Information on the Proposed Dissolution of the Hungarian National Gallery as an Independent Institution

1. The Hungarian National Gallery
Photo : D. R.

In the official gazette of Government Decrees (Magyar Közlöny) László Baán, Director of the Szépm ?vészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts) since December 2004, was appointed Government Commissioner with full powers for planning a new museum district of Budapest. As part of this plan [1] the merging of the Hungarian National Gallery with the Museum of Fine Arts was announced.

Twenty days later on the 20 of October a new governmental decree confirmed the previously announced decision in regard to the merging of the capital’s two largest fine art collections under the leadership of László Baán. The deadline for uniting the two museums is the 29th of February 2012.

This decision has been taken by the government without any museological or art historical advice or soundings. It is based exclusively on an initiative of the newly appointed overall Director, Lászlo Baán (who is, incidentally an economist, and not an art historian nor a museologist by training), which itself pre-empted any expert discussion. Even the current Director of the Hungarian National Gallery (Ferenc Csák) and his staff had no prior knowledge of the decision. He resigned as a protest in November (see the article in The Art Newspaper).

Protests questioning the sense and logic of such a merger, together with the way the decision has been made, have been raised in the professional forums of museology, art history and art criticism (see here). Discussion of the issue was kept out of the national media (inclusive of newspapers and cultural journals as well as state television). The interviews given by László Baán only touched on the subject of the merger, but always mentioned it solely in the context of the planned new museum district for Budapest, for which also he is appointed as the governmental executive. The project also envisions the construction of new museum buildings for other collections. In the outline plan, one of the new edifices is vaguely described as a gallery where some Hungarian paintings from the National Gallery will be displayed alongside their contemporary French, German and other paintings from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.

These plans are as yet vague and are to be elaborated and presented only in mid-2012. Apart from the rhetoric about museums being raised to “European and world status”, the basic aim at the moment would appear to be that of obtaining financial support from the EU for the museum district project. In regard to this, László Baán has published an interview in The Art Newspaper.

2. A room of the Hungarian National Gallery
Photo : D. R.

A comparison may help to make clear to colleagues abroad why this project is so devastating, not only for professionals in the art world, but also for the museum-going Hungarian public, who care about their cultural heritage : the act of merging the Hungarian National Gallery into the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts is equivalent to the Director of the English National Gallery deciding, without consultation with his/her fellow curators, to merge the collection of Tate Britain with that of the National Gallery under his exclusive leadership. He or she would of course have no powers to do this, nor would the UK government have powers to enforce such a merger by decree, in the unlikely event that it contemplated such an absurd and damaging project.

The situation here in Budapest is lamentably different. The only argument for his project advanced by the government’s appointee, László Baán, is that the Museum of Fine Arts is the older of the two institutions and therefore the Hungarian National Gallery, which is only fifty-five years old as an autonomous state collection, should be re-united with the older institution in order to create a museum of “European standard”. This argument, if such it can be called, ignores the unique role of the National Gallery, of which it would be deprived under the proposals. The unelaborated reference to a “European standard” of museums is mere sloganeering. Following the absurd logic of “which museum was first”, all present-day Hungarian museums could be merged into the single Hungarian National Museum, which was founded in 1802 and from which, in the course of two centuries, technically and institutionally, all major modern museums of Budapest have branched off.

The vast collection of the Hungarian National Gallery includes the art products of one thousand years of Hungarian history and its most numerous collections are those of 19th and 20th century Hungarian painting and graphics. It houses more than 130,000 objects and it is the fruit of more than two hundred years of collection and patronage. In short, it is the lieu de mémoire of Hungarian visual culture through the ages. It is housed on Castle Hill in the former Royal Palace, which also provides space to two other important public, collections, namely the Országos Széchenyi Könyvtár (National Library) and the City Museum of Budapest. It would of course be physically impossible to squeeze the National Gallery´s collection into the Museum of Fine Arts building, which struggles with space problems. If the National Gallery is to be moved, it would require an entirely new building.

The published version of Baán’s plan would move the National Gallery out of the Royal Castle. Transporting such a huge and precious collection to several as yet unknown destinations is unprofessional, dangerous and arbitrary, as many leading Hungarian art historians have pointed out [2]. In any case the government decision has abolished the Hungarian National Gallery as an independent state museum, and thereby removed from its dedicated professional staff the responsibility for representing the collection in the international art world and especially in the museum landscape of Europe. The loss of its autonomy and dedicated function would also mean the loss of its “visibility” beyond Hungary.

All the capitals of Europe have several fine art collections, amongst which are to be found important collections of national art heritage. These display to the nation concerned its unique visual culture and provide foreign visitors with an experience which could not be replicated elsewhere. Any metropolis becomes more interesting if it has multiple museums offering different cultural perspectives, both national and international. In the case of Budapest, it is hard to see what purpose could possibly be served by destroying an institution that fulfils an important function, namely to serve as a focal point for the nation’s visual culture. To lose this institution within a hugely expensive mega-project that lacks both cultural and economic rationale, all for the sake of a vaguely articulated “Europe” or “world” status, cannot be in the interest of the country.

On the 12th of December 2011 an emeritus art historian Enik ? Buzási (a former Senior Scientific Fellow of one the departments of the Hungarian National Gallery), together with two other specialists, (Katalin Sinkó, former Senior Scientific Fellow of the Hungarian National Gallery, Eszter Gábor, former Senior Scientific Fellow of the Museum of Fine Arts), launched an internet petition to prevent the dissolution of the Hungarian National Gallery. Within a few days 2,500 people signed this petition and more are signing it with every week that passes. Our plea to the political decision makers is that they should consider the damage done to our heritage by the proposed dissolution, especially in the present financial crisis when the vast amount of money that would be spent on this project is desperately needed elsewhere for the arts. We would urgently ask for a pause and a rethink before this project is taken any further, since it cannot be in the interests either of the government or of the nation as a whole to dissolve a well functioning national and culturally symbolic institution.

Version française

Ilona Sármány-Parsons, lundi 2 janvier 2012


[1] Under Sub-clause Nr. 2

[2] See in Hungarian from Professor Ern ? Marosi, from Gábor Endr ?di and from Enik ? Buzási.

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