Museums, system, change

Effects of the 1989–90 political changes on Hungarian museums

MúzeumCafé 45.

Many readers, including the majority of Hungarian museum professionals, will have personal experience of the period under review. It is close enough to have direct knowledge, but distant enough to try to be objective. The effect of the political changes on museums can be approached from many angles and after much deliberation I have decided to analyse three areas: the appearance of civil or alternative institutions, revised views about the art of the recent past on the part of museums with the emergence of the new political and cultural elite, and the effect on museums of the reviving art trade.

As the political changes in Hungary were not linked to a specific date (as with the fall of the Berlin Wall in the DDR, or the execution of the Ceauşescus in Romania), the changes gradually affected life and thus the various areas of culture. The reburial of Imre Nagy and others (16 June 1989), dismantling the iron curtain and the Pan-European Picnic (June–August 1989), the proclamation of the republic (23 October 1989) and the first multi-party parliamentary elections (March–April 1990) are usually regarded as milestones, depending, of course, on the political or social approach taken. Some people in the museum profession were inclined to change their approach beforehand, although they could only do so within the given legal and institutional framework. Museum specialists who wanted to introduce a different attitude and approach were not new – those who implemented the gradual and continuous transformation from the mid 80s had already pursued a different programme under the given conditions of the 70s. The 80s in the world of museums did not necessarily always reflect the past system, or at least strongly diverted from it. The earlier triple framework of “forbidden, tolerated, supported” fell apart and the categories were less strictly observed. This is shown by the fact that an increasing number of artists who were regarded as being in opposition vis-à-vis the system had the opportunity to exhibit in prestigious galleries and museums. Perhaps the absence of a strong man may have been behind the decrease of the Party’s influence and the greater freedom of exhibition policies. György Aczél followed József Révai but no one came after Aczél, whose power and influence had significantly diminished anyway by the 80s. When there are no heavy-handed ideologists and well-defined, hardline ideologies are absent, alternative concepts and curators’ individual initiatives have a better chance to be realised (see Lóránd Hegyi and the ‘New Sensibility’).

The changes in museums perhaps started with the appointment in 1984 of Katalin Néray to head the Kunsthalle, since it was clearly known that she would bring a progressive approach to Hungary’s largest and most prestigious exhibition space. From the 80s radical changes occurred in all three fields of the museum and art public sphere (art historians, museum specialists, the art subculture and the public). New institutions were set up, the financing of culture was transformed, foreign subsidies and foundations, private publishers and art dealers appeared.

A new context had to be found for the arts and that could optimally involve connecting with international trends, in both directions at that. The Ludwig Collection and the Soros Foundation appeared in Hungary in the mid 80s. Negotiations lasting several years began in the case of the former, while the latter resolutely set up its office in Budapest in 1985. Establishing a documentation centre and an institute organizing international relations were the main objectives. It was impossible to forever rely on the exotic nature of behind-the-iron curtain existence and the introduction of the Hungarian arts as a matter of course had no chance in the absence of information. Besides the primarily set project, the foundation also had an underlying intention: creating and maintaining a cultural elite independent of the ruling Party. The agreement with the foundation was signed by Katalin Néray, who not only represented the Kunsthalle, but also the cultural system change. An advisory council of five Hungarian and five foreign experts was established. The Hungarian members selected the oeuvres that were to be recorded and sorted the data collected. The selection radically changed the art historical canon or at least established a second canon, which advanced to be the first as time went by.

At the time of the political changes the foundation was transformed into the Soros Center for Contemporary Arts and added holding annual exhibitions to its activities. Through the SCCA there were opportunities to apply for international competitions such as the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which helped János Sugár and Ákos Birkás as well as others to receive scholarships. The aim of the exhibitions based on applications and staged by the SCCA was to create a new context. Those events firmly changed and extended the notion of contemporary arts, and new forms of the media and public space arts with a society-forming role appeared. Research methodology changed and the notion of a curator and an exhibition staged by a curator appeared on the scene. The c3 Cultural and Communication Centre and the exindex journal developed from the data base in 1996.

Peter and Irene Ludwig of the Ludwig Foundation intended to set up a museum of contemporary art in Budapest, similarly to the one in Vienna, by donating and depositing artworks with the Hungarian state. An exhibition was staged from a selection of the works in Vienna in the Kunsthalle in 1983. It could have been the first step, but the actual negotiations only began in 1987 for only by then was the situation ripe for such a drastic step (a Hungarian museum of the international avant-garde set up from foreign funds).

It is worth highlighting Artpool, established by Júlia Klaniczay and György Galántai from among the initiatives which started off from the underground and institutionalized at the time of the political changes. It began with actions organised in the 70s, but already operated as an archive by around 1980. It existed as an open Art Research Centre from 1992 and today it is a research centre as part of a state museum’s documentation department.

Thus far the former socialist countries were at a loss about doing much about processing their social history and the official arts. What was presented ranged from commercially established wax-works through quarantines to deterrence. The DDR Museum which was the first in this line to open, in Berlin in 2006, is a typical example where visitors are to be shocked by interiors of reconstructed housing estate flats besides the presentation of the Stasi and Trabant cars. All this is nothing other than making money with the themes of the communist system. An example of quarantine is the Museum of Socialist Art, a branch of the National Museum in Sofia, which opened in September 2011, where not only the now embarrassing public statues but Socialist Realist artworks were exiled in a permanent exhibition. A third example could be the House of Terror in Budapest, which presents the fascist Arrow Cross and the communist reign of terror, and since the latter lasted longer it receives more emphasis in the permanent exhibition.

Following the political changes it was not urgent to process Socialist Realist art, since it was sufficient not to exhibit those artworks or rather to highlight the arts which existed alongside or in contrast to those. However, the resolution of what to do with the no longer acceptable public monuments could not wait. Various forms of damage, defacement, painting over, humiliation with foreign objects and a peculiar association of ideas (e.g. the Star of David on the monument of Béla Kun) were occurring daily, thus their future had to be determined soon. This could have involved annihilation, yet a wiser resolution was adopted instead. Some monuments still exist either in their original form or deprived of their original meaning or somewhat transformed (the Liberation Monument on Gellért Hill is a typical example of the latter, since when the additional statues and the original inscriptions were removed it advanced to a monument of peace with a general message). Monuments of politicians with bad connotations, statues with symbols such as the red star and Soviet memorial monuments were in the greatest danger. In 1991 one of the first meetings of the newly formed Municipal Authority put the resolution of the problem on its agenda. It defined the location of a statue park and compiled a list of monuments to be taken there. The competition by invitation was conducted by the Budapest Gallery and Ákos Eleőd’s concept and the offer of a plot by Budapest’s 22nd district were accepted. The first section, the Statue Park of the Memento Park, opened in autumn 1993 and got its name from Gyula Illyés’s poem One Sentence on Tyranny. Around 2000, Tanú (Witness) Square was formed with service and exhibition buildings, and the reconstructed boots of the Stalin statue which was pulled down in 1956. This second stage investment drew less attention than the beginning of the project.

Thus a judgement was passed about the public monuments of the era, but painting also had to be dealt with. The situation of collections in museums was clear, a considerable amount of contemporary works of art had already been compiled in Hungary’s museums and galleries, from Szombathely through Pécs to the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, yet the issue of a summary and evaluation was a more comprehensive question. A real breakthrough could have been if a large, significant gallery had taken on accommodating and exhibiting the post-1945 works or at least a part of them with a critical approach. The Kunsthalle’s programme was determined by the ministry until 1983. The small but important step in museums was marked by changing that and appointing Katalin Néray, which made the presence of a different attitude regarding the institute unquestionable. János Kádár’s unexpected visit on New Year’s Eve in 1987 showed the finality of the change when he was resigned to see that the jubilee exhibition Art and Revolution (Russian-Soviet art 1910-1932) presented the avant-garde instead of the Socialist Realism he had expected. The General Secretary of the Party could do nothing else but praise the exhibition in the visitors’ book. One and a half years later, the Kunsthalle served as the set for the reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs.

Lóránd Bereczky was appointed to direct the Hungarian National Gallery in 1982. He was expected to finish the Gallery’s move to its present site, to stage permanent exhibitions and (art) historical shows in correspondence with the Gallery’s collection and prestige. After all, he was not appointed as a representative of change but as a man of the system. Since the Gallery accommodated only a few contemporary exhibitions of the new generation, it is conspicuous that the exhibition Eclectics of the New Sensibility curated by Lóránt Hegyi was allowed to be staged, while the centenary retrospective of Lajos Kassák organised together with the Petőfi Museum of Literature clearly indicated Kassák’s rehabilitation.

In the Gallery the political changes, however, were signalled by a really important exhibition, The 60s (1991), which stirred a large part of the profession. This was the ‘long decade’, as it was referred to by the authors of the studies and the interviewees in the published volume, since the 60s began in 1957–58 when the arts recovered from the shock caused by Socialist Realism and the ‘internal emigration’ chosen by many artists ended. The exhibition began with the works of Endre Bálint and Dezső Korniss creating a bridge between the European School and the present, the old and the new avant-garde. Similarly, paintings by Kassák, Ilona Keserü and Pál Deim, the master and his disciples, as well as photographs alongside the paintings recording Miklós Erdély’s and Tamás Szentjóby’s happenings were exhibited. Considering the list of artists’ names, it seems that the curators focussed explicitly on the progressive artistic trends, or at least the former group of the ‘supported’ dropped out after the revision they made.

One of the major public phenomena involved the pluralisation of the art trade to the detriment of the museum scene. Today the former fruitful relationship which existed in the 70s between museums and the art trade (BÁV [State Company of Art Trade] and art collectors) may seem like an anomaly. Katalin Sinkó, its key figure, was at home in both spheres and pursued this activity to everyone’s satisfaction. A separate study could be devoted to how she directed the works of art to the best and most suitable destinations by employing her thorough knowledge of the museums, BÁV and private collectors, and how museums acquired the most important and valuable artworks with as small a detour as possible and how the best private collections were formed – a large part of which, of course, disintegrated after the political changes. The art trade that revived in the second half of the 80s put an end to that ‘harmonious’ situation. It appeared as a competitor for museums in many fields and the more money that was involved, the fiercer that competition became. Both the museums and the art dealers were aware of information having utmost importance and they launched a fight against each other to acquire it. At that time museums had the expertise and the privilege of evaluation, and were able to decide about matters of protection, while publicity and flexibility helped the players of the art trade. Museums became deprived of the opportunity to be the first to select from the artworks on offer (which used to involve a preview before auctions, which art dealers held less and less or not at all, thus trying to prevent the authorities launching a procedure for protection in time or a dispute over authenticity of some artworks). In return, museums were less inclined to share their information (i.e. what the evaluation number on the back of the artwork signified). This situation went so far that some art historians ‘privatised’ evaluation, namely they provided attestation in their own names rather than on behalf of a museum’s evaluation department. This completely did away with responsibility for the evaluation. In the first half of the 90s attestations were commodities as much as the artworks themselves. As a result, official evaluation of artworks provided by museums ceased, thus resolving an anomaly whereby a poorly paid museum specialist would allow a collector or a dealer gain millions by paying a few thousand forints for the evaluation, or deprive them of a presumed value when the evaluation was not favourable. The museum essentially ceased to be a filtering and authenticating institution and was at the same time deprived of being able to purchase from the market with the exception of a few cases.

The art market also induced museums to make steps forward from another direction. In 1982 Ákos Birkás, addressing a small audience in the Rabinec Gallery, quoted New York gallery owner Mary Boone: “Those who buy pictures in New York today do not purchase a valuable work of art, a decoration or a status symbol for their apartment, but for their money they take part in art history.” At the time, it seemed a bit far-fetched for an audience mainly from the underground in Budapest, yet it became a reality in Hungary 6-8 years later. An increasing number of players were interested in easing the bottle-neck generated by BÁV and the Picture Gallery Co., hence art dealers brought oeuvres to the surface whose literature was outdated or did not even exist. They included avant-garde artists or those of the Nagybánya School. With incredible energy and much finance, dealers built up periods which had been hardly documented or hardly published artists. Thus they significantly reached out into the process of art history research and the exhibition projects of museums. The first tangible evidence for that was the centenary Nagybánya exhibition in the Hungarian National Gallery in 1996, which was based on a book series published by the Missionart Gallery and the several hundred or thousand works of art related to Nagybánya which had turned up in the art trade after 1988. The classification of the artists’ colony (founders, Neo-artists, those who stayed), which research and art collecting are guided by today, was established and made clear. The situation was similar in the case of the first Mattis Teutsch retrospective (2001) and the cooperation of art dealers fundamentally affected the research and exhibitions of the oeuvres of painters such as Rippl-Rónai, Vaszary and Mednyánszky, for example, by tracking down works in foreign ownership.

Cultural consumption essentially changed due to the political changes and, rather, the drastic inflation which accompanied them, as well as by the impoverishment of certain social strata and existential insecurity. The phenomenon clearly had an effect on the numbers of museum visitors. Although blockbuster exhibitions are usually referred to as the result of the new system, and not always positively, visitor numbers reaching several hundred thousand and queuing for several hours had occurred in the case of some earlier exhibitions, too (e.g. King Matthias and the Renaissance in Hungary, HNG, 1983). At that time they were not called blockbusters. This is not to mention the national art exhibitions (at the Kunsthalle) which were compulsory for socialist brigades from factories to visit whether they wanted to or not. In any case, the number of visitors to permanent exhibitions clearly slumped from the 90s.