Art Insight #3:
Annette Kulenkampff

Directing questions on the fundamental of art and society through documenta in Kassel

Kassel is a town in the state of Hessen, on the former border between East and West Germany. The town was completely destroyed during World War II. The Allied Powers targeted Kassel in a series of bombing attacks as it was the headquarter for Germany’s Wehrkreis IX military district and included several high-value targets. The Third Reich placed strict control over art and banned many aspects of it, leaving very little in the way of artistic movement even after the war. Kassel painter and professor Arnold Bode witnessed crimes against humanity perpetrated under the Nazi regime. In an act of both self-awareness and introspection, Bode sought a regenerative initiative for art. He founded the Society of Western Art of the 20th Century with his colleagues, funded by private capital. He organized exhibitions as part of an endeavor to rebuild German culture, and held the inaugural edition of documenta in 1955. Renowned art historian Werner Haftmann brought works from major movements in modern art to the Kassel show, including pieces from Cubism, Expressionism and Futurism. To the Germans, the zeitgeist of art introduced at the exhibition was completely novel, and the new information about international trends helped attract 130,000 visitors. Initially planned as a one-off exhibition, documenta’s success encouraged Bode to hold the show regularly.

Half a century out from the rubbles of war, documenta in Kassel has bloomed into one of the most prominent art events alongside the Venice Biennale.
Today, documenta holds the attention of the international art world once every five years for 100 days. The last edition attracted more than 900,000 visitors, making it the world’s most visited contemporary art event. The quinquennial show continues to evolve, having established itself as a serious site for visual art, with the discursive dynamics surrounding each documenta reflecting and challenging contemporary social expectations of art. Adam Szymcyk, the Polish art critic and curator, has been appointed the artistic director of documenta 14, slated to open in 2017. The details of the exhibition are already garnering the interest of artists and professionals around the world. In anticipation of the upcoming edition, Public Art sat down for an interview with the CEO of documenta, Annette Kulenkampff.

The venue, the buildings, teams—nothing is pre-designated. A decision must be made for each detail, and in other terms, it guarantees that all decisions are up to the discretion of the artistic director. It is worth noting that the roots of documenta lie in the city of Kassel, in ruins obliterated by the Second World War. Embracing the city’s history and heritage, documenta opens each time from a completely new foundation. - Annette Kulenkampff -

Q. What do your responsibilities as CEO of documenta entail?

As the CEO, I carry out the function of a managing director. My responsibilities span the entirety of organizing and operating the team, which also includes roles related to finance. Every documenta in Kassel is organized by a new team, so my first duty is always to put together the team for the exhibition. Once the artistic director selects the venues, I undertake the necessary coordination to make those venues available for exhibition. It is also on me to go talk to the relevant offices to garner support from the city of Kassel. Occasionally, I iron out public issues that occur in relation to documenta. To summarize, my job as the CEO is to be involved in all coordinative roles leading to a successful edition. The artistic decisions, those are the exception. Those decisions are entirely the artistic director’s responsibility.

Q. Could you illustrate the specific role of the artistic director?

The answer to that question harbors another secret to documenta. For each and every documenta, the artistic director is required to start from the ground up, creating everything anew. The venue, the buildings, teams—nothing is pre-designated. A decision must be made for each detail, and in other terms, it guarantees that all decisions are up to the discretion of the artistic director. It is worth noting that the roots of documenta lie in the city of Kassel, in ruins obliterated by the Second World War. Embracing the city’s history and heritage, documenta opens each time from a completely new foundation.

Q. Is the theme for each documenta also at the discretion of the artistic director?

It is absolutely the decision of the artistic director. The CEO organizes a committee of experts, and the committee names the new artistic director. The entire process is independent, and once the decision is made, what the committee does is entirely at their own discretion. Take for example Adam Szymczyk, designated as the next artistic director for documenta. He will be making a presentation on the concept for the documenta, and the committee has no right to reject the concept that he presents. The only thing left for the committee is to say “Yes.” And of course, the mayor of Kassel, who is the committee’s de facto director, also has no choice but to agree to the concept.

Q. Is the theme set for the next documenta?

There is a theme under discussion, but that is all I can say. Participating artists have not yet been decided upon, and we will announce them next year.

Q. Documenta is held once every five years. Considering that other biennales open every two years, would you say the longer period between shows leads to any particular differences?

As you know, biennale means “every two years.” Kassel documenta opens every four to five years, so by definition, it is not a biennale. In its early years, documenta opened every four years. Presently it is every five years. Personally, I think this is one of aspect of what makes Kassel documenta so successful. Five years is time enough for art to undergo significant changes, and it provides the artistic director just over four years to prepare an exhibition that reflects those changes. So in comparison with biennales, documenta has a much longer preparation period. Sculpture Projects Münster is another major art exhibition in Germany, and it opens once a decade. Ten years is slightly drawn-out period to sufficiently reflect new developments in the arts, but a five-year term is very reasonable for new creations to transpire and their reflections made.

  • Q. How do the citizens of Kassel perceive documenta?

    Kassel is officially referred to as “City of documenta,” and the people are increasingly proud of that designation. But it took a long time to get there. In some regards, contemporary art seems to be in a perpetual struggle, and in relation to that, I have a noteworthy anecdote. German artist Joseph Beuys planted 7,000 oak trees over several years in Kassel, first publicly presented in 1982 at documenta 7. Kassel is not a large city, and when an artist does something like that, everyone in the city is eventually confronted by the art. Not all were amicable or even tolerant of the oak trees being planted around the city, and it was only after considerable time that the 7,000 oak trees were recognized as a positive and important part of Kassel’s cityscape. That anecdote is a reminder of the uncertainty and fragile nature of art. Originality and creativity is always met with daunting resistance. Finding a middle ground or an agreement can be quite formidable. People like to see new things, things that are completely original and innovative. But there is an extent to that. The newness cannot be something completely unheard of.

  • Q. Harald Szeemann directed documenta 5 in 1972, where he took a wildly revolutionary approach to his selection of works and curation, causing friction with municipal authorities that were relatively conservative. How are those circumstances reinterpreted in retrospect?

    Szeemann was the first documenta artistic director chosen from outside. He was also the youngest artistic director in Kassel, and highly experimental. His focus was not on conventional art forms such as paintings and sculptures, but rather converged on photography and performances that were not, at the time, accepted as art. Szeemann completely changed everything that was documenta. It was through Szeemann’s documenta 5 that the current system of entrusting the newly selected artistic director with complete discretionary freedom was first established. As with any other contemporary art event, documenta also has had its share of political issues and backlash from citizens. Through such challenges and happenings, documenta built its own successes, and the controversies and debates became the means for documenta’s continual growth in terms of artistic magnitude and economic prosperity.

Q. Could you share any tips on fundraising?

Public finance around the world is going through increasingly difficult times, and because of this, fundraising is also increasingly becoming a challenge. “Kassel” has become both a keyword and an icon in itself, which can be quite helpful, but I understand there are other exhibitions and biennales are increasingly facing steeper slopes. Finding sponsors for documenta is not a great challenge. The challenge, in our case, lies in understanding the which, what, and whos of our sponsors, which is vital to documenta, and requires careful consideration. It is worth noting here the Kassel documenta sponsor does not participate in any capacity, save a logo on the exhibition catalogue. I believe that the lack of affiliation to any market or commercial means is a sine qua non for documenta that is also a virtue to be succeeded and guarded. On that note, my tip would be to ensure a clear communication channel with the sponsor, and concretely explain what is needed. So for every documenta, we put in a lot of time and effort toward accurately conveying and appealing to the sponsor, the concept and contents as decided by the artistic director.

Q. What would you say is most essential element to any contemporary art exhibition?

I would say it would be providing unrestricted freedom to artists and curators. Contemporary art has always chosen uncomfortable subject matters as its central theme, inducing discussions and debates surrounding it. Successful and outstanding art events are only possible when those responsible for the political and financial aspects of the events support (or approve of) uninhibited freedom. Political involvement leading to loss of ideas and artistic aspects in the planning process would spell the end of the documenta spirit.

Q. What are your upcoming plans for the future?

What I want to do is to tell people about Kassel, about its history and documenta. For that, we are planning a historical tour and a documenta tour. A historical tour of Kassel can be a sensitive subject, but it is also a very important one. Good planning and implementation of the tours will help countless visitors gain a better understanding of documenta. There is much to be done in the next two years before the next edition. ■ with ARTINPOST

  • Gerhard Richter <Portrait of Arnold Bode>

    1964 Courtesy of the artist Image Courtesy of ARTINPOST

  • Wilhelm Lehmbruck <Kneeling Woman>

    1911 1st documenta 1955 Courtesy of the artist Image Courtesy of ARTINPOST

  • Henry Moore <Draped reclining woman>

    1957 documenta II 1959 Courtesy of the artist Image Courtesy of ARTINPOST

  • Ernst Wilhelm Nay <3 paintings in space>

    1964 documenta III 1964 Courtesy of the artist Image Courtesy of ARTINPOST

  • Christo <5600 cubicmeter package>

    1968 documenta 4 1968 Courtesy of the artist Image Courtesy of ARTINPOST

  • Harald Szeemann

    Artistic director of documenta 5 1972 Image Courtesy of ARTINPOST

  • Joseph Beuys <Planting of the first tree of “7000 oaks” in 1982>

    documenta 7 1982 Courtesy of the artist Image Courtesy of ARTINPOST

  • Jonathan Borofsky <Man walking to the sky>

    1992 DOCUMENTA IX 1992 Courtesy of the artist Image Courtesy of ARTINPOST

  • Body Isek Kingelez <New Manhattan City>

    2001/2002 Documenta 11 2002 Courtesy of the artist Image Courtesy of ARTINPOST

  • Ai WeiWei <Template>

    2007 documenta 12 2007 Courtesy of the artist Image Courtesy of ARTINPOST

  • Guiseppe Penone <Ideas of Stone>

    2004/2008/2010 dOCUMENTA (13) 2012 Courtesy of the artist Image Courtesy of ARTINPOST

  • Aerial View of Friedrichsplatz with documenta-Halle and Fridericianum, two of the venues of documenta 14 (2017)

    Image Courtesy of ARTINPOST


Annette Kulenkampff was born in Hannover, Germany, in 1957. She earned her MA in Art History at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Since early 2014, she has been the CEO of documenta und Museum Fridericianum Veranstaltungs. From 1980 to 1988, Kulenkampff co-managed the Galerie Gering-Kulenkampff in Frankfurt. Then from 1989 to 1994, she headed the Publishing Department of the Bundeskunsthalle (art and exhibition hall of the Federal Republic of Germany) in Bonn. Since 1998, she served as the managing director of the Baden-Württemberg Artists’ Association in Stuttgart, and as its president from 2005 to 2013. She was also previously the director at Hatje Cantz Verlag publishing house near Stuttgart. From 2009 to 2013, she served as the managing director of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, and since 2011 has been the chairperson of Friends of the Stuttgart Literature House.

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