Art tends to be city centric, but during times of conflict and chaos, some of the most progressive and creative artists seek refuge in the countrysides and provinces, further from the reach of the centralized power. This was seen in World War 2 when numerous French artists spent time in countryside of the South of France, as the North including Paris was occupied. In the post-World War 2 Soviet era in Hungary, it was only outside of Budapest where contemporary art could truly flourish without the ideological control of the Soviet government.
Enter the Kovalovszky couple. Rather than stay in Budapest once they got their art history degrees in the late 1950’s, they took a chance and accepted jobs in Székesfehérvár at the István Király Múzeum. The town is pretty small, is mostly industrial with no University, but they made more than the most of it.
They were interested in creating a contemporary collection. The Kovalovskzy’s were part of an exceptionally talented year at University (themselves and the artists they studied with), and felt it important to keep record of the work. Without a budget, they started the “Dear artist” project. In short, it was a letter drive based of very polite, personal letters asking artists if they would donate a piece or two to the collection.
The project had great success, and they began to receive packages of all sorts of sizes. Soon they had enough for a full exhibit. Over the years they became a major force for exhibiting contemporary works. Since they were far enough from Budapest, they could show work that was of the third T, unacceptable by the government. Trainloads full of important people in the art society came out to openings and until the 90’s the museum was quite successful.
Things changed for the museum after the fall of the Soviet regime, because it was no longer necessary to make the trek to Székesfehérvár to see cutting edge contemporary art. The museum has lost some of its prominence since then unfortunately. I met with the Contemporary curator to find out why.
I hinted at this before, but a lot of it really comes down to money. The museum is funded by public money, and there is not as much as they would like. Exhibitions can’t get the full support they need to borrow art, print catalogs and advertise. There is definitely not enough money for renovations.
Next is the overall organization of the museum. The museum is not just a contemporary art museum, but one of local history, ethnography, and archaeology. This is a bizarre situation made worse by a museum director who is hardly involved in art. The curator Kati showed me a room where they attempted to combine historical, archaeological and ethnographic objects all in one display. Ouch.
The venue does not lend itself to contemporary art. The main building is quite old and the contemporary art is upstairs in a series of rooms that are too small. There is little flexibility and the pieces feel out of place in the shabby non-modern interior. To make matters worse, the temporary exhibition spaces are spread throughout the city at different venues. Each has their advantages, but the lack of cohesion makes viewing difficult.
What makes this all so unfortunate is that the collection is magnificent. Very few of the artists shown here were at the National Gallery because of the unique collecting done during the Soviet era. But there are so many paintings that are in storage because there is nowhere to show them. Not enough people are willing to make the trek out either, be it for laziness of feelings of urban superiority. It’s not as ultra-modern as the Ludwig or glamorous as the National Gallery, but the collection at the István Király Múzeum is undoubtedly worth seeing. And with its problems, it is still an honor for an artist to exhibit there. Its a museum with a strong history, and you get a museum show with a printed catalog. That is important
The struggle is finding a source for the money. With a beautiful and extensive collection and a hard-working, more than competent curator, the museum needs a complete restructuring. The contemporary art needs a facility dedicated to it, a larger staff, and a marketing budget to solve some of the attendance problems. If everything, permanent and temporary could be housed under one roof in an attractive new building, undoubtedly attendances would be higher. It took just over an hour on the bus from Budapest, was cheap, and the town is quite charming.
Yet, there seems to be almost no hope for this sort of money. It will never come from the government; corruption, budget processes or changing leaders always disappoint and plans. On the other hand, the type of private investment in art and art institutions hardly exists as it does in the states. More to come on private investment in another post. It is a shame to see the curatorial skill and collection of great art sit underused and under appreciated, but that seems to be the state of things here.