Notes for a Budapest Museum Master Plan (Article)

Similar to the country’s system of cultural institutions, the Hungarian museum system is bloated. Budapest is the cultural center of the country, as anything outside its limits is still referred to as provincial. The country’s major art museums with their most important exhibitions, large art schools, journals, artists, and the richest collections are all situated in the capital.

The most serious attempt to decentralize the museum system dates back to before the political transition. However, this was not a once-and-for-all resolution, since the upgrading of rural locations outside of Budapest was actually a project in the works intermittently from the 1950s to the 1980s (the ‘50s and ‘70s being the most concentrated periods in this respect). The problems of the system of art museums in Hungary are more complex than the problems ordinarily encountered in museum management or regulation. Apart from issues concerning geographical locations there are significant ideological considerations. After 1989, the former ideology, with its clear cultural policies and mandates, disappeared and with it vanished a sense of unified intentions and comprehensive concepts for the art world.

At a time of centrally planned commands and regulation deals, the state defined directives for its museums and decided as an omnipotent central authority about centralization and decentralization. The last large-scale cultural policy decision related to art museums was made before the political transitions: Peter Ludwig, the German chocolate factory owner, established the Ludwig Museum in Budapest at the end of the ‘80s, as a part of his Eastern-European expansion.

As for other art museums in Budapest-and particularly those dealing with 20th century and contemporary fine art-the situation is unchanged and all the while the condition of museums outside of the capital continues to decline (the current condition and roles of the previously state funded collections at Székesfehérvár and Pécs are good indicators of this tendency). The number of art institutions in Budapest is high, encompassing the M?csarnok/Kunsthalle, which deals with presenting contemporary art, but is barely funded by the state; the Museum of Applied Arts, a kind of Sleeping Beauty; or the Kiscelli Museum, which has superb characteristics, though it is less innovative. The most important issues, however, are decided within the triangle of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Hungarian National Gallery, and the Ludwig Museum (Museum of Contemporary Art).

During the political transition, these separated roles belonging to the infrastructure of the past still seemed useful. The Museum of Fine Arts collected and exhibited works from the history of art, and would only collect 20th century art incidentally (these were mainly the works of Hungarian artists overseas). According to the original concept, the Ludwig Museum was ultimately to receive the Post-WorldWar II collection from the National Gallery, which collects Hungarian art. This was to complement its continuously growing collection of contemporary art. However, these plans were scrapped during the 1990s. While the National Gallery kept both its collection from the second half of the 20th century and its contemporary collection, the Ludwig Museum-under the name Museum of Contemporary Art-became a separate entity from the National Gallery.

After 2000, the Museum of Fine Arts also expanded in the direction of modern and contemporary art, mainly due to the tension created by the parallel collection and exhibition of contemporary art at the Ludwig Museum and at the National Gallery. This major shift toward the contemporary echoes the market’s movement in the same direction but, unfortunately, results in general confusion. Added to the murky legal and financial situation of Hungarian museums, this confusion has prompted the question of a general museum concept and the need for a master plan.

The idea for a master plan for Central Europe of the 21st century came with the mid and long-term plans of Berlin and Vienna. In Berlin, the main motivation behind a comprehensive plan was the unification and logical dissection of the collections from the East and those from the West, the large-scale reconstruction and transformation of the Museum Island, and the rationalization of the running of museums. In Vienna, the intention to co-ordinate the activities of museums only became stronger with the establishment of the new Museum Quarter and the effect of the federal museum law.

In Budapest, the recent activities of the three great art museums are characterized by increasing overlapping. All three of these institutions “discovered” 1960s and 1970s Hungarian art (and within that, conceptual art, which in the post-transition canon occupied only a peripheral position) at almost exactly the same time.  Furthermore, all of them also simultaneously discovered the value of classic modern Hungarian photography and the potential that lies in the absence of a museum of photography in Budapest. Following in the footsteps of the Museum of Fine Arts, Hungarian museum officials started to show interest in the possibility of blockbuster exhibitions, and they realized the importance of holding and acquiring private collections and archives. It is no coincidence then, considering the historical traditions and the historical origins of museums, that the affairs of Budapest’s museums remind one of the conditions in Vienna, where the MUMOK, the Albertina, and the Österreichische Galerie all intersect with one another conceptually, although the latter may certainly boast of richer circumstances.

The thought of merging the National Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts occurred to the director of the Museum of Fine Arts two years ago, while the idea of a new museum district was that of the future mayor of Budapest (this year).  Of course, this was not the first time since the political transition that ideas for establishing and transforming museums dealing with 20th and 21st century art were discussed in a political forum. One such space probe-which took off and then disappeared into the clouds-was the construction of a Budapest branch of the Guggenheim Museum, or the establishment of a sub-office for Miami Basel in Hungary. The most far-reaching of these plans came into existence after dodging professional organizations: around the year 2000, the Ministry of Culture together with a private investor wanted to establish a  Museum of Modern Hungarian Art. The institution was to rely exclusively on a private collection and on the collection of the National Gallery.

While professional organizations were busy publicly explaining their views on the necessary and possible changes to the institutional system and the functions of a possible new institution, the far-reaching plan itself underwent many changes as it made its way through the political circles. In the process the museum became a concert hall and a theater (under the name of Palace of Arts), while the Ludwig Museum was given a new location in the building’s side wing. And while no new museum was ever built, running this non-existent building will consume, over the next few years, an absurd 8-10 percent of all the resources that the Hungarian state allocates to culture in any given year.

The main features of a master plan for art museums in Budapest were sketched out during a series of professional debates in the city. The final consensus was that there is a real need for a new contemporary art institute that would also fulfill the function of a 21st-century museum. Another essential component of the consensus was the emphasis on the need to collect and exhibit 20th-century Hungarian art in an international context. It was also decided that any new institution’s area of collection should be expanded to cover wider areas of visual culture in order to establish collections of architecture, design, photography and media arts. Although these directions were sketched out, since then there has been no follow-up and there has been no dialogue between politicians and the professional representatives of the art field. As a result these useful discussions did not translate into a rethinking of Budapest’s museum structure.

The persistent absence of a master plan may stem from more than the inability to reconcile the political with the professional sphere, although the ad hoc proposals of politicians are impossible to back up professionally. The most sustained challenge to a coherent and unified system is the lack of funds that plagues the museum system in Budapest. Therefore, not only does the idea of a museum district seem like an illusion, the possibility of establishing any large-scale state institution becomes more and more of a pipe dream. Another possible explanation lies in the fact that the prevailing cultural policy since the political transformation has been to continue with the old model-that is, the use of direct control instead of a structural transformation based on dialogue. Hence, instead of discussing the conceptual cornerstones of the museum system (why is the funding of contemporary art collections even important? In what ways could the donations from private collectors be made simpler? Is it possible to connect museums with art education?, etc.), we are left with continuously changing cultural policy courses and museum preferences.

In contrast with the cinema or the performing arts, where in past years each medium has lobbied for its own legal regulations, politics and the field of art history travel along vastly different circuits. Even if there is some overlapping or cooperation, the result is an attempt to turn back the wheel of time: a return to central control and supervision, emphasizing the importance of permanent exhibitions and static collections as opposed to dynamic, temporary displays.

Nevertheless, a master plan for Budapest that relies on a thorough evaluation of the situation would be not only a great starting point, it would also represent an indispensable instrument for rethinking and transforming the museum system we inherited from the times before the political transition.

Initially translated by Daniel Antal

József Mélyi. Image courtesy of the author.József Mélyi is a Hungarian art historian and critic. His main interest is contemporary art, with a special focus on public art and institutional critique. He has been curating exhibitions since 1993, and is the founder and editor-in-chief (2000–2009) of Exindex, an online contemporary art magazine. He has been lecturing at László Moholy-Nagy University of Art since 2005, and at the University of Fine Arts, Budapest since 2009.