Hungarian Museum System – On the Threshold of Chaos

After the elections in 2010 there were many who were not only counting on the newly established government, with its two-thirds majority, committing themselves to economic reforms but also to long-awaited reforms in the culture institution system – including the public collections. It is well known that the structures, operation and financing principles of the strongly centralised Hungarian museum system have changed only a little since the sixties-seventies. Not one of the various governments in power since the change of political regime dared to implement changes that extended past a single government cycle, their primary objective remained to preserve the operability of the sector.

However, from 2010, instead of the expected reforms and the rethinking of the legal and economic background, the ideas that were considered were primarily aimed at increasing the prestige of those in power but which were difficult to justify in the present state of the country. These ideas included the setting up of a new museum quarter in the capital city, the cultural state secretariat´s (no longer a ministry) idea of another quarter, with the significant transformation of the city centre. Aside from these dreams, a third idea became the government intent from the middle of 2011: according to this the Hungarian National Gallery would be merged into the Museum of Fine Arts, then with the exclusive support of the European Union both museums would be accommodated together in a newly created building complex from 2017. Absurdly the government gave a total of four months for the merger to take place, until March 1st 2012, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts was appointed as the government commissioner.

Among the organisations in Hungary, the Hungarian section of AICA criticised the project and the local ICOM gave its support. In protest against the decision the director of the National Gallery resigned from his position at the end of the year. The government commissioner set out the objective of the project as the reunification of the institution separated in 1957, and the placing of Hungarian art into the international context, at the present moment there are fierce arguments in progress about the economic realities of the program and about its usefulness from an institutional point of view. At a time when huge representative investments are being planned in Budapest, the county museum system is heading towards bankruptcy with respect to both economic and institutional aspects. For years there have been hardly any resources available for expanding collections, and in numerous places the debts are of such an extent that bankruptcy trustees have had to be appointed for some of the organisations. 2012 has also brought about changes to the county system, the large majority of the public collections have been handed over to care of the state (local) Government Offices, which have, on top of everything else, set their sights on radically reducing the support they are given.

Even without this measure, the situation was catastrophic, at the end of 2011 the government prescribed a 20 percent salary cut for the public collections, making cynical reference to efficiency. In certain museums the museologists also work part-time as security guards. This financing and administrative chaos is only increased by the fact that according to new prescriptions – more rigid than in the past – local town governments are unable to provide sufficient support for the collections operating in their jurisdiction. So at the present moment Hungarian art museums exist without any comprehensive system of regulations that would promote their independence on the ruins of the earlier structure.

József Mélyi, Chair of AICA Hungary