In the last one and a half years a real estate company founded by the Central Bank of Hungary (MNB) has spent more than 5 million Euros on artworks of prestigious Hungarian artists in order to build up an art collection for the bank. In March 2021 Artalk.cz published and article by Andrea Soós on the artwork purchases of the MNB and its effects on the Hungarian art scene. The article was accompanied by an introduction written by Jan Zálešák in order to give a context to the readers who are less familiar with the Hungarian conditions. Here East Art Mags publishes this introduction followed by the article by Andrea Soós on MNB here.
I think it was November 2020 when I first heard about the unprecedented intervention of the Hungarian National Bank (Magyar Nemzeti Bank, MNB) into the local art market. A spending spree, unleashed by the MNB, focused mainly (but not only) on the representatives of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde, and literally buried money in a small circle of Budapest galleries, collectors and artists. Tellingly, the news had not arrived from the press or social media, where there would be a fervent discussion about the MNB initiative, but from my girlfriend who happens to be an artist and who became aware of the matter from her gallerist. I don’t know how many kitchens, studios or online conversation threads became host to private conversations on the subject, but on the outside there has been (and still is) a dead silence that—when it comes to the current state of the Hungarian art scene—is more telling than anything else.
During a decade of rule, Fidesz managed to decompose the Hungarian art scene almost perfectly – not in the sense that it would cease to exist, but in the very literal sense of its atomization. Loud, collective expressions of resistance—such as protests against the transfer of Műcsarnok (Kunsthalle) to the Hungarian Academy of Arts (Magyar Művészeti Akadémia, MMA) at the turn of 2012 and 2013 or the occupation strike of the Ludwig Museum in 2013 after its director Barnabás Bencsik didn’t get his contract prolonged—have fallen silent long ago. Individual oppositional attitudes persisted of course, yet they inevitably become fragile when not part of a larger whole. Among the loudest critics of the MMA, and its pivotal yet undefined role in state cultural policy related to the fine arts, was the Free Artists collective— and many members of the Studio of Young Artists (FKSE) were also involved. Under the presidency of Dávid Karas (2013–2015), a sharp criticism of Fidesz’s cultural policy culminated in the de facto cut-off of the FKSE from public funding.
Two episodes which I would now like to briefly mention can not only help us understand how the position and attitude of the FKSE have changed recently, but also illustrate a more general shift from a radical engagement to a cautious defense of one’s own autonomy. The first episode concerns the Gyula Derkovits Prize—a state-funded scholarship for artists under 35 years of age—that has long remained one of the last platforms out of the control and influence of MMA. When the jury members’ term of office expired two years ago, instead of announcing the names of their successors, as was customary, it was officially declared that the jury would henceforth be secret and that it was better this way. However, in accordance with tradition, a representative of the FKSE remained part of the jury. In the internal discussion of the FKSE members following the selection of 2020 Gyula Derkovits Prize grantees, the names of the new jury members soon became known. Almost without exception, they are all members of the MMA. At the same time, a similar development towards non-transparency took place in the literature-focused counterpart of the Derkovits Prize named after János Térey. While in the literary field some laureates, such as Imre Bartók, spoke out against the changes and rejected the award and its lack of transparency, the art scene remained silent. The fact that the president of FKSE remains as part of the jury, legitimizing the transformation of the Derkovits Prize, did not provoke any strong reaction even within FKSE itself.
In the summer of 2020, the FKSE contacted its members to inform them that the MMA had set aside approximately 150,000,000 HUF from its funds to support visual artists during the difficult situation arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. As part of the new scheme, the MMA addressed six selected artistic associations and unions, and offered them a model from which they could create collections from works of their members with the money provided by the MMA. In a letter to its members, FKSE emphasized that it maintained the negative attitude towards the MMA which it had articulated as early as 2012, when the FKSE was actively involved in the above-mentioned protests that resulted in its gradual cut-off from public finances. At the same time, however, the FKSE emphasized that they were aware of the difficult situation and therefore were ready to act as an intermediary so that interested members could access the offered funding. In the letter, the FKSE management renounced the offer to build its own collection, so that the individually negotiated amounts for the “sales” of the artworks would instead take the form of a scholarship. While the FKSE was thus able to create a relatively neutral position within the offered scheme, it nevertheless sparked a very lively internal discussion in which old wounds were opened up and clear tensions arose between those unwilling to “collaborate” even under these circumstances and those who adopted a more pragmatic stance. From what I was able to find out, under this “Covid subsidy program” announced by the MMA the maximum amount per purchase of one artwork was 300,000 HUF. Thus, collections encompassing hundreds of artworks could potentially be established within its framework. My ability to investigate MMA resources, which are only available in Hungarian, is reaching its limits here. In any case, with this unexpected impulse to create non-public collections from public finances, a direct relation to the leitmotif of the text by Andi Soós is already opening up to us.
Why should we be interested in all this in the Czech Republic? There are several motifs. On the one hand, the example of the MNB’s spending spree shows the fascinating ease with which big gestures of support for culture are possible, if desired. People around the MNB, who seem to have a crush on culture and the arts (they just don’t have to be accountable to anyone for their tastes), are able to divert huge sums of taxpayers’ money to develop their own praiseworthy interests. Should we want something similar from our central bank? We shall not forget that at the level of the “economic base”, the reality of today’s Hungary as a post-socialist assembly plant does not differ much from the Czech (or Slovak or Polish) one. In addition to increasingly poorer states (struggling to devote resources to running their infrastructural backbone, let alone for buying art), parallel power structures have emerged – people who have amassed such wealth that they can invest in anything without hesitation, including art . The same story goes for virtually all post-socialist elites, whether they arose from the privatization years of the “wild 1990s”, from semi-state enterprises in the noughties, or were established in direct connection with post-democratic politics, as we see most prominently in Hungary. If there are any differences–and there are, let’s be happy about that in the Czech Republic—then it is in the state of civil society, in the condition of the public sphere (in the position or very existence of public media, universities, and so on), in the possibility of open discussion, to criticize and argue with each other. And it’s not just about the possibility—the mere fact that there is a platform upon which such a discussion can take place—but also about the knowledge, perhaps naive, that this discussion is meaningful and that it can move things elsewhere and perhaps for the better, and conversely, to point out the things that are better left alone.
This is how, at least from my perspective—which I admit might be very subjective and distorted by many factors—I see the situation in Hungary. Although not all media platforms in which critical voices could be heard have disappeared (as of yet), the public, open discussion I am talking about here is becoming increasingly scarce. There are not many left who would join it. Young people studying at Hungarian art schools today were about 10 years old when Fidesz took over in 2010. Those Millennials who have yet to come to terms with reality are probably in the eyes of Hungarian Gen Z just a strange huffing dissent. It doesn’t matter too much anyway as the numbers of this dissent are ever decreasing. What is developing, growing and flourishing, on the other hand, are various forms of internal exile; the pursuit of private goals and their cultivation within small circles of kindred souls.
In this atmosphere, the private galleries—to which a representative part of the young and middle generation of Hungarian art is connected—have had a very specific position. It would probably be naive to see these galleries (their representative selection has been presented in recent years on Budapest gallery weekends) purely as islands of freedom. In addition to several municipal and independent institutions, however, it is the private galleries that are places in which the connection to the art market has enabled relative autonomy amidst the changes in public funding of art. Leaving aside the paradoxes of perceiving galleries or the art market as some kind of non-ideological neutral zone, it must be added that the changes that Hungarian society has undergone over the last decade have inevitably arrived here too—and the MNB entering this seemingly independent stage only completes this change. We can interpret the intervention of the MNB into the art market—which Andi Soós describes in detail in her article—on the one hand as a timely salvation in difficult times, but also as an unwanted revelation of the inconvenient truth that it is more or less only the new, Fidesz-related elites who can do serious business here. What should gallerists tell “their artists” now? How should galleries that just a year ago rightly worried about surviving 2020 deal with all the money that has now landed unexpectedly in their accounts?
So far, there is practically no discussion about this issue within the Hungarian art scene. Those who know remain silent, with a few notable exceptions, such as József Mélyi, who touched on the topic at the opening of the Kisterem Gallery exhibition with a remarkably (self?)ironic title: “Finally, we can learn something”. The rest are silent because they don’t know (or don’t want to know). Andi Soós wrote her article with the hope that it should serve as a “fuse”, an impulse that will force people in the scene to face this new reality. It does not suggest what the reactions should be. There will certainly be manywho will defend the intention and execution of the MNB’s acquisition program as well as the attitude of those who have decided to participate in it. Others will look for a neutral position, perhaps similar to the attempts of the FKSE management in the last year, or like Kisterem Gallery when it organised the above-mentioned exhibition using funds obtained from sales to the MNB. Others will probably condemn any participation in the program for the same reasons they reject the cultural policy represented by the MMA. In the Czech Republic we also know a variant of this debate, and it will certainly be interesting to see what happens next and what nuances will arise, at the heart of which is not a critique of “super-collectors” with whom public art museums often cannot compete, but a critique of the “hybrid regime” elites using public money to create their own version of high culture.
What is certain is that in similar discussions it can be difficult to choose a party. That is perfectly fine. However, the silence with which the new acquisition program of the MNB remains shrouded is far worse than the “bad vibes” we are familiar with in the Czech art scene whenever debates about private collecting get too heated. The silence does not only hinder factual debates about what will happen to the hundreds of artworks that have left the depositories of private galleries and studios of artists in such a short period of time. It also prevents the necessary discussion about how gallerists, collectors or artists themselves could use the acquired funds for something positive without being burdened by feelings of guilt.
In the Czech Republic there is growing debate on the issue of artwashing (relatively easy and cheap creation of symbolic capital through the support of culture, including art collecting). However, in the case of the MNB’s acquisition program, I think we are speaking about something else. Unlike the older acquisition programs facilitated by MNB and the main line of cultural policy represented by the MMA, which both operated within the intellectual framework of art as a representation of the nation, the new program represents a new, “progressive” understanding of art as value in itself. With the same boldness with which the people around Orbán co-opted sports many years ago, building magnificent stadiums in often hard-to-believe places and trying to host as many international sports events in the country as possible, the newly acquired interest in contemporary art manifests itself very quickly through concrete actions. The problem is the ostentatiousness with which the new elites, in their “enlightenment”, ignore the established mechanisms of cultural policy (the role of public museums in building, preserving and presenting art collections) and use best practices to appropriate cultural values through the bullish power of money. So the money is here. Millions and millions of Forints. How difficult, how problematic, how controversial would it be to take at least part of this cash, which arrived in the scene out of nowhere, and use it for something “good” – i.e., for a new creative scholarship project or for systemic support of contemporary art magazines? In order to start asking these questions and others, it will be necessary to stop treating the semi-privatized cultural policy represented by institutions such as the MMA and now the MNB as taboo.
 This essay was originally published in Czech as an introduction to the translation of Andi Soós’ text. It thus addressed Czech readership and may now sound a little strange now when read out of the original context. However I decided to keep the original dictum to also show how this topic was “sold” to Czech readers and the points of shared interest that were identified.
Cover image: Emese Benczúr: CHANGE /UNCHANGEABLE, 2012, wood, LED lights, cables, 100cm x140cm, photo: Áron Wéber, courtesy of the artist.