Hungary’s Government Tightens Grip on Arts

Hungary-gripJulia Michalska in The Art Newspaper:

Already under attack from the European Commission for its policies on banking, the law and the media, Hungary’s national conservative government is now facing a tide of protest from the arts community. The government, led by Viktor Orban, stands accused of systematically replacing key figures in cultural institutions, staging pro-government exhibitions, rethinking permanent museum displays and replacing historic statues to fit its political agenda. “The fact that an authoritarian government wants to control the arts is in itself not surprising,” says the Hungarian economist Janos Kovacs. “But it’s incredible that this is happening in the middle of the European Union without provoking angry reactions in Brussels.”

Since coming to power with a two-thirds majority in 2010, Orban’s Fidesz party has passed more than 350 laws and rushed through a constitution which, the international community argues, endangers Hungarian demo­cracy. Last month, to celebrate the official inauguration of the constitution, Orban opened a government-organised exhibition at the National Gallery. It chronicles 1,000 years of Hungarian history, focusing on sovereign statehood and Christ­ian­ity (until 16 August). The show includes 15 large state-commissioned canvases depicting important historic events spanning 150 years, including an image of Orban. The event contributed to the decision by the National Gallery’s director, Ferenc Csak, to resign before the show opened. “The government shouldn’t have the power to order exhibitions with such a high political agenda. Museums shouldn’t be getting involved in politics,” says Csak.

There have been other government-instigated changes in personnel at leading institutions. Laszlo Simon, a Fidesz party MP and chairman of the parliamentary cultural and press committee, has become the head of the National Cultural Fund of Hungary—which up until now was a body independent of government, monitored by the culture committee. It is one of the most important organisations that funds Hungarian cultural institutions, including museums, libraries, theatres and archives.