An hour away from Budapest

Márta Kovalovszky and Péter Kovács on the exhibitions of the Székesfehérvár Museum

MúzeumCafé 30.

The Székesfehérvár miracle didn’t attract the attention of the authorities for years. Who would have thought that hardly an hour away from the capital an art revolution was taking place whereby works of silenced artists were being exhibited, Hungarian art history was being reinterpreted and the best examples of forbidden or at most tolerated culture were being presented. Nevertheless, Márta Kovalovszky and Péter Kovács of Székesfehérvár’s King St. Stephen Museum with the approval, indeed assistance of the recently deceased county museum director, Jenő Fitz, were able to continue with everything, including the legendary vernissage and their incomparably rich collection of contemporary works. Péter Kovács arrived in Székesfehérvár in the summer of 1962. Márta Kovalovszky followed a year later. It was an interesting moment in Hungarian museum history, since the county museum system was established on 1 January 1963. Before that museums had been managed directly by the ministry. As students the pair had worked at the excavations in Tác where they met Fitz, a noted archaeologist, who suggested they move to Székesfehérvár following their graduation. They managed to obtain the premises of the Csók István Gallery, which had originally been built around 1943 to be a municipal community centre but was never completed. After the war it became part of the county museum network. It was only in the second half of the 1960s when it was noted that there was something important taking place. The scandal really broke out with an exhibition of works by Lili Ország in 1967, and from then on they had to present their detailed plans for exhibitions at the fine arts department of the ministry every August. The exhibition openings were legendary social events in the 1960s and 1970s. They were scheduled to start at 2 p.m. on Sundays but by 9 o’clock in the morning everyone had arrived from Budapest, the train arrived at that time. The whole of Székesfehérvár was full of artists, including the writer Gyula Illyés, the film director Miklós Jancsó and the poet János Pilinszky. At that time there was no competitor. Budapest lacked the venue for these types of exhibitions. Even the Hungarian National Gallery did not collect post-1945 works of art and was not concerned with contemporary artists at all. Museums outside the capital exhibited only local artists, if at all. An early Csontváry exhibition had showed that the town was only an hour away from Budapest and if it could present something that was absent in the capital then people went. It soon turned out that they could not hold two exhibitions a year, even one was difficult, and it also became clear that those managing cultural policy did not necessarily approve of their concepts. In the end the museum managed to exhibit works from 1945 to 1948 as well as an exhibition about art at the turn of the century. The presentation of art from the 1950s had to wait because when the plans were drawn up the museum was told that it was not their task to process the period, which at the time was still unprocessed. No one else was doing that, but their plan was put off for some years. Two exhibitions, both under the title Contemporary Art in Private Collections, were held in 1975 and 1976. The President of the Council of Ministers, Jenő Fock, introduced a special governmental decree which stipulated that the exhibitions accepted in the museums’ annual plans were exempt from supervision. Hence, there was the possibility of holding the two exhibitions displaying both Hungarian and foreign collections. Foreign paintings were illegally brought into Hungary and Hungarian works could be presented from their own museum collection. In addition, artists were also asked to donate their works and since a public collection was involved their display could not be opposed. There was increasing professional reaction to the exhibitions. Friends played a major role. For example, the journalist Géza Perneczky wrote about every event in the national daily Magyar Nemzet and the literary weekly Élet és Irodalom. This provided a certain degree of protection against the local authority where it was not really understood what was happening. If papers in the capital wrote that something was good, then it must be. Exhibitions from new acquisitions could be held every two or three years. However, in the end those interesting decades ended abruptly. The director Fitz Jenő retired in 1985 and Péter Kovács was appointed to his post, but he resigned in 1992. Instead of extending the building, the museum had acquired a former Cistercian monastery in 1980. The permanent archaeological exhibition opened there at last in 1990. Then the county authority wanted to return the building to the church and in exchange the museum would have got a recently vacated Soviet barracks, of course in a dilapidated condition. Péter Kovács thought he could not take that on. It was unusual in Hungary at the time for someone to resign, since directors were still appointed without any time limit. In the end, the Cistercian order asked for and received financial compensation, thus the museum has remained in the building.