equally. It is enough that they are willing to share their art. World-renowned philosopher Paul Preciado interpreted Learning from Athens as “learning to see the historically dominated.” By seeing their art, we are all culturally enriched and politically enlightened.