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Hungary/ 2. General objectives and principles of cultural policy  

2.1 Main features of the current cultural policy model

It would be difficult to place Hungarian cultural policy into any one of the existing "models". If anything, the Hungarian cultural policy can be described as eclectic. Similar to other countries in the region, Hungarian cultural policy has inherited two complementary features, which can be labelled as plebeian and aristocratic. Historically, culture has had the social function, or rather mission, of empowering the lower classes. This, for example, is reflected by the significant share of socio-cultural programmes and institutions in the various cultural budgets, especially at the local levels. At the same time, determined efforts serve the achievement of cultural excellence, often in the spirit of adding to the pride of the nation.

After the regime change, (1989/90) decentralisation and the arm's length principle were important slogans. The objective conditions for the former have been set by creating nearly 3 200 local – especially municipal – self-governments in 1990, and the weight of local governments in public financing of culture soon surpassed that of the central government; however, both in the eyes and expectations of the public, and in actual practice, national cultural policy is fairly centralised. The member of the cabinet in charge of culture, currently the Minister of Human Resources, is supposed to bear primary responsibility for Hungarian culture. The running of major cultural institutions is considered to be a state obligation. Although the National Cultural Fund (NKA) was established in 1993 as an arm's length agency and has been acting in this capacity since then, its strategic role is usually underestimated – and currently challenged by the Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA).

Furthermore, Hungarian cultural policy is characterised by pragmatism, in which there is an absence of basic official documents. The orientation of cultural policies and practices are rarely guided by high level statements, legal acts, strategic plans or theoretical documents. During the 2000s efforts were made to change this characteristic by composing two draft middle-term strategies, but both were shelved after a change of minister. The place of overarching strategies has been taken by legislation in certain cultural domains: film and the performing arts. In 2012 medium term strategies have been disclosed by all nine sub-boards of the National Cultural Fund following that of the main Board – without much effect on actual practices.

A latest evidence of pragmatism in the sense of the lack of need for theoretical foundations is the decision to downgrade (practically dissolve) the National Institute for Culture by ordering it under the charge of the Lakitelek Folk High School, a conservative non-governmental foundation in the countryside; the research section of the Institute used to be a leading workshop for cultural studies. As a counter move, MMA received a villa and billions of forint to build up its own research section.

A few areas had found their way both into the 2007-2013 and 2014-2020 National Strategic Reference Frameworks for the EU Structural Funds, addressing the rationalisation and modernisation of libraries, museums and houses of culture (socio-cultural activities), as well as of the place of culture (especially built heritage) in urban development.

The main underlining aspect of the processes that have taken place after the landslide victory of Fidesz has been the concentration of decision-making: important single cultural issues are decided ad hoc by high level functionaries. Some early examples were the appointment of a governmental commissioner for the National Opera by the prime minister (overwriting the result of the call administered by the culture ministry); an extraordinary subsidy to a once brilliant veteran dancer's group by the prime minister; the personal choice of a little  known private gallery to run a large scale art exhibition in Beijing by the (former) state secretary; and the discretion of the mayor of Budapest to appoint theatre directors, which led to the controversial case of Új Színház (New Theatre), now led in the spirit of the radical right. Disputes have occurred over a number of other positions, the most notable case being the director of the National Theatre in Budapest. Lately, the accumulation of resources in the Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA), and the large scale overhaul of the big cultural institutions are in focus.   

Chapter published: 07-11-2016

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