The Kingdom of Hungary was established in 1000. Following Ottoman expansion (1526 to 1686) and subsequent Austrian domination, it was doubtful whether the Hungarians would be able to retain their identity and autonomy. The 19th century, however, brought about a successful national revival, in which culture played a significant role. A considerable part of Hungary’s current cultural institutions and traditions is rooted in the nineteenth century.
Hungary’s typical East European social structure was also inherited from that period. A highly developed upper class strata of society, with high cultural standards comparable to most developed countries, was opposed by a majority that was captured in backwardness. While a stable middle class formed the basis of democracy, economic and cultural development in Western Europe, more than half of the Hungarian society was constituted by peasantry up until the middle of the twentieth century. Compared to the West, the size of the working class and the intelligentsia remained small and the bourgeoisie was weak. At the same time, being a Central European country, Hungary constituted a “western” kind of entity as opposed to the Balkans and the East.
After World War I, cultural policy played a strategic role in helping the country overcome its national trauma, with just a fragment of its former territory left. After World War II, cultural policy was focused on physical and political reconstruction. At the same time, the bourgeois, conservative, national and civic traditions were increasingly liquidated. By the late 1940s, the progressive element was eliminated from a Bolshevik kind of cultural policy. Up until the revolution of 1956, a crude, schematic course, slavishly imitating the Soviets, dominated the scene.
After the suppression of the revolution, cultural dogmatism began to melt away in the early 1960s. Up until 1989, similar to other areas of life, a rather protracted process of revision was in progress and the most gradual transition of the entire communist bloc had taken place. As a consequence of the weakening of the communist system, public resources were gradually depleted and, parallel to the withdrawal of political control, the state pulled out resources to subsidise culture. In the 1980s, the commercialisation of culture moved ahead, and the Soros Foundation in Hungary obtained an important role in the emerging vacuum of finances.
As a result of state subsidies, culture was accessible at low cost in the decades of communism, and cultural consumption was growing (reading of books, attendance at the theatre, cinema, concerts, libraries, museums and exhibitions). Under dictatorship, art acquired a specific political significance; its end also contributes to the view of many that culture has been one of the losers in the transition.
After the political turn of 1989-1990, the shaping of cultural policy was based on two main sources: the national traditions from before communism and modern western examples. The establishment of the agency for financing cultural projects called the National Cultural Fund (1993), based on the arm’s length principle, was an important sign of change.
Since 1990, when the first free elections took place, the pendulum of cultural policy priorities swung to the right and to the left at four year intervals; this regularity was broken in 2006 when, for the first time, the same “side” was re-elected. Some of the principles correspond to the clichés associated with the political notions of “right” and “left”: conservative administrations put greater emphasis on national heritage and pride and on the cultural links with Hungarians living in the neighbouring countries. A marked re-centralisation process occurred between 1998 and 2002, during the first Orbán government. It was during this period that culture enjoyed the highest relative ranking among overall priorities of the government in the past 30-40 years. The schism between the two “sides” reached its peak at the 2002 Parliamentary elections, flared up again in the autumn of 2006, and have remained a sad feature of Hungarian society; the efforts to shelter culture from political and ideological influences have not yielded lasting and overall success.
During the first few years, transition from communism took place amidst great economic difficulties. By the time the change of system had been completed and the new setup was consolidated, nevertheless by 2004, the year of Hungarian accession to the EU, per capita GDP had grown to slightly above 60% of the EU-25 average (purchasing power parities, PPP).
The 2006-2010 period was characterised by increasing economic and social crisis in Hungary – aggravated but not really caused by the world crisis. A huge deficit accumulated in the state budget (as well as in the balance of trade and payments). Those years did not favour concerted action for culture. The elections of 2010 brought about a landslide victory for the centre right Fidesz, with over two-third of seats in the Parliament, which started a fundamental overhaul of the legal and administrative structure of the country. The depth of changes was underlined by the release of a Declaration of National Cooperation which heralds a new era and which each public institution was obliged to display in the form of a framed poster. Work on a new constitution started and was accomplished within a year (with five amendments implemented during the following two years). As part of the changes, the highest level cultural administration became a state secretariat in the Ministry of Human Resources. The 2014 elections consolidated the current political setup, including its objectives and achievements in culture.
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.
Cultural policy objectives
The advent of the System of National Cooperation in the result of the 2010 parliamentary elections brought about fundamental changes also in cultural policies. On a longer scale, changes in culture are subject to more general processes in the system of taxation, local governments etc. In the short term, the primordial efforts of the government to reduce the accumulated public debts cast a shadow on almost every aspect of cultural policies. The diffuse nature of cultural finances in the country does not allow us to present how the various domains were affected by austerity.