The love affair between money and museums

Private capital, public collections and the Kovásznai exhibition in the Hungarian National Gallery

MúzeumCafé 19.

The György Kovásznai retrospective held in the Hungarian National Gallery (5 June – 26 September 2010) raises several issues and problems. The exhibition can be viewed as reflecting a special connection between private capital embodied in the art collector and a public art collection, which relation already characterises a variety of constructions in Hungary. In my opinion, private funds invested in works of arts should not be considered as some dark force originating from the devil. After all, collections and museums opened for the public would have never been established without private donations and transactions on the art market. Money – in this case private capital – and art in public collections are like an eternal couple wrangling for centuries. Their capricious relationship can be studied if not from a psychological but from a museum-art history-cultural policy-history perspective. Among the basic functions of museums, presentation to the public has been in focus recently. A large number of visitors enhances a museum’s reputation (it also counterbalances decreasing funds, since it generates income and it may become the reason for further state support on the basis of increased visitor numbers). Specialists at the Hungarian National Gallery considered that Kovásznai’s oeuvre was significant, but due to the Gallery’s financial situation it was not able to modernise those of its exhibition halls which seem unusable, thus two levels of the building have been renovated from private capital. Kovásznai has been entirely unknown – his work was not exhibited during his lifetime and his cartoon films were rarely screened. Due to inheritance complications and the unfortunate fate of his animations, reconstruction of his work could only start at the beginning of this century. The Kovásznai Foundation, initiated by György H. Matolcsy in 1989 and set up with the co-operation of friends and colleagues, required significant financial support from art collector János Komlós, who joined the foundation in order that the Kovásznai Research Workshop established in 2007 would process and digitalize the artist’s so far unknown oeuvre for professionals and the general public alike. The exhibition catalogue and study written by Brigitta Iványi-Bitter and the attached four DVDs represent an excellent example of art history written in a uniquely personal style, as well as an interesting description of a period. A pioneer of private museums in Hungary was the Ludwig Foundation, which came to the country in 1983 and has turned into an independently managed museum, albeit supervised by the state. When the founders dispersed the Ludwig collections they regarded it important to promote the presentation of internationally noted or regionally and locally major artists – and this freedom for the managers seems to have succeeded. The next major player was the KOGART (Kovács Gábor Art) Foundation established by Gábor Kovács, who at the time was the 16th richest Hungarian. Founded with an equity capital of three billion forints, it was declared that the exhibition policy of its private museum would be determined autonomously. Of course, a private investor has the right to do so. A positive part of the concept with regard to contemporary art pursued by the art jury, consisting of the founder and four members, is the exhibition series FRESH, which selects from works by recently graduated artists, and the related Kogart Prize, which supports the work of a young artist with a one-year grant. The founder turned around the reserved relationship of the two peacefully coexisting spheres (private museum – public collections) in 2008 when, following successful lobbying, he concluded an agreement with the Ministry of Culture about the financing conditions of the Contemporary Art Collection in the building on Andrássy Avenue. The exhibition of the Zelnik collection closed in the Museum of Ethnography in June. The well advertised and strongly promoted exhibition was based on István Zelnik’s (as it happens, “Hungary’s 20th richest person”) collection of 16,000 art objects from South East Asia, including 2,000 gold and silver items. Its value was “estimated by specialists at one and a half billion dollars”. Yet, the cultural-historical significance and scientific value of the collection has not been mentioned – since a great part of the diplomat’s collection, who at the end of the Vietnam war had been to South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and all of Indo-China, is not from archaeological excavations and sites but has been purchased through trade and from private collectors, in many instances from the inheritance of well-to-do families fleeing from the war. Due to the uncertain origin of the objects and in absence of specialist analysis it is rather surprising that the Museum of Ethnography practically supported the “twenty-four gold and three silver masks of unprecedented value” with objects from its own collection thus legitimising the collection – of which a few items appeared at the auction of the Belvedere Gallery already in April. While opposition to bankers and money is undergoing a renaissance, it is time to notice that a third party – politics – is impinging on our flirtatious lovers.