Marta Minujín, "The Parthenon of Books" (2017),
 steel, books, and plastic sheeting
, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, Documenta 14 (photo by Roman März, courtesy Documenta)

Marta Minujín, “The Parthenon of Books” (2017),
 steel, books, and plastic sheeting
, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, Documenta 14 (photo by Roman März, courtesy Documenta)

Documenta, the revered German contemporary art quinquennial whose 14th edition draws to a close in Kassel this weekend, is in trouble. Exorbitant costs incurred during this year’s exhibition, which for the first time was split between its hometown of Kassel and Athens, have left the organizers grappling with a €7 million (~$8.3 million) deficit. According to German newspaper HNA, Kassel’s municipal government and the state of Hesse have each agreed to step in to serve as guarantors on €3.5 million loans taken out by Documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH, the nonprofit that organizes the exhibition.

“Documenta is inextricably linked with Kassel,” the city’s mayor, Christian Geselle, said in a statement. “We want Documenta to continue in Kassel as a world-class exhibition of contemporary art.” The mayor, who is the chairman of the supervisory board of Documenta, was informed of the financial problem at the end of August, when the organizers first realized the severity of the budget shortfall. Geselle would not confirm HNA’s numbers, but said that after a thorough audit of the nonprofit’s finances all relevant figures would be made public.

The bulk of the unanticipated expenses of Documenta 14 seem to be tied to its expansion to Athens. HNA and the Art Newspaper cite outrageously high electricity bills driven up to maintain climate control at exhibition spaces in the Greek capital during periods over the summer when the outside temperature soared above 100 degrees, as well as the high cost of transporting many artworks between the two host cities.

HNA’s report claims that the shipment of a single work, Canadian sculptor Rebecca Belmore’s “Biinjiya’iing Onji (From inside)” (2017) — a life-size camping tent made of marble — cost a six-figure sum. However, a member of Documenta 14’s curatorial team told Hyperallergic that the work’s actual shipping costs were only €6,560 (~$7,800) and were entirely covered by the Canada Council for the Arts, calling into question this and other claims made in HNA’s article.

Rebecca Belmore, “Biinjiya’iing Onji (From inside)” (2017), marble, Filopappou Hill, Athens for Documenta 14 (photo by Fanis Vlastaras, courtesy Documenta)

Despite the exhibition’s alarming deficit, the city and state governments have stepped in to ensure that Documenta’s Kassel portion remains open through September 17, as originally planned. The exhibition’s financial woes take on a note of irony when one recalls the overtones of cultural colonialism that many attributed to its expansion from Germany to Greece — especially in light of the latter country’s ongoing debt crisis, toward which the former country has maintained a hardline attitude.

So, what will Documenta’s organizers learn from Learning from AthensHow this situation will affect the 2022 edition of the exhibition remains unclear, but it’s not the only -ennial to financially overextend itself in recent years. After racking up a comparatively minor CAD $200,000 (~USD $164,000) deficit from its 2016 edition, the Montreal Biennial announced last month that it was canceling its 2018 edition. And in 2008, the splashy first edition of Prospect, the New Orleans triennial (formerly, not coincidentally, a biennial), closed with nearly $1 million in deficit, delaying its sophomore edition by a year.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...