In August 2001, the world press reported the following about MEO (MEO Contemporary Art Collection and Exhibition Center), designed by István Bényei and János Héder:
WHEN communism expired in Hungary a dozen years ago, the art world eyed the changes with mixed feelings. On the one hand, a more open society was going to eliminate bureaucratic controls and nurture a dialogue with the West. On the other, it would enable the market to throw art into the hands of profit-hungry dealers and new-rich collectors. The situation has turned out to be more complicated, of course, but strong, independent art institutions are still a rarity. And old habits die hard.
Art museums are a good indication of how far the country has come. The museum is the yardstick against which cultural achievement is measured these days. And with buzzwords like ”cultural tourism” and ”Bilbao effect” calling them to action, many Central and Eastern European cities have entered the museum-building race. Vienna’s just-opened $125 million arts complex, the MuseumsQuartier, contains no fewer than three museums devoted to visual art. Trophy institutions are sprouting everywhere, from Jean Nouvel’s Kunsthaus in Lucerne, Switzerland, to the functionalist exhibition palace of the Center for Modern and Contemporary Art in Prague, not to mention Berlin’s many new and revived museums.
Hungary, a front-runner for acceptance into the European Union, does not wish to be left behind; two art museums are currently in the works for Budapest. But in a fast-changing country that’s still learning to sort out public and private interests, the new projects present an emblematic mix of noble ideals and slippery realities. Playing by the rules is hard to do, especially where the rules are up for grabs.
In the scrappy industrial neighborhood of Ujpest, a privately financed museum of contemporary art is set to open in late September. It is the brainchild of Lajos Kovats, a 48-year-old art dealer and collector. Two years ago, Mr. Kovats convinced Marton Winkler, an American-Hungarian leather merchant and fellow art collector, to donate two buildings in his 19th-century tannery complex to the project. Together the men are loaning 150 works from their private holdings to the venture and have sunk $700,000 into renovations. They’re calling it the MEO-Contemporary Art Collection (MEO stands for Quality Control Department in Hungarian, but its nostalgically ironic edge is lost in the translation).
Where leather was once treated with steam rising from giant vats of boiling water, multimedia exhibitions will soon receive paying visitors. A third and smaller structure, a sleek minimalist entry hall designed by Istvan Benyei of the Inarchi Architecture Studio, will be clad in high-tech luminescent panels. Mr. Kovats plans to adopt Western models of museum management at the 30,000-square-foot facility: flexible opening hours; a skeleton staff instead of the usual clusters of idle gallery attendants; volunteer adjuncts; educational and membership programs and the naming of rooms after private donors. He will also buy and sell inventory as the need arises. ”This won’t be another state morgue of a museum,” he promised.
”The Saatchi approach appeals to me,” he said, referring to the British advertising magnate and super-collector Charles Saatchi, who likewise buys and sells young artists’ work in bulk and operates his own kunsthalle-style art showcase, the Saatchi Gallery, in London. Like his role model, Mr. Kovats is not afraid to blur the lines between commerce and curatorship. Inside the entry hall, a few steps from the museum’s shop and cafe, he has taken the unusual step of installing a branch of his Blitz Gallery, where works made by some of the artists exhibited in the museum will be presented for sale. Conveniently, Mr. Kovats represents them as their dealer on the art market.
Mr. Kovats and his colleagues are not worried by the potential conflict of interest. ”Right now, in Hungary, nobody cares,” said Barnabas Bencsik, the 37-year-old curator charged with organizing the collection and playing host to traveling international exhibits. ”That consideration doesn’t enter into the thinking here.” Karoly Szaloky, who until recently served as managing director on the project and who also owns three Budapest galleries, said: ”If this crazy man is willing to spend his own money on a museum, you must give him a break for moving his gallery in there. It’s a forgivable sin.”
Perhaps. But the amalgamation of museum and art gallery might create an all too powerful center of gravity within the Budapest art world. In this nascent phase of the art market’s development, it sends a confusing message about what makes the selling of art different from its validation in museum-like settings.
Mr. Kovats is free to run his private institution as he likes, of course. But complicating matters further is the issue of public financing. Although the collection is not registered as an art museum under Hungary’s public collection laws (Mr. Kovats found the regulations — including a ban on the sale of works from the collection — far too restrictive), its managers will nevertheless lobby the government for operating support, claiming that this nonprofit institution provides an educational service. Are they trying to have it both ways? Mr. Kovats is pragmatic: ”Look, we don’t have people in this country yet who are willing to say, ‘Take this money and build a museum.’ ” In his view, this transitional moment calls for compromise.
If Mr. Kovats is spending mostly his own money, the same cannot be said about the decision makers behind Budapest’s other planned art facility: a museum of modern (as opposed to contemporary) art, which has kindled sharp acrimony in the art world.
That museum will be part of a vast convention, office and retail development now rising in south Budapest, on the site Hungary unsuccessfully pitched for the 1995 World’s Fair. It is being overseen by Sandor Demjan, a major real estate developer backed by Canadian investors, who built Budapest’s largest shopping mall.
Mr. Demjan was already at the center of a nasty culture war over his offer to install the Hungarian National Theater in his new Millennial City Center. Hungarians have mourned the theater’s old landmark home ever since it was torn down in 1965 to make way for a brutalist replacement; a previous attempt to rebuild it resulted only in a gaping hole in the busiest square in downtown Budapest, affectionately known as the ”national pit.” Opponents of the latest incarnation of the beleaguered theater faulted Mr. Demjan for skillfully using arts patronage as a means to curry favor from the government and inflate the worth of his real-estate assets.
Then the art world was stunned to learn last fall, from newspaper reports, that the Ministry of National Cultural Patrimony had agreed to Mr. Demjan’s plan for a 70,000-square-foot art museum on the remote and contentious site. Budapest’s first state art museum in a century would be financed using an unconventional arrangement: the cost, then estimated at about $7 million to $8 million, was being advanced by the private developers. It would be repaid by the state over 10 years.
As the majority owner at the project’s inception, Mr. Demjan was free to pick the architect and the technical consultants. An early version of the project put the museum in a larger building, which would contain a hotel, a parking garage and an auction house. It was all going to be done in two years, before the next election might put the plan in jeopardy.
The museum couldn’t claim either a name or a clear purpose. It lacked a collection and a budget to build one (works loaned from the National Gallery were going to be its main attraction), and it wasn’t clear what kind of archival, curatorial or educational purpose it might serve. Anxious to take advantage of Mr. Demjan’s offer, government officials decided not to consult any museum experts. According to Ferencz I. Szabolcs, the chief of staff and self-described ”bad guy” of the Ministry of National Cultural Patrimony, it was important to respond decisively to the ”irresistible opportunity” because the state ”didn’t have such large sums available at one time” for museum construction. ”Our tactical plan was to sidestep a public process until we’ve succeeded in getting a green light,” he said.
The shunned curators and art historians were incensed. ”They didn’t even bother to involve us in a cameo role,” said Andras Zwickl, a curator at the National Gallery. ”Of course we want a museum, but not like this.” The ministry was ”sewing the coat to the button,” another curator said in a televised debate, using a Hungarian proverb to criticize the decision to go ahead with the project before the new museum’s mission was properly clarified.
The experts argued that modern and contemporary Hungarian art was already housed at five museums in and around Budapest, some of which could be expanded, and they were worried about the drain the new institution would put on state resources. Each annual installment of the loan for the museum will exceed the new-acquisition budgets of all state museums combined.
”To build a new museum is the most beautiful thing in the world,” said Laszlo Beke, one of the country’s most distinguished historians of modern and contemporary art and a former museum director. ”But to simply hand it down to someone as a project like this is a crime.” Undeterred, the ministry has upped the construction budget to more than $10 million and shortened the loan repayment period to three years. Plans have since been approved to add a $50 million philharmonic hall and a showcase for Hungarian folk traditions to the Millennial City Center’s ”culture block.” Large sums were available after all.
In July, at a Parliament ceremony attended by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, it was announced that Janos Vasilescu, an ailing, 78-year-old collector, had bequeathed the state approximately 400 works of 20th-century Hungarian art valued at close to $3 million — a huge sum by Hungarian standards. (Some estimates of the collection’s value are significantly higher.) It seemed the museum’s woes were over. The institution was officially named the Museum of Modern Hungarian Art — with galleries named after Mr. Vasilescu — and its function was narrowed to exhibiting mostly paintings.
Mr. Vasilescu, a Romanian native residing in Hungary who made an unusually large fortune as a private entrepreneur under Communism, had assembled a top-rate collection by such mid-century Hungarian masters as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and the constructivist Lajos Kassak; two-thirds of the pictures are by the underappreciated Surrealist painter Lili Orszag. A new Vasilescu Foundation was established to make the collection available to the museum. The chairman of its board is none other than Mr. Demjan.
As it turned out, however, Mr. Vasilescu has been embroiled in a long feud with his son, Janos Vasilescu Jr., who claims half of the collection as his inheritance. After attempting but failing to forcibly remove a quarter of the artworks from his father’s apartment, Mr. Vasilescu Jr. has turned to the courts to enforce his inheritance claim, and one judge has ruled in his favor. (The case is on appeal.) It appeared that the elder Mr. Vasilescu had tried to put an end to the conflict by leaving his treasures to the state instead. There is already talk in Budapest that Mr. Demjan’s firm paid Mr. Vasilescu to reward him for his generosity. (In an interview with a correspondent for national radio, Mr. Demjan denied this claim.)
Looming over the controversy is the larger question of whether it makes sense at all to build a museum devoted to the 20th century. A younger generation of Hungarian artists — like the witty conceptualists Tamas Komoroczky and Antal Lakner, who were hits at this summer’s Venice Biennale — is producing fresh works that, for the first time in a half-century, speak the language of the international mainstream and can be acquired at reasonable prices. But instead of building an outlet for contemporary art, government officials want to ”pay back a debt to the past.”
In a country where culture has always been an extension of politics, such gestures are rarely taken at face value. Several high-profile cultural projects have been approved recently involving ideologically preferred subjects or artists and organizations loyal to the conservative-nationalist government. The concert hall envisaged next to the museum, for instance, is intended for the government’s favorite of the two main Hungarian philharmonic orchestras. A showcase for 20th-century art can likewise serve as a beacon for ideology: by appealing to the aspiring, culturally conservative middle class — the current government’s main electoral base.
All may be well in the end. The architects picked by Mr. Demjan are well regarded, and they realize that such opportunities don’t come along often. They have already convinced the backers to increase the size of the museum and push back the construction deadline to 2003. They have also consulted with experts. ”We didn’t sit here and design in the dark,” said Nora Demeter of Zoboki, Demeter & Associates. ”We want to create an intellectually acceptable complex.”
They’re dreaming of a version of London’s Barbican Center on the banks of the Danube, with a handsome glass atrium connecting three art institutions. Of course, that plan, too, could end up as a hole in the ground.
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