Guest Edit: Budapest’s Cultural Mismanagement

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY***–When I arrived at the Ludwig Museum—Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest on March 1, a colleague told me in a near whisper how the day before the Director of Finance had received a letter instructing that Barnabas Bencsik, the Director of the Ludwig Museum whose five-year contract ended that day, was no longer able to sign for museum expenses. This was how Bencsik and the staff of the Ludwig learned –for the first time– that he would notbe continuing as director. That day, 60 days after the government was required to open the application process, a call for applications was finally announced.

Bencsik intends to re-apply for the position– in which he has worked with reduced state budgets to continuously create internationally recognized exhibitions and other programs that place Hungarian art within a global dialogue–despite the revised job qualifications. During a discussion of cultural politics as part of a lecture series at the museum on March 1, Bencsik mentioned that in the past five years he and his staff have been able to do their work without feeling the slightest political pressure about their choices. Asked for this article if that continues to be true, he told me,  “I’m afraid it will be changed radically in the near future.”

The situation has certainly changed since the new government came to power two years ago, and the speed of change has increased even since I came to the Ludwig Museum in September on a Fulbright grant to research contemporary Hungarian art. Earlier this week, to widespread protest and international criticism, the current conservative government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán ratified structural changes to the arts and other sectors. The changes to the arts are overshadowed by other developments that reflect a nationalist, conservative political party which is centralizing a base of power through non-democratic means such as silencing the media and controlling the judiciary. These changes are wreaking havoc in Hungary’s state-funded cultural institutions.

Without directly censoring the arts, the government can manage the art that is shown in Hungary by only funding work aligned with its agenda, because private institutions and money are hard to come by in this economy. I believe the wide-reaching structural changes, especially the creation of a new culture oversight organization– the Hungarian National Academy (MMA)–will open the door to such mismanagement. To change the criteria for judging a work of art from artistic merit to how well it reflects the beliefs of the new group of museum managers is not only censorship, but propaganda. The ongoing saga of directorships indicates a systematic effort to remove directors of major cultural institutions and replace them with political allies willing to promote a nationalist, pro-government agenda. ­­

Leadership changes are happening not just at the museum I am affiliated with; the long list of recent management changes touches all branches of culture. Other institutions whose directorships have changed recently in favor of the politically conservative include: the National Gallery, Trafó House of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Ethnography, the National Theater, the New Theater, and almost every theatre outside Budapest. This list indicates that the new leadership is being introduced each time a contract ends; no one seems immune, even moderate figures like the Műcsarnok’s Gábor Gulyás.

The possible replacement of Bencsik follows in the wake of a leadership change at the only other national institution dedicated to contemporary art, Budapest’s Műcsarnok, or Kunsthalle. Director Gábor Gulyás is considered either a moderate figure or a political appointee whose programming toes the conservative party line, depending on who you talk to. In November when the government announced that the newly empowered MMA had oversight over the Kunsthalle, Gulyás resigned, citing moral grounds and the inability to do his job under the changes that were to be enacted on January 1, 2013. Yet because of a technicality—that no one officially accepted his resignation—he continues to fill this role. Now, there is a rumor of an upcoming solo exhibition of Attila Csáji, the vice president of the MMA.

The unpredictable stories of Bencsik and Gulyás suggest the chaotic and poorly managed nature of how these changes are being implemented, but the absurdity continues. Now museums must begin to plan to move their collections to Budapest’s Museum Quarter, a yet unrealized imitation of Museum Quarters in cities such as Vienna. This grandiose scheme involves five new buildings to house museums including the Ludwig Museum and the National Gallery in what is currently part of a park near Hero’s Square. It is unclear how this expensive arts development will be funded in already tough economy.

***This piece was guest written by Linnea West

Photo by Gabriella Csozso