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Art

Staying new made documenta successful, says outgoing director

Bernd Leifeld has been the director of documenta, one of the world's most prestigious contemporary art exhibitions, for nearly 20 years. Before moving on, he discloses documenta's recipe for success in a DW interview.

The art exhibition "documenta," which takes place every five years in the central German city of Kassel, is one of the most important events in the world for contemporary art. On April 1, 2014, Anette Kulenkampff takes over for Bernd Leifeld, who has managed documenta for almost two decades. In an interview with DW, the 64-year-old explains how documenta gained prestige over the years under his leadership.

DW: You were the head of documenta for almost 20 years and ran four documenta exhibitions since 1996. Why are you stepping down now?

Bernd Leifeld: I organized documenta four times with very different art directors. Four years ago I thoughtlessly said that I would give up my position as director general in 2014. If I had known that [Polish art critic and curator] Adam Szymczyk would be the new art director… It definitely would have been a new adventure with him. But I have made my decision. And I'm also turning 65 this summer. I'm very sad to be leaving. The job is exciting and important and I get a lot of positive feedback. The stance of documenta in the art world has become stronger and the connection to the city of Kassel has grown.

On one of the walls in your office is the phrase: "But we think we can try something new." How much has this quote from the founder of documenta Arnold Bode influenced you?

Portrait of Adam Szymczyk, Copyright: Uwe Zucchi/dpa
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As the new art director, Adam Szymczyk will be responsible for the next documenta in 2017

What's special about documenta is that you always start from scratch with every new art director. The only thing that's written in the contract with the art director is that he or she has to lead documenta, open the exhibition on time, and has to stay within the budget. Apart from that, the art director defines the exhibition. In theory, the exhibition could also take place in his or her office. That's the core of documenta. You always have to try something new. That's why I made Arnold Bode's quote my mission statement.

How has documenta changed under your leadership?

The artistist directors - during my time that was Catherine David, Okwui Enwezor, Roger M. Buergel and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev - are what strengthened documenta. We built an organization that gives the art directors the freedom they need to create new things. It was my goal to keep the institution open for new things. Technologically a lot has obviously changed. But I came up with a sponsorship strategy that's new for cultural institutions. It's unimaginable that the art director would wear the documenta logo on his shirt in a television interview, or that the logo would be displayed next to a piece of art. That's why we brought our logo to the sponsors. And that worked. In that way we gave the institution a face that suits it.

Economically speaking, documenta has also become more successful. Under your leadership the number of visitors has increased. How did you manage to do that?

The visitor is the most important sponsor. Last time we had 905,000 visitors in Kassel in 100 - that's how long one documenta exhibition lasts. And that's because we don't lower the bar but instead set it very high when it comes to our content. As a documenta visitor you are encouraged and challenged. That's how we set a benchmark. By going forward we're offering something to our audience. But the visitor also has to be able to follow. That's why we developed different ways of bringing the content across, like with the "worldly companions" - 150 Kassel residents who guide visitors through the exhibition. The secret to success is that we're an educational institution that goes forward when it comes to content, offers interesting topics, and does everything in its power to make sure the audience can follow.

A visitor of the Documenta 12 looks at a photo taken by Nigerian photograpger J. D. Okhai Ojeikere, Copyright: dpa - Bildfunk

Leifeld says documenta should challenge the audience

You've worked with very different people: confident art directors, powerful European heads of states, the Norwegian Queen, artists and the documenta visitors. After having been the director of documenta for such a long time, have you developed a strategy or a routine for how to approach people and successfully work together with them, even when they are complicated characters?

That only works without a routine and by applying your attention to the individual conversation partner. Everyone involved with documenta quickly realizes that it's a demanding task. We're not here to distract you but to make you concentrate. We stand for seriousness and responsibility. We are an educational institution and we breathe the "spirit of documenta." And the visitors can see that this works. Everyone recognizes the distinctiveness of the institution. It's clear that we're not an oasis of well-being - we help visitors concentrate on the topics we set.

What advice do you have for your successor, Annette Kulenkampff?

I don't give advice. For me the 100 days of documenta were always a time of regeneration. The main task will be to further protect this treasure and conserve it for the future.

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