MúzeumCafé Award 2012

Edit Sasvári, art historian, director of the Lajos Kassák Memorial Museum

MúzeumCafé 34.

Ladies and Gentlemen, For the third time I am standing before an audience gathered for the presentation of an award to someone who was thought by a jury of professionals to most deserve recognition on the basis of work performed in Hungarian museology in the previous year. The award in question bears the name of MúzeumCafé, Hungary’s only nationally distributed museum publication. First of all, allow me to say a few words about the magazine. In 2007, a number of museum professionals and journalists specialising in culture began thinking about a journal for Hungary’s museum profession which would continuously point forward, both in its content and design. MúzeumCafé was created in that spirit. Its design and typography have received several Hungarian and international awards, including the bronze medal in the magazine category of European Design Awards 2011 and three gold medals in the three categories MúzeumCafé could enter among more than 1000 applicants from 36 countries at the 41st Creativity International Awards, also in 2011. As a result, the magazine itself has become an object of art, since it is now included in the collection of the Phoenix Design Museum. In this light it is no wonder that it was the intention of the publisher and editorial staff to establish the MúzeumCafé Award in order to honour each year the most forward-looking and exemplary accomplishment in Hungary’s museum life. Members of MúzeumCafé’s editorial board participated in the work of the jury making the award this year – László Baán, director of the Museum of Fine Arts; Péter György, aesthetician, university professor, director of ELTE’s Institute of Art Theory and Media Research; Zoltán Rockenbauer, art historian and László Török, archaeologist-Egyptologist, full member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; in addition, on behalf of the Department of Culture, Gábor Hatházi, archaeologist-historian, deputy head of Public Collections, Department of the Ministry of National Resources; on behalf of the Hungarian National Committee of ICOM, president Miklós Cseri, ethnographer, director of the Szentendre Open-air Ethnographic Museum; on behalf of AICA Hungary, president József Mélyi, art historian, art critic; on behalf of the editors, Beatrix Basics, editor, art historian, adviser to the Pest County Museums’ Directorate and Gábor Martos, editor-in-chief. In the beginning of January the above jury voted to give the MúzeumCafé Award 2012 to Edit Sasvári, director of the Kassák Museum. Edit Sasvári graduated in Hungarian and history at the Janus Pannonius University of Pécs in 1985. She graduated in art history at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University in 1996, while between 1994 and 1996 she attended a two-year training course for curators at the Institut für Kulturwissenschaft in Vienna. She is currently presenting her Ph.D. theses at the Department of Modern History of Pécs University. After receiving her first degree she staged exhibitions of contemporary art in the Uitz Gallery in Dunaújváros, then worked for the King Stephen Museum in Székesfehérvár, where she curated the fine and applied arts collection, staged exhibitions and edited catalogues and publications. In 2003 she became deputy director of the Municipal Gallery. She was the arts editor of the cultural magazine Árgus from 1991 to 1996. Since 1995 she has researched the cultural policy of the period 1956 to 1989. The volume Illegal Avant-garde about the chapel exhibitions in Balatonboglár, published in 2003, is her most significant work in this field to date. Her two-part television documentary Holidays: The History of the Chapel Exhibitions in Balatonboglár won 3rd prize at the Art Film Festival in Szolnok in 1998. She took part in establishing and launching the Institute of Contemporary Art in Dunaújváros as a board member of the Public Foundation for Modern Art between 1989 and 1998. She has taught art history at the Kodolányi János College in Székesfehérvár. She has been the curator of the Smohay Foundation since 1996. She was a member of AICA Hungary’s Presidium, while since 2005 she has been a board member of the Ernő Kállai Scholarship for Art Critics. In 2005 her work was honoured with the Lajos Németh Prize. Edit Sasvári was appointed director of the Kassák Museum in October 2010. In 2011 the museum’s new permanent exhibition opened and is now accompanied by regular museum education sessions. Last year several temporary exhibitions were staged. A new type of communication, including a new typography which has won one of the world’s most prestigious design awards, the red dot award, has been an integral part of the far-reaching renewal plans for the museum. Edit Sasvári together with her colleagues has created a living, exciting, already internationally successful Hungarian museum from a museum that seemed dead for years, and therefore we have resolutely found her entirely worthy of the MúzeumCafé Award 2012. (Delivered at the presentation of the MúzeumCafé Award 2012 in the Kassák Museum on 8 March 2013.)

Compared to the ‘mainstream’ in Hungary, Edit Sasvári has always approached art history and museology from some distance. That may be due to her studies of history and a course for curators she attended as a young graduate abroad, where she encountered different concepts about museum management and curatorship. Besides working for two distinguished museums, she began researching the social and political-historical aspects of art in the Kádár era. Following her book Illegal Avant-garde about the exhibitions in the Balatonboglár chapel, the lecture she gave at a conference about the scandal of Kassák’s exhibition in Paris in 1960 left a great impression on the audience as well as the profession – soon after that she made her way to head the Kassák Museum. She has turned a museum with a club-like, insiders’ atmosphere into a stimulating and dynamic small museum, which has received two international design awards (red dot and Good Design). Today it has a new permanent exhibition and a research workshop of international standard. Its displays are presented in a novel way and it has crowd-pulling exhibition openings. She regards as her most important tasks developing the museum into a base for research into global Modernism, and making its exhibitions based on primary sources reflect a conceptual change in art history.

– Your name as one of the staff at the Székesfehérvár museum appears towards the end of the volume about the exhibitions that have become legendary. Did your career begin there?

Actually, I started off in Dunaújváros. I graduated in Hungarian and history in Pécs and then studied art history at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University. In parallel with the latter, I attended Dieter Bogner’s two-year training course for curators at the Institut für Kulturwissenschaft in Vienna. I finished both at the same time, in 1996. After having graduated in Pécs in 1985 I was employed for a few months at the Dunaújváros museum doing all sorts of work. From there I was transferred to the Uitz Gallery where exhibitions had been staged from the 1960s. It was there that I had my first practice in organising exhibitions of contemporary art. Later, at the beginning of the 1990s, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the ICA-D, developed from that. At first, Lívia Páldi and János Szoboszlai were in charge and it is due to them that the institute has reached the high standard which characterises it today. At the time the ICA-D in Dunaújváros contributed to a young generation’s new kind of professional socialisation and its thinking in terms of an international perspective.

– Why did you move to Székesfehérvár?

In 1998 Márta Kovalovszky and Péter Kovács asked me to work in the King Stephen Museum. It had a very good reputation and I thought I would be in a professionally stimulating workshop where I could develop. That was back in 1989. I participated in many important projects, but I did not have the opportunity to do work which was really my own. My study time was a bit long drawn out. As an art historian and museologist I gained a lot of experience, which I have made use of in my present work at the Kassák Museum and my research relating to the 1960s. I am greatly indebted to the museum directors Jenő Fitz and his wife Éva Petres who were retired but passed on to me a lot, both professionally and in human terms. They were able to present a classic yet individually shaped museum concept, which was already petering out at the time. Then in 2003 I began working for the Municipal Gallery, which was a traditional museum medium similar to the Székesfehérvár museum.

– Later in your career you had the opportunity to realise your own ambitions, moreover on the borderland of art history and museology.

As I’ve mentioned before, I socialised in a museum environment which was shaped to an old canon and I learnt the basis of museology in that milieu. I got to know that system thoroughly and a critical attitude towards it soon began to form in me, if for no other reason but as a result of the curators’ course in Vienna, which integrated all those ideas about museums which were far away from ours in Hungary. The training there was simultaneously both theoretical and practical, and it taught me about a museum concept open to challenges. What I learnt there first seemed entirely without roots, something which would be impossible to integrate into the Hungarian museum system. I could not make use of my studies there for a long time. But it had the advantage of developing a strong reflective ability in relation to my own professional environment. I regarded the earlier years as a time of accumulating experience. Thus I think I am very lucky to have been presented in 2010 with a carte blanche, so to say, in relation to the Kassák Museum – a nicely restored ‘empty’ museum where I could even choose my own colleagues. This museum is just right for implementing my ideas. It is small but dynamic, a place where the tasks and the arising problems can be surveyed and tackled appropriately. A small institution has plenty of advantages – flexibility, an ability to react rapidly and sensitively to changes and new challenges. I am very much attracted to this dynamism because it doesn’t allow me to become insensitive, and at the same time I can see a guaranteed opportunity for absorbing work, which is extremely important to me. We can compete in terms of quality. My colleagues, who are full of enthusiasm and have really started their careers in these jobs, also guarantee that. Judit Csatlós is a museum specialist and an anthropologist, and Katalin Szőke is an art historian and a communications expert. They are smart, ambitious and cooperative. I think we can work together very well. I hope I can ensure the opportunities for them to use their abilities to their own satisfaction.

– Ferenc Csaplár managed the museum on his own for decades. It could already be seen with his successor Gábor Andrási that the whole concept was reviewed. You have not continued that.

The great period of this museum is connected to Ferenc Csaplár, whom I respect for his firmness and perseverance. He was a truly fighting type of person who didn’t easily adapt and perhaps that was the reason why many people found him somewhat difficult. As a matter of fact, we can thank him for Kassák being recognised as a great figure in Hungarian art history. After him Gábor Andrási set the collection in order and assisted the renovation of the building, which is a great thing. He is very knowledgeable about Kassák, yet he was primarily interested in another important area, the contemporary followers of Kassák’s constructivism. The ‘empty museum’ situation that developed after Andrási was special because a space was shaped for revision and a distance developed between the past and the possible future of the museum. I did not need to move into an already existing situation or conform to an already implemented concept. I could freely decide how to relate to the museum’s past, the established image of Kassák. The core of my concept was that, besides all the recognition and understanding of Kassák’s greatness, the opportunities for critical analysis must be looked for in the context of historical Modernism and the Avant-garde.

– Gábor Andrási also considered it important for the museum to receive a face-lift. How did you begin? What was your concept?

A new image on its own does not work simply in itself. It can only be interpreted together with a concept. First of all, I had to think over what I wanted to do with the museum and the Kassák business. Communication has become an important part of the museum. It has been a hard job. Another point is that the museum is part of another, large museum, the Petőfi Literary Museum, which has its own identity. We have had to find our place in this constellation in such a way that who we are and what we want should also be clear. The Petőfi Literary Museum supports us in our endeavours. By the way, the design is the work of Imre Lepsényi. We have worked together from the very beginning and I have learnt much from him, as also from my immediate colleagues.

– What is the concept behind the newly staged permanent exhibition?

The big question was what can be done with this extremely complex oeuvre. Furthermore, Kassák’s intellectuality is alive. Many people still follow him and refer to him. He was a man of letters, an artist and a movement organiser with a significant international network. He lived through several political systems. How can this complexity be presented in a small space? It was edifying when, in 2011, Franciska Zólyom and I presented Kassák’s international relations in the 1920s in the Berlinische Galerie to visitors who were not so aware of Kassák’s name and oeuvre. It was there that I realized that interest in Kassák and Hungarian historical Modernism was extremely great. I could also see that there was a significant international research boom in relation to the historical Avant-garde and Modernism, and participation in that project was absolutely necessary. We have made contact with many foreign and major Hungarian researchers as well as young people, whose work we would like to integrate into the museum’s activity, also regularly visit us. It is no longer a one-man museum but a representation of team work in the broadest possible sense of the word. Our dream is for the Kassák Museum to become a research centre of Avant-garde and Modernism, both Hungarian and regional. Hence the concept of the permanent exhibition was determined mainly with that in mind. At the moment I don’t want to talk about what problems the presentation of Avant-garde art in museums raises. We had to find a theme we could build Kassák’s oeuvre around and it was his editorial work. It was there where we could grasp the turning points, which not only happened to him as an artist or a man but also mark significant social and political changes. The genre of a permanent exhibition is not suitable for expounding all aspects of Kassák, so we would like to elucidate those thoroughly with a series of temporary exhibitions.

– You have exhibited several private collections in the museum. That was already an important part of Ferenc Csaplár’s activities.

It is quite true that Csaplár was also engaged in that, but it was in the air of the 70s and 80s, when alternative canons could be presented in a museum environment as a contrast with the traditional museum canon. Our series has come about in the spirit of a shift in art historical approaches, namely modern art and the avant-garde must be considered in a broad social context – primarily focusing not on art objects but documents, photographs and manuscripts, which have been absent from museums. We would like to call attention to the fact that this material exists and is waiting for research and exploration. This diverse work, by linking aspects of research and collecting, promises great opportunities. You have already referred to the fact that my research has gone into different directions, too. But I have always moved away in order to have a sharper perspective of the museum sphere and art history, and I am making good use of that now.

– Concerning your research about 1960s art, do you agree with those who say that the investigation and disclosure of the so-called III/3 documents about informers may take research in a wrong direction and distort art history?

I have begun that research because my experience shows that the aesthetisizing approach of art history does not really bring you close to understanding the phenomena of the recent past. However, in art history the historical approach is usually simplified and reduced to the confrontation of power and art, whereby heroic artists oppose the evil power and that is very manipulative. I don’t think of the III/3 documents as the be all and end all. In fact, I distinctly think in a different direction. I am not someone who invents, I am mainly concerned with known, already existing cases and I try to rethink them alongside new connections which come up as a result of research. I don’t intend to set up another model or patent my own approaches, but present the examples of the discourse between power and art more precisely.

– At a conference you spoke about the unfortunate situation Kassák was in when Vasarely organised his exhibition in Paris. Is he now known abroad?

It was precisely the exhibition in 1960 that enabled Kassák to re-emerge on the international scene after an absence of several decades. He played an inevitable role in the exhibitions presenting the great European historical avant-garde in the 70s and 80s. Moreover, he still does. On the one hand, that was when Modernism was processed in art history and when such works of art were simultaneously launched on the market. Kassák consented to that market trend, which raised several problems and they still have to be considered. Hungarian cultural policy did not treat him in a deserving manner – he was not allowed to go to his own exhibition in Paris. But Hungarian art has always struggled with not being able to go beyond the national horizon. Kassák’s case may help us face all these important issues and pose new questions to ourselves.