Bernd Leifeld, Executive Director of the documenta and Museum Fridericianum Veranstaltungs GmbH, interviewed by art journalists Nicole Büsing and Heiko Klaas.

Mr. Leifeld, please introduce yourself briefly and describe your position with the documenta.

My name is Bernd Leifeld. I’m the Executive Director of an organization with a complicated name and a simple task. The name is documenta und Museum Fridericianum Veranstaltungs GmbH (documenta and Fridericianum Museum Event Company). The “company” has two tasks: organizing the documenta every five years, and being in charge of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in between documentas. Each has its own artistic director; right now Rein Wolf is at the Fridericianum. The company is in charge of both areas. So we always have to deal with two different artistic directors, whose tasks are also oriented in very different directions.

How long have you been doing this? You’ve been here for a while and have lived through and organized several documentas.

Yes. I began on January 1, 1996, with a crisis situation. The company had parted with its executive director and Catherine David was all alone here. I came in as the new executive director. It was a very important step for me, because up until then, I’d spent about twenty years working in various functions in the theater. I ended my theatrical career at one stroke and took on this new job. I also took on a new role, in which I said very clearly: I don’t know anything about art, but I make art possible. I don’t get mixed up in matters of content and art. So far, that’s worked extremely well with various partners.

What kind of experiences do you bring with you from the theater? Which ones have been the most helpful?

To put it somewhat sentimentally, a theater director must have also smelled the fear of an actor in the dressing room before a premiere. You just have to know the circumstances under which artists live, how their thinking is structured, what kind of psychological sensitivities are involved. That’s something I bring with me. I don’t administrate things to death, but I try to make projects possible.

You just said that when you started, you had no knowledge of the visual arts, but that must have changed a great deal over the past sixteen years, right?

Yes, but I’m talking about my role. And in my role, I always say that I don’t understand a thing about it. The fact that I’m personally interested in art does not get mixed up with my professional position. Of course, I’m a little bit coy about it, but that’s a very clear description of my position. I would never have a content-related debate with an artistic director, because then I would be suspected of doing that for other reasons—economic or publicity-related, for example. So I don’t get involved in these debates.

During the time you’ve been here, you’ve dealt with four different artistic directors. What is it like, always starting from the beginning, getting to know each other? Has that been very different every time?

Yes, the people you do wind up knowing somewhat are very different types of people, and also represent very different aspects of art. Of course, that makes things especially interesting, because nothing is ever repeated at the documenta. There are always new questions, and paths that you travel together. Naturally, the more experience I gather, the more careful I have to be not to establish this or that as the norm. I always try to be open to new situations, not to see things as fixed just because we did something in a particular way in the past.

So you see yourself as someone who provides help, as someone who supports each new artistic director who comes to the city?

Yes. I tell them about what we’ve done in the past. Then they can decide if they want to repeat it or not. I bring experiences with me, but do not regard them as absolutely fixed.

There are still a few months until the opening of the documenta. What does an average work day look like?

That actually changes a lot. At the beginning—meaning, after the last documenta—I began the process of looking for the next artistic director. We met several times with an international search committee. That led to us finding the artistic director and presenting her in 2008. She began her job as of January 1, 2009. I was her first and only point of contact. There wasn’t anyone else. Then we hired an assistant, and later, a personal assistant, someone she’d worked with at the Biennial in Sydney. For a long time, we really had a very small team. Later, then, we were joined by more employees.

So you basically always start at zero every time?

Yes, even the artistic director actually starts at zero. For instance, the Fridericianum and the documenta Hall are the only exhibition sites we have. We have to develop everything else. But there are advantages and disadvantages to that—for example, having to find new things, new sites, such as an old brewery or the Kulturbahnhof or a glass palace in front of the Orangerie. Those are always content-related decisions. In the phase when the artists are here, they are very busy learning about the history of the city of Kassel, about certain aspects of it that were interesting to these artists. I like it better when there’s a lot going on, as there is now. There are many people there with whom you can and must have discussions. Naturally, that changes what you do. To briefly answer the question, what do I do: it is, quite simply, the attempt to bring things together.

But now you’re in the home stretch, right?

Now things are already shifting a little toward shaping these one hundred days. There are already many inquiries from politicians, celebrities, and sponsors. Taking care of the sponsors is also one of my jobs. That’s a task I have carried out here quite consistently. We’ve conducted several surveys in the past and have asked visitors what sort of relationship they have to the sponsors. All of the sponsors were recognized, to put it scientifically, and their presence here has been evaluated as positive.

Even though, unlike sporting events, the theme is handled in a relatively reserved way . . .

Yes, we don’t have any logos on the Friedrichsplatz; no sponsor logos next to the works of art. We give the sponsor our logo, so that it can use it in its advertising, for instance. We’ve developed a very strict strategy that relies on discretion and what might nowadays be called “creating communicative experiences.” That means we give the sponsor the chance—to put it arrogantly—to share in some of the “glamour” of our organization. After all, this kind of organization has a global reputation. On the other hand, things here move along rather unassumingly. This is not a conference room, but my office. And I cleared the desk so that we could have a conversation here. We don’t need to be imposing here, because the image of the organization is already imposing enough.

When the documenta is running, then all kinds of people come from all over the world . .

Precisely. We get the museum groups, the Friends of the MoMA, for example. And the Norwegian queen has been here. Or politicians. For me, the president of the EU commission, José Manuel Barroso, has been one of the most interesting politicians so far. Last time, I think he took two or two-and-a-half days to see the exhibition. There are also politicians who are just looking for a photo op. Barroso was really interested. The artistic director guided him through the show, and it was really a conversational tour, because he was very knowledgeable about art and politics.

Perhaps we can now speak about the role that the city of Kassel plays. Kassel is, after all, the host for these one hundred days, a place where an international, first-class audience will come, some of them with very high expectations. How does this affect the city’s infrastructure and finances?

That is a complicated topic. When I first arrived here, I found out that the number of hotel beds had doubled between the documenta 9 and documenta 10. There are studies of the financial consequences of the documenta. Last time they stated that the documenta brought revenue of 100 million euros to the city. There are the hotel beds, on one hand. But there are also the things that visitors do, such as taking a taxi to the hotel, going out to eat, perhaps buying a newspaper or a book. And then there are the other things that we carry out. Printing the admission tickets, decorating the exhibition spaces.

Local craftspeople do that, after all. In this way we bring economic power to the city. And I believe—and politicians are aware of this—that we don’t actually receive subsidies, but an investment grant, which we then give back indirectly to the city through taxes. In this respect, we are also an unusual cultural institution. We do a lot with the small amount of money that we receive. We get four million euros from the city of Kassel over a period of five years. We receive the same amount from the state, and three million from the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (federal cultural foundation). That means that less than fifty percent of our budget is funded by public monies.

And the rest is earned through admissions?

We have to come up with the rest ourselves. Ticket sales are crucial. The biggest sponsor is the visitor. Then there are international foundations, which partially fund the artists from their countries. And we’ve also founded a patrons’ group; Dr. and Mrs. Oetker encourage people to join the Friends of the documenta, to commit to the institution by making symbolic contributions, or sometimes larger ones. It’s not a legal entity, but a casual group, and we provide special privileges for them in advance of the documenta. We went to the last Biennial in Venice. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev led a tour with some artists who may be here at the dOCUMENTA (13). We’re very discreet about the list of artists, as you know. Perhaps this artist will also come to Kassel. And perhaps we’ll have a dinner then. We did the same thing at Art Cologne and Art Basel. It’s important to attract a group like that, perhaps give them a glimpse behind the curtain, let them follow the process as the Documenta develops.

And how do you activate the local audience? After all, the documenta only takes place once every five years.

I personally work to contradict something Harald Szeemann once said. Nothing against Harald Szeemann; he’s our big hero here. But he once let something slip. Szeemann said, “After the documenta, the lights always go out in Kassel.” I think that’s a cynical attitude to take toward all of the citizens who live in this city. We do exactly the opposite at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum. You also follow what Rein Wolfs has done. I think it’s perfectly good work, which has a different dimension than the documenta does. After all, you can’t be doing the documenta all of the time. But the bar is set rather high already. His expectations are enormous. We’ve succeeded in awakening an interest in contemporary art in Kassel’s population with this high-quality program. If the documenta only lands in the city like a UFO, then it remains eccentric or exotic. With Rein Wolfs, we’re doing educational work with the public. The special thing about the documenta is that the number of visitors continues to grow. It could also go the other way.

I’m not going to obsess over large numbers. But the increasing attendance is a sign that we are indeed attracting our audience. Last time people were asked if they would come back, and seventy percent said yes, we’ll come back in five years. That is extremely unusual. And there’s another thing that you’ve already heard from me twenty times before, which is: we never repeat yesterday’s successes; we create new problems to solve. Here, I feel like an ambassador for the documenta, in the sense that I explain to people that that’s our job. We’re not the Europapark in Rust, whose only goal is to increase attendance; we’re an educational institution. And that’s why it’s so much fun to work here, because we also have a great audience that is always ready to explore unknown territory. Last time, for example, we simply insisted that there would only be two-hour tours.

There are no one-hour tours at the documenta. The documenta sets it up that way, and people accept that, too. And I think it’s great when an institution has developed an image like that over the years—that you have to put some effort into seeing the documenta. But people are ready to take that path. That’s also our job, too, I think, because there’s enough distraction. We’re in favor of concentration. And that’s the strength behind this institution.

Looking ahead to the upcoming documenta, what will distinguish it from the previous show? What are your expectations? What are some of the things that might become lasting memories of the dOCUMENTA(13)?

I believe that we will have a very lively exhibition. There are certain terms that have negative connotations; for example, I always avoid the word “event.” But if you take the word in a neutral sense, there will be things that have an event-like character, in the sense that there will not simply be an opening of an exhibition that will close again in one hundred days. Rather, it will be very animated. There will be many different formats that provide the public opportunities for direct encounters.

So, it will be a documenta that you should perhaps ideally see several times?

Yes. Without wanting to be accused of simply being salespeople, we’re recommending that everyone in Kassel buy a season ticket. Because there will be something new to discover every day for one hundred days. I’m absolutely certain of that.

What do you recommend that non-locals do?

Spend as much of an entire weekend as you can manage. Or better yet: arrive on a Sunday and leave the following Thursday. Because we’re also open on Mondays.

A new attendance record will probably be set, don’t you think?

I never talk about that. I’ve also got a comeback, when I’m asked about attendance numbers: next time, we’ll have just as many visitors as we did the last time, plus one. We’re working here day and night for just that one.

May 29, 2012
Veröffentlicht am: 27.03.2023