For those working in the Hungarian art scene, it had been hoped that the country’s six-month term at the helm of the European Union (EU) presidency, which began on 1 January, would increase awareness of their projects at home and abroad. However, rather than painting a positive picture of the first time the former Eastern Bloc country has held the title, international attention has focused on controversial domestic legislation, with Hungary’s recently elected government accused of authoritarianism.
Two big Hungarian exhibitions are set to open in Belgium, where the EU presidency is based. “Hungary in Focus” at Bozar in Brussels (4 February-8 May), which includes Balázs Kicsiny’s The New Arrivals (Temporary Resurrection), 2010, and “Joy and Disaster” at SMAK, Ghent (25 March-5 June), have been organised to mark the presidency and will seek to promote the vibrancy of Hungary’s domestic art scene.
However, Hungary’s cultural scene has been overshadowed by criticism of prime minister Viktor Orban, the leader of the conservative Fidesz party which won the election last April, who has created a media watchdog that has the power to fine media outlets deemed to violate public interest, order and morals. The controversy has led to suggestions that Hungary is ill-placed to act as the EU’s figurehead.
Several of those involved in exhibiting Hungarian art abroad privately acknowledge that the controversy surrounding government policy has damaged Hungary’s international standing, but maintain that it should not detract from an appreciation of the country’s artists. Speaking about the situation, artist Hajnal Németh, who will represent Hungary at this year’s Venice Biennale, said: “In terms of contemporary art, national representation is always a contradictory matter, but I don’t represent the Hungarian government, its politics and cultural policy.”
The centre-right government is thought to be influencing the appointment of a new director for Budapest’s prestigious Mucsarnok exhibition centre.
Its current director, Zsolt Petranyi, was appointed under Hungary’s previous Socialist Party government. His five-year contract ended on 31 December, but he is still in the post waiting to see if it will be extended for another term.
In November a competition for the directorship was launched by the legal owners of Mucsarnok, MNV, the Hungarian State Holding Company. Petranyi applied for the post along with four other applicants, which include the contemporary art collector Francesca von Habsburg.
Controversially, MNV declared the initial competition to be “inefficient” on 29 December. Petranyi’s contract was therefore extended until 31 January, with no indication as to how a long-term solution would be sought. To further complicate the situation, while MNV is controlled by the ministry of national development, Mucsarnok’s funding is provided by a new super-ministry for national resources, which incorporates the cultural portfolio. The concern in Budapest is that MNV, under direction of the secretary of state for culture, Géza Szocs, will appoint their own preferred candidate without following a transparent competition process.
Commentators believe Von Habsburg, who has significant family connections with Hungary, is the conservative government’s preferred candidate. While Petranyi is highly respected as a director and curator, Hungarian art is looking to boost its international profile and locals are not necessarily adverse to Von Habsburg’s involvement.
Margit Valko, the curator of the commercial Kisterem Gallery in Budapest sees the positives. “To nominate a famous cosmopolitan collector and member of a museum donor family with Hungarian roots could attract massive attention to anything that is happening in an institution, and hopefully for the local art scene as well,” she said.