Hungary: Budapest Observatory

Established by UNESCO in April 1999, the Budapest Observatory is an institution that watches and researches cultural developments in Europe; other observatories exist across the world, including in Africa and in the Caribbean. The Observatory publishes research and documentation on its website, organises seminars and events, and attends international events. IAM speaks to the Observatory’s director, Péter Inkei.

Why did UNESCO want to set up an observatory in Budapest?

At that time, which was more than 12 years ago,  we were so close to the year of regime change and there was a larger curiosity then than now about how these new democracies would cope with a new situation, and how those over-centralised and bureaucratic cultural regimes would survive in the new market conditions, and so the Hungarian government agreed to set up The Observatory in Budapest.

How do you disseminate your findings?

We more or less harvest the news and information regularly and we participate in projects where we contribute our findings to collectives that fit with the Observatory’s position, and send out a newsletter.

What particular changes have you noticed taking place across Europe?

In the past 26 months we have been observing the economic crisis and we have been invited by the Council of Europe to participate in a programme called CultureWatchEurope (CWE). We were invited to collate information on the effects of the crisis on culture. It is obvious that we were too quick to respond. We collected the information first and now we know that we were too early because in Europe most of the funding comes from the administration and they were slow to react to financial changes because budgets had been allo-cated, and they were already moving ahead.

We will see the effects of the credit crunch after the third or the fourth year. We were a little too optimistic and perhaps that was misleading.

What are you noticing in terms of the economic crisis and cultural activity across Europe?

We are, of course, expected to compare countries that are very different; like the Baltic countries on the one hand, and Austria and the Czech Republic on the other. Those post-soviet countries, now members of the European Union, were terribly hit. So they experienced a 20-25 per cent cut in the first year. By now they have recovered more, because from that bottom – though it sounds cynical – it’s a little bit easier to climb up.

This partly matches the general economy: Germany and Poland were the two strongest of the Western half and the Eastern half of Europe. The German economy and the Polish economy were probably the most robust, and that means their cultural organisations had fewer problems than elsewhere.

And then there is the case of France, which is doing relatively well. The decision of the French government was to do even better and so it stated clearly that the public funding of culture is a priority and they continue to inject funds into culture, especially heritage.

What are you seeing taking place in Hungary?

We have noticed a change in festival attendance; the festivals are not only receiving less funding from local and central governments, but the visitors are less inclined to pay. Though this trend is not seen in the permanent theatres; they are still filled to capa-city and so there is no serious fall back in ticket sales.

Can you shed some light on what is currently happening in Hungary with regard to an alleged increase in political  interference in arts leadership, and reports of racism and discrimination?

For me, it’s not just that there is the growing phenomena of the extreme right, but also that things have happened here which would be considered unacceptable in most European countries.

To me this is a symptom of a much deeper moral alienation of the country. When communism fell, and the regime changed, Hungary was a pioneer, and by the time the Berlin Wall fell, Hungary already had 10 to 15 years of constant reform behind us; we already felt farther away from Moscow and closer to the West.

There was indeed a euphoric feeling in ‘89, but in our case we felt that the changes were complete and, therefore, in the 90s there was a kind of apathy and a tiredness of the nation. This mood has been expressed over the past 12 to 13 years through a general and enduring malaise; this bad feeling led to economic downturn and to political divisions.

The bad feeling created the flowering of these stupid and intolerant ideas: this unfounded and unjustified anti-Semitism, excessive anti-gypsy and anti-Roma feeling and this turning to the vague Hungarian past of mysticism and history. All these things are partly a reaction to the long partisan struggle and the Bolshevik years.

What does this mean for artists working in Hungary, and also for those artists importing or exporting work?

It’s not very simple to answer. I know that a large majority of cultural operators feel unease at these autocratic tendencies, however, I must say that the large majority of cultural reformers and creators continue acting and performing in spite of these feelings. There is a minority who support the actual patriotic feelings and the ideology of
the government.

The larger ones, who don’t feel fine, are still here. There are others who protest and leave the country, or just don’t step into the country – these are really a very small segment, but they are more active than the average [artist]. For example the famous case of the pianist András Schiff who is very critical of the situation and doesn’t perform in Hungary and Ádám Fischer [who has spoken out about the issues], and Iván Fischer, who stays here and keeps and maintains his position in everyday Hungarian life.

Really this atmosphere is not just about financing, it’s not just the taste of the public, it is clearly very closely connected to the political atmosphere in the country – whether the political atmosphere will become better or worse, that is the same thing that I’m trying to find out as I’m reading the papers.

What research are you currently undertaking?

We are doing a survey coordinated with Vienna on cultural arts education. It is a mapping exercise to see what is being done in other European cultures. The effects of cuts to arts education are too distant to measure well.

On the other hand, we cannot really see that much difference in the [impact] of the arts education situation, the effect will come years later; perhaps in a decade, when these young kids become young audiences.