“In Hungary, culture has no value because it doesn't increase one's voting numbers”

Anna Iltnere


Hungary's newly-established cultural politics foresee state support of a “court artist” – is what I'm told by the Hungarian curator, Barnabas Benczik, who participated as a guest-lecturer at last month's Cēsis Summer School. Not quite a week in length, the Latvian Contemporary Art Centre's Summer School inaugurated the brand-new residency center, designed by Kaspars Goba, in the Rucka Manor-house in Cēsis.

The fact that the new political elite put their own loyal cronies into leadership positions at cultural institutions explains why Benczik was relieved of his position as director of Budapest's Ludwig Museum last year; as per his contract, he had served as director for five years.

A small bit of context: Up until his death in 1996, German entrepreneur Peter Ludwig was one of the world's leading art collectors; together with his wife, Irene, they amassed over 20 thousand artworks over the years – trumping even Charles Saatchi. Frequently called “Mr. More” in the New York art scene, Ludwig, a chocolate-factory magnate, frequently gave in to his sweet-tooth for collecting by buying works in bulk. Unsurprisingly, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, which was established in 1976 with a core collection of 350 pieces donated from Ludwig's private collection (and worth US $ 45 million at the time), currently holds the world's third largest Pablo Picasso collection – 900 artworks, and is surpassed only by museums in Barcelona and Paris. 774 of the works were gifted to the museum in 2007, by the widowed Irene. The vast Ludwig collection is publicly accessible in more than 30 city museums world-wide, e.g., Vienna, Aachen, Beijing, St. Petersburg and, of course, Budapest, where it was opened in 1989. Several of these museums have been established on the basis of the donation from Ludwig, and consequently, have been named after him. Among the many contributions from Ludwig, one was that, in return for his generous donations, he requested additional investments from the local governments – namely, the building of new museums and the establishment of cultural foundations.

Turning back to Budapest, I'll mention here that Benczik hasn't found new permanent employment since his five-year contract was not renewed in 2013. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm has not faded – this formidable member of the Hungarian art world believes that enthusiasm is the grease that keeps the art machine moving forward. In addition, Benczik has always seen the global recognition of Hungarian art as his main objective. The initiatives in which he has been involved over the last 25 years have, in large part, gone toward achieving that goal. From 1993-95, Benczik was the visual art coordinator of the Soros Contemporary Art Centre – Budapest; from 1990-93 he headed Budapest's Studio Gallery; and from 1999 to 2001 he was a curator at the Trafo gallery. Benczik has been head curator at Muscarnok|Kunsthalle, and also worked on the exhibit featured in Hungary's pavilion at the 49th Venice Art Biennale. It is not for naught that Benczik has occupied the number one spot in the regional TOP50 list for “most influential person in Hungary's art scene” – and twice, no less.

Right now, though, he smirks at the thought of his influence – in Hungary, “the hands of contemporary art have just been tied”, so to say. In the following interview, he admits that the era of the “Bilbao phenomenon”, when a contemporary art museum could become a magnet for cultural tourism, has passed, and that the success of a contemporary art institute should not be measured by its visitor count, but by something altogether different.

A year has passed since you lost your position as director of the Ludwig Museum in Budapest. What are you doing now?

I'm trying to stabilize my “free-lance” situation. In 2006, before my job at the Ludwig Museum, I established ACAX (the Agency for Contemporary Art Exchange) with the mission of helping local Hungarian artists get into international circulation. There are similar agencies in the world, such as Frame in Finland and the Mondriaan Fund in the Netherlands, even though their scope, of course, is larger. In short, they are local organizations whose main goal is to promote the local art scene at a highly professional level.

Who finances ACAX?

Currently, no one (laughs). I established the agency in 2006 because I was convinced that there was a need for an organization that would work structurally, actively and purposefully. At the time, Hungary was not yet a part of any international art circulatory system. I put my years of experience and contacts to use and submitted my idea for this kind of project to the Ministry. We lucked out and they gave us financing. In two-year's time, we had created a pretty stable base for the agency and we had begun several programs. The first one was a guest program – we would invite curators who were actively working on an international level and organize for them custom-made tours of artists' studios and meetings with other members of the local art scene. We focused on inviting the heavy-weights – for instance, curators of various biennales and documenta – in order to create the opportunity for our local artists to pull themselves out of the local environment. The program was really effective and gave immediate results. A whole slew of artists suddenly arrived on to the international art stage.

...and so simply.

I think we were lucky, but an undeniable factor was the contacts that I had accumulated over the years – since the beginning of the 90s – from working in the art field. And I finally had an instrument with which to put my knowledge and acquired contacts to productive use.

Along with the guest program, ACAX also created a residency program – not here in Hungary, but rather to ensure that Hungarian artists would have the opportunity to spend some time in, and work in, another country. And we selected cultural metropolises like London, Berlin and New York – even Cairo, so that the time spent there would be a valuable experience in itself.

What happened to ACAX after the first two years of success?

I applied for, and got, the position of director of the Ludwig Museum Budapest, and worked there for five years. I decided that it would be best for the agency to be under the Ludwig Museum's institutional umbrella. We discussed this with the Ministry, and ACAX became a kind of department of the Ludwig Museum. Taking into account the museum's international status, it provided an additional base for the agency's development; in addition, the wages of two ACAX employees were paid from the Museum's budget, while funding for projects came from the Ministry. During its five years of operation, the agency managed to establish its status on a European scale.

What's happening with the agency now, since you are no longer the director of the Ludwig Museum?

Since ACAX is trademarked, and I am its creator, I “took” the agency with me – not a single decision can be made by it without my stamp of approval. One of the most painful issues at the moment is money because the agency is no longer funded by the Ministry nor, of course, by the Museum. Currently, ACAX is an independent institution. Since the agency has developed into a recognizable brand over the years, right now I'm simply working on stabilizing the situation; and I am thankful for the voluntary young curators who are helping me by working part-time for free. I'm trying to find private funding sources, and very much hope that there still are some enthusiasts and private collectors in Hungary who recognize the value of such activities in aiding the development of local artists' careers. After all, over the last (nearly) eight years, we have proven that this sort of method really works and brings results.

What we're trying to do right now is establish a local residency program so that foreign artists, curators and critics can come to Budapest, and not just for a short visit, but to live here for several months. Yes, even up to the current day we don't have a high-level artist residency program. That's a niche that we want to fill. In cooperation with the Mondriaan Fund, we are already organizing a pilot project in which we will invite Dutch curators to Budapest. Perhaps it's the residency program that will become the key to ensuring that the agency is financially self-sustaining.

What were your goals when you started working at the Ludwig Museum, and which of those did you achieve in your five years there? Which of your accomplishments give you the most satisfaction?

As you know, the Ludwig Museum in Budapest belongs to a family that consists of several museums. There are Ludwig Museums in other countries as well, but it's not a franchise like the Guggenheim museums. Accordingly, each Ludwig Museum has its own history, profile and position – on both a local and international level. My goal was to strengthen the status of Budapest's Ludwig Museum on the international playing field by raising our operations to a world level of professionalism; over five years' time this was, for the most part, achieved.

I believe it is important to be aware of the whole circle of Central and Eastern European contemporary art museums – to strengthen their relationships with one another, and to understand the uniqueness of this region. Budapest's museum stands out with its distinctive collection, at the core of which is, of course, the Ludwig donation. What is so special about it is that alongside the big world masters from the 60s, 70s and 80s – like Warhol, Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, etc. – are artistic gems from Hungary and Eastern Europe. This sort of situation is unique because all of the other museums in Europe and the USA basically concentrate on the narrative of Western art history. Meanwhile, art from Central and Eastern Europe is a series of blank spots on this map. In addition, our region's capitals – such as Zagreb, Prague, Tallinn and others – do have contemporary art museums, but they don't have any notable Western masterpieces, the lack of which is due to historical reasons. And that is why the Ludwig Museum is in such a unique situation. My vision was to make the museum in Budapest the central axis of contemporary art museums in this part of Europe. Because the museum's collection is a superb overview of both the global and local art scenes, it is able to present the broadest picture of the development of the region's art in context with the cornerstones of Western art.

The first director of Budapest's Ludwig Museum, Katalin Néray, gave great attention to enlarging the regional collection; many works by artists from Poland and other neighboring countries were bought, including some real masterpieces. In the five years that I was director, we continued to place an emphasis on buying art from the Central and Eastern European region – especially 70s avant-garde, which is currently very popular in the world and is being examined once again. I'm happy that I felt this trend very early on, because that allowed us to be a part of the global process that started around 2005. I experienced how museums with encyclopedic art collections – like Tate, MoMA and the Pompidou Center – realized that they're missing a page in the narrative of 20th-century art history: the cultural achievements of the 60s and 70s that happened behind the Iron Curtain. As a museum, we initiated several academic studies that would help fill in these blank spots and that would, perhaps, be of interest to Western museums. I am convinced that the museum must be the central figure spurring on this kind of development – towards a direction of international discourse.

Will the Ludwig Museum continue on this course that you began?

(Shrugs.) It's very hard to tell. First of all, because this sort of activity is a profoundly sensitive process that is basically dependent on the director's personal web of contacts and relationships that have been maintained and cultivated for many years. In leaving the position of director, I invariably took along my whole “database”. In any case, such a swift change of leadership is a complete waste of all previous efforts. Someone will have to start the whole thing anew. But I do value the time I spent at the museum because it was a great challenge to me; in addition, I believe we made a great step forward. That was confirmed by the support we received from our partners, who were increasingly following what we were doing; it was increasingly easier to create cooperative projects.

In your opinion, are museums a benchmark of a country's level of development?

I think that every museum must be evaluated separately. One must take into account its history of coming into being, as well as the history of the local art scene; one must understand the museum's position in the context of this local scene. Does a museum help in giving global recognition to a country's national art? I doubt one can make such broad assumptions about a country's overall development based on just one museum. In any case, a good museum must keep in its line of sight the goal of encouraging cultural growth, and, using the network of contacts at its disposal, it must invite situations that could become a foundation for new creativity. A museum's job is to keep safe the achievements of the past, to make them intelligible in the present day, and to support the creation of artworks in the future. And one must cooperate with world-level museums throughout this process – because most of the knowledge and energy is there! The art world is a large playground, and I saw Budapest's Ludwig Museum as a small part of it, albeit a small one. One also cannot forget the local audience, and one must constantly think about how to present something valuable to it. Because a museum that operates under the support of the tax-payers – and then snobbishly turns its back on them – is an alien city.

What can a museum give to its local people?

Contemporary culture is an excellent instrument with which to keep people in shape. A good local museum can give its visitors a high level of awareness and a wider scope of things. Of course, your average person will say that they don't understand contemporary art. But I am convinced that good art always gives society something of worth. It may sound sentimental, but it does have practical consequences as well. The presence of contemporary art helps people keep their thinking “fresh”, it airs out their heads, it urges them into having a critical spirit, and in the end, it encourages the development of innovation.

What would you think of a country that doesn't have a contemporary art museum?

(Laughs.) Hungary didn't have a contemporary art museum until some chocolate magnate from Germany showed up in Budapest and offered the city some works by Picasso. I think that, on the one hand, it's not exactly a flattering portrait of Hungary's cultural climate in the 1980s – that is, taking into account that other cities managed to reach such a level of development that they could establish national contemporary art museums on their own – for example, Zagreb, which accomplished this while still under the thumb of the Cold War. Although I am, of course, happy with our stroke of luck in getting the Ludwig Museum.

Do you suppose that without the gift from Ludwig, Hungary would still be without its own contemporary art museum?

Most likely, it would only be a division of the National Museum, which would automatically mean that it wouldn't have an international scope. That is still an acute problem; even though the Cold War is a thing of the past, the museums in post-soviet countries are inert in terms of acquiring world masterpieces in order to complete their collections – it's just not something they can realistically do.

On the subject of Budapest's art life – what is the current situation of the MEO Contemporary Art Collection, the institution that art collector Lajos Kovac wanted to open at the start of the 2000s in his bid to become “Hungary's Charles Saatchi”?

That already fell apart a long time ago!

You were the curator for this collection, isn't that so?

Yes; the project started in 2001 and I worked with them for one year. It was a private initiative, and in these cases the priorities are often completely different... While I was consulting them on the collection, I tended to think in the long term, but these private investors were more interested in experiencing an immediate rise to fame. After a year, I refused to participate, and then after another year, all of these “castles in the air” came crashing down.

Sometimes these sorts of crazy ideas from private collectors become lucky successes...

Yes, sometimes! (Laughs) Unfortunately, in this case it was obvious that a part of their luck would have come from respecting the opinions of a professional – which they ignored.

How would you describe the situation in Hungary – how large is the support for art from the private sector? Are there many private collectors?

The situation has improved over the last eight years. Local galleries are increasingly present at international art fairs. The act of increasing private businesspeople's interest in art is a longterm process in which each participant in the field has to do his part: the museums, the curators, the gallerists, etc. Not only does one need to explain and show, but one must also create situations in which they open themselves up to new discoveries. But that's a hard and longterm job. One simply has to spend time with them, and in various conditions. But I do also understand these businesspeople for whom, in the beginning, it is hard to accept the logic of the art market – a market in which the economic rules are a bit different than usual. Nevertheless, there are many for whom this is the reason that art becomes their passion – because it challenges them.

There are several Hungarian private collectors who have become involved in a program organized by London's Tate Museum that is oriented towards filling the gaps that concern various world regions in the Tate's collection. Funds are accrued from private supporters who come from the corresponding regions and who have paid a substantial membership fee – ten thousand pounds a year; members then have the opportunity to participate in the selection process and can support the inclusion of artworks from their respective countries into the Tate collection. A commission like this was formed in 2012 for the Central European and Russian region. Among the members are collectors from Poland, Russia, Hungary and Slovenia. They also organize research trips in which Tate curators travel to the relevant countries and meet with the local artists – artists whom they most likely would never meet if it wasn't for this kind of program.

In your opinion, what is the best financing model for a contemporary art museum? Just state support wouldn't be enough to ensure a high level of operations, would it?

Of course, the more sources of funding, the better. But it's not even that expensive to maintain a museum. In addition, a high level of operations is not so dependent on money, but rather on knowledge, professional skills, and a good dose of enthusiasm. The pitfall in this story is always the physical building itself, which constantly generates expenditures. The thing is, if the government has finally decided to build a contemporary art museum, then this decision comes in a set – one that includes huge personal ambitions. The museum must be a noticeable giant – an expensive “bubble” – so that they can invest an equally immense amount of money into it and build a castle, which will later ensure the politicians with a satisfied set of voters. But once the castle is built, there usually isn't any money left with which to maintain it. It's an insane logic that is also supported by European structural funds that are oriented only towards co-financing such gigantic projects; meanwhile, keeping it running for the longterm is left to the locals. In short, the pitfall is personal ambitions of the people allocating the money. Finding the right proportion requires master skills.

Cultural tourists like the big “bubbles” – it's often an argument to which politicians especially pay attention.

That time has passed. I'm not sure that a contemporary art museum is the main magnet for streams of tourists today. Cultural tourism is dictated by the cultural context. London's Tate is visited by swarms of people because London simply has a completely different tourist density. Nevertheless, tourism is largely fed by much more classic “sights to see”. At the same time, I believe that contemporary art is necessary for each and every society for it to blossom, flourish and be progressive in its development. However, success should not be measured by visitor numbers – that's not an adequate metric. A museum's success is better measured by how often it loans out its collection.

How would you characterize Hungary's cultural politics?

Right now, after the latest elections, it's a great mess. The new cultural politics is one of not caring about culture anymore. Culture has no value because it does not increase one's voting numbers. Great support is given to, for example, sports. In the eyes of the politicians, culture no longer carries any prestige. However, in order to channel off the money that is allotted to this sector, the Art Academy has been raised to a new political level – it is not an educational institution, but something similar to the Academy of Sciences, in which there is a certain number of members, and through which go absolutely all decisions concerning the division of state funding that has been alloted to culture. Among the members are certain 60- and 70-year-olds who have good relationships with the current political clique, and therefore, have the privileged status of deciding which projects will be funded. Needless to say, contemporary art is not in their circle of interest. This academy used to be an NGO, but with the last elections it has acquired a fundamental political role. And all of the state-funded institutions, including the Ludwig Museum, can only employ people who support the current political elite. They quietly waited until the end of my contracted term, and then asked me to leave. This new cultural “filter”, this privileged academy, has turned Hungary's cultural life into a nightmare. Only the “court artists” are supported.

What does the creative intelligentsia do in this situation? You, and others who think as you do?

We have decided to test the new system. In the spring of next year we're going to hold the Budapest Biennale with world-class participants, but without any state support. We'll see if that's even feasible (laughs).