A high amount of public money was spent last year on contemporary artworks by the Central Bank of Hungary. The investment seems impressive, especially compared to the annual support of the National Cultural Fund that aims to help museums to expand their collections with new acquisitions. In 2019 the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art in Budapest received ca. 60 000 EUR from the National Cultural Fund to purchase artworks by Hungarian artists. Meanwhile in 2020 an LTD affiliated with the Central Bank of Hungary bought artworks by János Fajó for ca. 970.000 EUR and this was followed by lots of other purchases. Kata Vizi, artistic director of the Ybl Creative House, an exhibition space established by the Central Bank of Hungary, described the project as a way of sponsorship or a support for the art scene during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus the project started already in 2019, before the pandemic hit Hungary, there is only limited information available about it.
The impetus of the Central Bank of Hungary to purchase artworks started intensely in 2014. The bank established the program called Depository Program (Értéktár Program) that aimed to repatriate significant artworks by Hungarian artists that ended up in foreign countries during history and consign them to museums as temporary loans. The program, in which the Central Bank planned to spend 100 million EUR on artworks, ended in 2018 with a bit less than half of the budget spent.
A massive ministry was established in 2010 for health, education and culture, called The Ministry of Human Resources. “The power that the cultural ministry had back in 2007, when it was still influencing the cultural policy, no longer exists. The government outsourced the opportunities of decision making to influential people in various fields of culture. For example to László Baán, director of the Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery or to Attila Vidnyánszky, director of the National Theatre, and head of the committee of the University of Theatre and Film. What really shapes the landscape is the interest of the investors with governmental affiliations. I see the role of the Central Bank in this context.” – said József Mélyi, art critique and curator, who published a number of essays on Hungarian cultural policy in the past ten years. Clearly, when the director of the Central Bank of Hungary, György Matolcsy wanted to build an art collection, nobody would really interfere with him.
A selection committee of three was set up including the director of the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, dr. Julia Fabényi, art historian Katalin Keserü, art writer, committee member of Tate Modern and Centre Pompidou and collector Katalin Spengler. The committee is responsible for recommending artists for the customer which – according to the contracts – is the LTD focusing on real estates of the Central Bank. Although there is a second committee in the inner circle of the Bank, apparently, the final decisions are made by György Matolcsy, head of the Central Bank, who influences the character of the collection as well, as someone who knows the selection process implied.
I wanted to interview Katalin Spengler, but she did not want to make a statement referring to her NDA with the Central Bank. I reached out to another committee member, dr. Julia Fabényi for comment. “Right after we’ve been asked to be committee members, we formulated a concept of collecting, independently from each other. It became clear that we represent three different tastes, but we think about contemporary art similarly. When selecting the artists there was a consensus whose works we consider essential to be included in the collection of the Central Bank.” – as Fabényi explained.
A few articles reported about the acquisitions that mirror the preferences behind the investments. Contemporary paintings by artists of the Neo-avant-garde generation of the 1960s and 1970s such as Dóra Maurer, László Lakner, Imre Bak, István Nádler and Ilona Keserü are now parts of the collection of the bank. From the younger generation of artists, paintings by Gergő Szinyova and Márton Nemes were purchased for instance. Following the current Hungarian law, deals under 280 000 EUR do not have to be publicly announced. Although this article focuses on the contemporary artworks of the collection, it has to be mentioned that artworks by established or classical artists such as Dezső Korniss and József Rippl-Rónai were bought by the Central Bank as well.
As Gábor Pados, owner and founder of acb, the gallery that represents Imre Bak commented: “I think it is impossible to summarize my opinion shortly about such an unprecedented initiative in the Hungarian contemporary art scene. The polarized cultural and political environment in Hungary makes it even more difficult to express a short opinion. I think the contemporary artwork purchasing project of the Central Bank is one of the most positive phenomena in the past twenty years. Explaining this is much more complex than sharing a few sentences.”
I talked to other gallerists but they either said they do not want their names mentioned or that they want to protect their represented artists’ interests in case of a future purchase of the Central Bank.
The disproportions of spending public money in a small, formerly neglected field of culture, the contemporary art scene are noticeable. Some galleries have earned their yearly income multiple times thanks to the purchases of the Central Bank. “It is unpredictable at the moment how this one time, radical intervention will influence the market. Certainly this is not how the market organically develops. Eventually, it may have a positive effect as the prices definitely increased, but for now, it is unforeseeable.” – as commented by Barnabás Bencsik, director of Glassyard Gallery, former director of the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary art.
According to Julia Fabényi, the purchases will have a positive effect on the international recognition of Hungarian contemporary art: “I think it is great that the Central Bank spends on contemporary art, and acquires works at a very good price. It is not just a one time support for the artists but also values Hungarian contemporary art globally and places it in an international market environment. We also have to see that we have fallen short in terms of prices, which is good for the buyer, but not good in terms of international judgment. And if that is already the case, then the Central Bank has contributed to this in a very exceptional way. And it is very good that the Central Bank is not spending an ordinary amount on art.”
Indeed, the Central Bank purchased a massive amount of artworks as it turned out of the public documents. As a gallerist who sold artworks described, “they bought a package of artworks from one artist”. For instance, seventeen paintings by Imre Bak and Dóra Maurer and eighteen works by László Lakner are now in the collection of the bank. Although professionals are involved in the process who are responsible for the financial valuation of the artworks, some of the prices exceeded the market value. “Sometimes the prices hit the highest possible range that is now imaginable. From the fragment of this money, museums could complete their collections with important works of art that otherwise they cannot afford.” – as told by the same gallerist.
Someone who has insight into the process claimed that the program has nothing to do with museums as the aim of the bank is to build a corporate collection. Thus when a state-owned company is buying artworks in such an intense volume, it is logical to think about whether these works will ever be visible for the public. According to a statement of the Central Bank, the collection will be accessible for researchers.
Kata Vizi, has worked for Ybl Creative House since 2017, and as a member of the selection committee of the Central Bank acquisitions, mentioned that the purchases are validated by professionals and they are focusing on the Neo-avant-garde generation and on geometric abstraction.
The first exhibition planned at Ybl Creative House was a solo show by Emese Benczúr, known for her installations playing with the meaning of words. Benczúr was preparing her show for one and a half year, when in the final phase she was asked not to present two of the artworks. One was a light installation in which the words ‘Change’ and ‘Unchangeable’ are illuminated alternately. According to the artist, the other work, Flash of Hope was banned by an unknown, influential person because the word ‘hope’ refers to something unfulfilled. Benczúr assumed that this could happen because the 2018 elections were approaching. “This project was not about political works. It is the dilemma of the producers whether they take the responsibility for such a work or not. They imagined that one day Viktor Orbán will pass by the building renovated and owned by the Central Bank and see the installation by Emese Benczúr on top of it that says ‘All That Glitters is Not Gold’.” – as commented by an advisor who worked for Ybl Creative House. Given the above mentioned circumstances, Benczúr has canceled her show.
Some members of the committee have affiliations to the galleries involved in the program. Kata Vizi has worked for Kálmán Makláry Fine Arts, whose artists were exhibited several times and Mrs. Makláry curated a show at Ybl Creative House. Now the Central Bank is purchasing artworks from Makláry for ca. 1.500.000 EUR. I sent an interview request to Kata Vizi, but her press officer answered that Vizi was not available at the moment. I also wanted to ask Mr. Makláry, but he did not want to comment on the case.
Katalin Spengler, as a private art collector, also maintains business relationships with the galleries that participate in the program. A gallerist criticized the multiple roles of the committee members: “It is incompatible that one of the committee members is an active collector, who does business one day with a gallery as a private person, and the other day she’s an expert when the gallery is selling for the Central Bank.”
Certainly not the artists nor the galleries are responsible for this opaque situation, in which the participants became each other’s clients. Obviously it is positive when the state is spending on contemporary art, but this time the question is rather under which circumstances the investments happened. As a gallerist commented: “There is nothing surprising in this situation. A number of articles were published about how public money is handled around the Central Bank, and how it is used for the enrichment of Matolcsy’s private circles. Those who legitimize this whole procedure as experts should have known from the first moment that they will be used as puppets, because it’s not the interest of the Hungarian taxpayers that will be considered.”
The artworks recently purchased will be exhibited in the buildings of the Central Bank, at least for the joy of the coworkers of the state-owned company. “They do far more harm than good, without considering the interests of the Hungarian society or the art institutions. These works will disappear from the market; they will not be acquired by Hungarian or international museums. The project has an impact on the market, as the few galleries, who represent the artists whose artworks the Central Bank purchases, will excel. In addition, Hungarian museums will not have the chance in the future to purchase some of the key works, so the policy of their acquisitions will become incomprehensible.” – as pointed out by Mélyi.
Special thanks to Gergely Nagy, Anna Remesova and Jan Zalesak for their support in writing this article.