Sabine Schormann, the director of the contemporary art exhibition Documenta held in the German city of Kassel, resigned from her role this Saturday, July 16. The news comes less than a month since the 15th edition’s opening amid a months-long maelstrom of chaos and controversy spurred by allegations of antisemitism against the event and its organizers.
In a statement announcing Schormann’s departure, Documenta’s supervisory board said recent incidents had negatively impacted public trust in the exhibition. While early accusations of anti-Jewish sentiment were mainly based on Documenta’s inclusion of artists and curators who side with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, the discovery last month of antisemitic depictions on one of the works on view renewed fears that organizers had not done enough to prevent such an outcome.
“The Supervisory Board expresses its deep dismay that clearly anti-Semitic motifs could be seen on the opening weekend of documenta fifteen,” the statement says. “The presentation of the banner ‘People’s Justice’ by the artist collective Taring Padi with its anti-Semitic imagery was a clear crossing of borders.” The work in question portrayed hundreds of military figures, among them two that embodied harmful Jewish stereotypes. Taring Padi apologized and explained that the imagery was related to the political history of the artists’ native Indonesia, but pressure mounted on the festivals’ organizers when German Culture Minister Claudia Roth demanded that they address how the “clearly antisemitic picture” came to be included in the show.
On June 23, after “People’s Justice” was covered up and eventually taken down, Schormann issued a statement in which she placed the onus on the festival’s artistic team, including its curators, the collective known as ruangrupa.
“I am not responsible for the artistic program, but for giving the Artistic Team the technical freedom to implement it,” Schormann wrote. The team, along with experts such as Meron Mendel, director of the Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt, would be tasked with investigating the exhibition for other “potential omissions,” she added.
But Mendel stepped down from his role as consultant to the exhibition a few weeks later — and days before Hito Steyerl, one of the most renowned artists in the show, withdrew her artwork from the exhibition, expressing “no confidence in the organisation’s ability to mediate and translate complexity.” In a recent interview with the New York Times, Steyerl added that Documenta’s failure to appropriately address the antisemitism allegations, “both warranted and unwarranted,” overshadowed the artwork on view and the efforts of all the artists involved.
Prior to the opening of Documenta 15, its organizers had planned a series of talks to address the antisemitism claims as well as anti-Muslim sentiment. Earlier this year, stickers featuring messages such as “Freedom not Islam!” and “Solidarity with Israel” were pasted on ruangrupa’s headquarters in Kassel. But the talks were abruptly canceled on April 5, and Documenta said it would opt to “open the exhibition and first let it speak for itself, as a basis for continuing the discussion in a productive manner.”
In its statement, Documenta’s board said an interim director would be appointed. Schormann joined as director in 2018, taking the reins in the wake of a budget deficit scandal that led to a €5.4 million shortfall in the show’s 2017 edition (then ~$6,100,000).