A Short Guide to Hungary’s Contemporary Art Scene (Article)


The two most weighty Hungarian contemporary art institutions, M?csarnok (Kunsthalle) and the Ludwig Museum Budapest have gone through significant changes during the last couple of years, in terms of both  their institutional structures and exhibition policies. M?csarnok-founded in 1877, opened in 1896, and still utilizing its original exhibition space-follows the model of the German Kunsthallen. Since 2007, after a long period as a state funded institution, it has been a non-profit, limited liability company with two external exhibition spaces; the Ernst Museum and the Dorottya Gallery (director, Zsolt Petrányi since 2006).

The Ludwig Museum, officially founded in 1996, but initiated in 1989 almost immediately before the political changes by the Ludwig Foundation, is a state funded museum. From the historic castle district of Budapest, it moved in 2005 to a newly built cultural center (Palace of Arts). The Ludwig Museum owns Hungary’s most important collection of post-1960 and contemporary art, the scope of which has been extended in the past few years under the directorship, since 2008, of Barnabás Bencsik. In recent years, both institutions have become more reflexive towards relevant issues, discursive contexts, and exhibition-making strategies of the international contemporary art scene.

The largest public collection of the history of Hungarian art is at the Hungarian National Gallery (founded in 1957), which devotes one section of its permanent exhibition to an overview of post-1960 Hungarian art. It also occasionally organizes contemporary art exhibitions. For example, the exhibition The New Refutation of Time: Works from the Irokéz Collection, 1988-2008 (2008, curated by László Százados) presented a private collection from the Irokéz gallery (founded in 2001 in Szombathely).

The Vasarely Museum, founded in 1987 and based on a collection of works by Victor Vasarely, functions within the institutional framework of the Museum of Fine Arts. The Vasarely organizes temporary exhibitions of modern and contemporary art which focus on the 20th-century-tradition and contemporary developments in geometrical and conceptual art art (e. g. Constructive-Concrete Wanted 1-2, curated by Dóra Maurer in 2008 and 2009).

Recently, the institutional landscape of art in Hungary has become more pluralistic and multi-centered. Besides the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Dunaújváros-an important center for contemporary art since the mid-1990s-two other institutions have helped to strengthen the position of non-Budapest based institutions; these are, MODEM – Centre for Modern and Contemporary Arts in Debrecen, which was founded in 2006, and Paksi Képtár, founded in 1991. The latter was recently moved to a new and spectacular building nominated for the Mies van der Rohe Award in 2009. The exhibitions of ICA (Dunaújváros) have tried to address the urban population and raise questions about the importance of local context, as well as strategies of a socially responsible art and institutional policy.

Despite the financial crisis, a couple of new, for-profit galleries have emerged recently on the Budapest art scene. A forerunner in this institutional development was Knoll Gallery, whichhas a strong focus on Central and Eastern European art and is based in Vienna and, since 1989, in Budapest. In 1998, Deák Erika Gallery was opened, with an emphasis mostly on painting and the promotion of artists from Hungary and abroad. In 2003, ACB gallery opened, exhibiting post-conceptual objects, sculptures, and installations, with a particular focus on the young Hungarian art scene. In 2006, these were followed by Inda Gallery and Kisterem, and then in 2007 by Videospace, a gallery devoted to contemporary video art. All these developments have strengthened the Hungarian for-profit sector at international art fairs.

Miklós Erhardt (b. 1966) is a significant figure of socially engaged art who has influenced the young, post-socialist Hungarian art scene since the mid 90’s. In 2009, his retrospective was held at the 30-square-meter Liget gallery (founded in 1983 and run by Tibor Várnagy). While Várnagy chose an anti-spectacular form of presentation, the exhibition was, at the same time, a response to the general lack of mid-career retrospective exhibitions that is a characteristic of institutional practice in Hungary. This lack makes it difficult to gain an overview even of major oeuvres in contemporary Hungarian art.

However, in the last couple of years there have been some important exceptions, such as retrospective exhibitions by Attila Csörgi (b. 1965, awarded by Nam June Paik Award 2008) and Pál Gerber (b. 1956), both at the Ludwig Museum Budapest. The Ernst Museum in Budapest organized shows of Szabolcs Kisspál (The Smallest Common Multiple, 2009, curated by Judit Angel) and Gyula Várnai (The Same Stream, 2010, curated by József Készman).  Spread-Out Landscape (2007, curated by János Sturcz), which showcased the work of  Imre Bukta, took place at the MODEM Centre for Modern and Contemporary Arts in Debrecen, and Kriszta Nagy’s retrospective entitled So far  (2007, curated by Barnabás Bencsik) was hosted by the vast industrial spaces of the former MEO (later WAX) cultural center.

Despite these recent developments, there remain significant gaps in crucial areas, such as a consistent publishing infrastructure, a stable financial background for artists and institutions, and the capacity for well-documented, up-to-date individual artist oeuvre catalogues as opposed to coffee-table type artist “monographs.” These shortcomings considerably hinder any attempt to achieve appropriate interpretations of important artistic achievements in contemporary Hungarian art.

The international network of contemporary art in Hungary has become  broader and more intensified in  recent years, mostly as a result of  two major projects, tranzit and ACAX | Agency for Contemporary Art Exchange. The former (curated by Dóra Hegyi) operates as part of an international project (supported by ERSTE Foundation) involving Austria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Since 2006, tranzit.hu has organized exhibitions, screenings, lectures, and discussions, all as part of what is referred to as the “Free School for Art Theory and Practice.” ACAX was established in 2006, and since 2008 has functioned within the institutional framework of the Ludwig Museum. It organizes residency programs for artists and visitor programs for curators, as well as exhibitions (such as those already described) and conferences, all with the aim of enhancing the international integration of the Hungarian art scene.

In 2010 the non-profit artist-run institution Impex – Contemporary Art Provider published a catalog, edited by Rita Kálmán and Katarina Ševi? (two of its founding members), under the title We are not Ducks on a Pond but Ships at Sea. This publication illustrated the history of independent art initiatives in Budapest from 1989 to 2009. In these two decades following the political transition, independent art spaces could only play a minor role next to the traditional, institutional system of art. In most cases, such spaces were unable to survive beyond this short period of time. In spite of this, the past few years have witnessed the emergence of a few vibrant, alternative spaces in the city.  One of these is T?zraktér – Independent Cultural Centre, founded in 2005 (originally in a former industrial building) and host to exhibitions, concerts, conferences, and workshops. Another is KÉK – Hungarian Contemporary Architecture Centre which, since 2006 has organized workshops, lectures, presentations and exhibitions focusing on urbanism and contemporary architecture. Since 2006 the aforementioned Impex – Contemporary Art Provider, has also best lived up to the idea of a non-profit, artist-run exhibition space, by organizing workshops, discussions, and exhibitions. Unfortunately, the lack of permanent locations and financial support remains recurrent problems for alternative initiatives in Budapest.

Publications, Periodicals

Journals of contemporary art established a relatively long time ago, such as Új M?vészet (Art Today, 1990) and Balkon (1993), are still functioning on a somewhat haphazard logic in terms of their publishing policy and reviewing of contemporary art exhibitions. Nevertheless, it marked an important development in recent years when Balkon came out with a series of theoretical articles and translations concerned especially with issues in visual studies. Balkon also has a newly developed service called “Ballon” which offers high-quality online documentation of exhibitions, events, and individual art works from the Hungarian art scene.  M?ért? (The Hungarian Connoisseur), established in 1998, reviews regularly modern and contemporary art exhibitions, but has a strong focus on art trade, too. Artmagazin (2007) differs from some of these other magazines in its aim to reach a broader public.

It was a moment of great significance when the quarterly Praesens – Central European Contemporary Art Review was launched in 2002. Published in three languages, it incorporated work from an international circle of authors, though especially from the Central and Eastern European region, and produced thematic issues on relevant topics in Hungarian, English, and German. Unfortunately, its publication has fallen into irregularity since 2006.

Another quarterly, the journal Enigma, has since 1994 published thematically edited issues on questions of modern and contemporary art theory and aesthetics (primarily translations). The online art magazine, ex.index (founded about a decade ago but functioning regularly since 2006), provides a detailed overview of the openings and exhibition programs in Hungary, and publishes articles, interviews and translations with a relatively clear focus on politically engaged and/or new-media-orientated art.

Tranzit.blog.hu, an important initiative of the tranzit project (see below), currently works with a regularly renewed editorial team and publishes critical reflections on  phenomena related to  contemporary art and visual culture. Since 1999, ikon.hu has provided an important online gallery guide to the Hungarian art scene (founded and run by the artist Endre Koronczi). In 2009, ikon.hu published a series of DVD’s called m.Ikon, which contained artist interviews and work documentations and focused primarily on the young Hungarian art scene and video-based works.

In 1999, a comprehensive handbook on modern Hungarian art was published by Gábor Andrási, Gábor Pataki, György Szücs and András Zwickl (The History of Hungarian Art in the Twentieth Century, published also in English) with an informative chapter on “Contemporary Art in the Nineties.” In 2002, the gallery-owner Hans Knoll edited a volume on modern Hungarian art with important chapters on the art of the 80’s and 90’s (both in Hungarian and in German, under the title Die zweite Öffentlichkeit). The fact that this later volume arose from a non-academic initiative points to a serious deficiency of the academic structure; that is, the lack of systematic research and monographic accounts on contemporary Hungarian art.

However, in the mid-2000s, a couple of important monographs were published on phenomena and aspects of Hungarian art since the 90’s. Erzsébet Tatai (2005) gave a comprehensive  overview of neo-conceptual tendencies, while János Sturcz investigated the utilization and presentation of the body according to questions of identity (both in Hungarian and in English under the title The Deconstruction of the Heroic Ego: the Artist’s Body as Metaphor in Hungarian Art from the mid-80’s to the Present, 2005). Additionally in 2005, Beata Hock analyzed the works of (not exclusively) women artists and projects in public art from a feminist perspective. In 2009, Edit András published her edited collection Cultural Cross-dressing: Art on the Ruins of Socialism, which, along with some important phenomena of contemporary art since the 90’s, analyzed the  changed interpretative framework for post-1989 art  within the international context of contemporary Eastern European art.


In January 2010, the Ludwig Museum Budapest opened the exhibition On the Eastern Front: Video Art from Central and Eastern Europe 1989–2009 (curated by Rita Kálmán and Tijana Stepanovi?). In June of that same year, M?csarnok opened the show, Over the Counter: The Phenomena of Post-socialist Economy in Contemporary Art[sic!] (curated by Eszter Lázár and Zsolt Petrányi). Both exhibitions, shown in the two most prestigious exhibition spaces of contemporary art in Budapest, signal the development of a significant interest in presenting contemporary Central and Eastern European art according to its capacity for critical reflection on the myriad social and political transformations since 1989.

It is important that neither of the two exhibitions styled themselves as an “After-the-Wall” type of show, in the manner of those exhibitions of the 1990’s whose sole aim was to (re)introduce Eastern European art into the Western canon. Though such an aim has its merits, this strategy of exhibition-making runs the risk of merely reinforcing the logic of hierarchical structures. Instead of limiting themselves to a preoccupation with nationhood, these exhibitions instead concentrated on the critical potential of contemporary art in a more broadly defined region, where not all social processes follow Western models.

Another significant exhibition of the past year was Agents and Provocateurs (ICA, Dunaújváros, 2009; later in Hartware MedienKunstVerein, Dortmund, 2010, curated by Beata Hock and Franciska Zólyom). A product of extensive research, the show examined various forms of critical artistic attitudes under state socialism in East Central Europe, and in the new democracies of the post-socialist countries. Although all of the above exhibitions were different in their approaches and aesthetic preferences, together they hint at the existence of a critical demand for reflection on the phenomena of social crisis and growing inequality under the newly formed late capitalist economies in the post-socialist countries. In this respect, the non-profit exhibition space Trafó Galéria (curated by Nikolett Er?ss) has played an important role in recent years through a series of exhibitions focusing on socially engaged art (such as, RadicalSolidarity: Artur ?mijewski, 2008; Revolution, I Love You, 2008; Try to Make a Simple Gesture…, 2009; Vacuum Noise, 2009).

Another conspicuous tendency of the past few years has been a renewed interest in the reinterpretation of cultural and artistic legacies of Hungary’s state-socialist decades. Kunsthalle Budapest presented the show, Béla Balázs Studio ’50: Other Voices, Other Rooms – Attempt(s) at Reconstruction (curated by Lívia Páldi, 2009), which created a conceptual exhibition space beyond traditional historical narratives for the 50 yearlong history of Balázs Béla Stúdió (BBS), an influential center for documentary and experimental filmmaking and oppositional culture.  Almost parallely, the Ludwig Museum showed a carefully conceived exhibition with works by contemporary artists on Amerigo Tot (1909-1984), an almost completely forgotten Hungarian émigré sculptor with a dubious and highly eclectic oeuvre who used to be the celebrated modern sculptor par excellence during the state-socialist regime (Amerigo Tot – Parallel Constructions, curated by József Mélyi).

Another  important earlier indicator  of this renewed sensitivity for cultural legacies and their fate after 1989 was Culture and Free Time (2007) by the Vienna based Hungarian artist Andreas Fogarasi (b. 1977) who represented Hungary at the 52nd Venice Biennale and was awarded the Golden Lion (curated by Katalin Tímár). His installation documented the disintegration of cultural centers established throughout the country during the socialist period, and was later shown at Ernst Museum in an individual exhibition entitled Information (2008). Further remarkable examples of this kind of artistic interest from the past few years include Blast Furnace (2007-2008) and 23 monologues (2009) by Zsolt Keserue (b. 1968), a documentary and multi-channel installation on the history of the cultural life of Dunaújváros, a city constructed out of nothing in the 1950s as a socialist “Stalin-City,” as well as István Csákány’s (b. 1978) sculptural projects, Monument for a Monument (Zilina, 2008) and The Worker of Tomorrow (2009), each of which re-interpret the heroic worker statues of the former socialist times. In her latest works, Gabriella Csoszó (b. 1969) deals with remnants of the Cold War-period, by making photo series and photo-installations of abandoned places of the Radio Free Europe (RFE) and about the recently discarded library of RFE’s former Hungarian department (Retransmission Timeout, 2009, Free Copies, 2010).

Since the  beginning of the new century the various symbols of a local but not exclusively Eastern European modernity have gone through a politically conscious yet poetic reinterpretation in Tamás Kaszás’ (b. 1976) installations (such as, Propaganda Barricade, 2003; Shelter of Hope, 2004; and Visual Aid, which was never realized, 2006). Also in the 2000’s, the  “replacements” and installations by artist duo Little Warsaw (András Gálik [b. 1970] and Bálint Havas [b. 1971]) have provoked debates  on the meaning and relevance of historical and recent public monuments in relation to issues of collective identity and memory (Deserted Monument; Instauration, both 2004).

Two of the above mentioned large-scale exhibitions, BBS ’50: Other Voices, Other Rooms and On the Eastern Front: Video Art from Central and Eastern Europe, were based on archives. This fact signals a further important development in the institutional practice of contemporary art in Hungary; namely, the extensive use and building of archives. In cooperation with the Béla Balázs Studio Foundation and the Hungarian National Film Archive, the studio’s films have been preserved at the Budapest Kunsthalle since 2007. The exhibition at the Ludwig Museum presented a selection from the Transitland Video Archive for Central and Eastern Europe, 1989-2009, a joint project initiated by InterSpace (Sofia, Bulgaria), the Ludwig Museum / ACAX Agency for Contemporary Art Exchange (Budapest), and transmediale (Berlin, Germany). The oldest video archive in Hungary, the archive of C³ – Center for Culture & Communication (founded in 1996), joined 2008 the EU-supported international project GAMA (Gateway to Archives of Media Art).

Founded in 1996, the oldest video archive in Hungary is the archive of C³ – Center for Culture & Communication. In 2008 it joined the EU-supported international project GAMA (Gateway to Archives of Media Art), which provides online access to important digital archives on media art. In the same year, an organization for supporting and presenting the young art scene in Hungary called the Studio of Young Artists (FKSE) published three volumes on its history, collection, and archive.

Another center for historical research and “archival laboratory,” is the Open Society Archive (OSA, founded in 1995).  The exhibitions OSA organizes at its own exhibition space, Centralis Galéria (curated by Miklós Tamási), are for the most part not “art” exhibitions. Yet OSA uses techniques and methods reminiscent of those recurrent in contemporary art. For example, The Trial (2008) was a seven-day-long re-enactment of the 1958 trial of Imre Nagy, the leader of the 1956 revolution who was eventually executed. The show relied exclusively on archival sound recordings of the historical proceedings in the court room.


In an era of growing nationalism and anti-Roma hatred in Hungary which culminated in a series of racist murders in 2008 and 2009, the exhibition by Roma artist Mara Oláh (b. 1945) at Liget  (2010) raised issues concerning the  social responsibility of art and  the possibilities for the effective representation of minorities. In a public sphere where minority identities are deprived of any appropriate “speaking positions,” the self-trained painter Oláh deals with personal trauma. She overcomes situations of social humiliation with an extraordinary ability to turn herself into a speaking subject.

While the lack of an institutional framework for presenting Roma culture perpetuates the condition of essential invisibility of contemporary Roma culture in Hungary, in the last two years a few major exhibitions have enhanced the chances for a the representation of Roma life and identity in art and culture. The most important stages of this development were two exhibitions. The first was Hidden Holocaust (M?csarnok, 2004), which devoted a separate part to the Nazi extermination of the Romas and presented works by Roma artists, such as  Mara Oláh; the second show was s Paradise Lost (2007, supported by the Open Society Institute), the First Roma Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale. Both shows were curated by Tímea Junghaus.

In his already mentioned individual mid-career exhibition in 2009, Szabolcs Kisspál made an installation under the title The 24th Flag. The title refers to the 23 historic flags which since 1985 are used during major military and state festivities. Part of these historic flags is a controversial one from the XIIIth century with red and white stripes which was used in the 1940s by the Hungarian Nazi arrow-cross party and which is currently preferred by the extreme right. The installation consisted of a plastic washbowl filled with water and placed in a Plexiglas vitrine and of a text on the wall. Both parts of the installation reflected on a 2008 public action of the Roma Municipality (OCÖ), the symbolical cleaning of the historically burdened flag. Through the absence of the object, the installation revealed the idea of the “cleaned” flag. Instead of representing the „Other”, it gave visibility at the same time to a minority’s political actions within the confines of an exhibition space.


State Institutions


Non-profit Galleries

For-profit Galleries

Other sites for information

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Zoltán Kékesi. Image courtesy of the author.Zoltán Kékesi, (1976, Budapest) is lecturer for art theory and contemporary art at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, Department of Art Theory and Curatorial Studies, and a research fellow at Eötvös-Loránd-University. After finishing his Ph.D. (2008) Kékesi now studies the archival politics of the representation of the Holocaust in recent art and film.

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