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Is the Minister of Culture really resigning due to having fulfilled his commitments?

Our assessment of János Csák’s two-year tenure.

The most probable reason why I’m not a politician is because I’m fulfilled by contemplating the deeper causes of things

János Csák said in an interview with our newspaper in 2019. At that time, we described him as a semi-philanthropic businessman whose career had seen him leading companies such as Hungarian petrol giant Mol and T-Mobile Hungary, and had served as the nation’s ambassador in London, bought and then sold weekly paper Heti Válasz, been a member in the board of the foundation taking over Corvinus University, all while translating philosophical books in his spare time (about Socrates, for example, or the not-so-obvious connections between Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance).

By spring 2022, however, it seemed that he would eventually no longer be fulfilled by mere contemplation, as he accepted Viktor Orbán’s request to lead the newly established Ministry of Culture and Innovation (KIM). The day after the European parliamentary and municipal elections, it turned out that Csák would not complete his four-year term, as he unexpectedly submitted his resignation to the Prime Minister. Viktor Orbán accepted his decision, and his successor was named straight away: the new minister will be Balázs Hankó. While Hankó is a pharmacist by education, he has worked under Csák in recent years as the state secretary responsible for higher education, vocational training, adult education, and innovation.

The outgoing minister confirmed to Mandiner that his mid-term departure was not planned and also explained the performance expectations placed upon him:

The Prime Minister asked three things of me, as he did of all ministers: first, to build an effective operational system based on the existing framework; second, to develop cross-term programs in the areas under my ministry’s supervision; and third, to have suitable successors, people capable of taking over these areas in creative ways. In terms of system building and program development, we made rapid progress with my colleagues over the past two years. What I – or we – have promised, is on track in all areas

– Csák evaluated his own performance, adding that in his view, the work planned to span four years had been completed within two, therefore “it’s time to pass the baton to the younger generation.” It is without doubt that the past two years have been a turbulent period in Hungarian cultural politics, with frozen investments and contentious personnel decisions, further hardships imposed on the independent theatre scene, as well as grand plans for the reorganisation and centralisation of culture, the realisation of which has now become somewhat uncertain. In the paragraphs below we recall the most memorable issues and moments of Csák’s ministerial tenure.

It’s not the concrete that matters

One of the novelties regarding the formation of 2022’s government was that – after several terms – there was once again a Ministry of Culture, now also responsible for innovation. The symbolic importance of this change was emphasised by Csák in his first ministerial address at MCC, the government-affiliated elite-training institute, where he would present his plans along with other ministers over the summer of 2022. He stated that the reestablishment of an independent ministry clearly indicated that the government values culture and cultural innovation. However, that was all as far as good news were concerned regarding culture, as he already indicated back then that due to Hungary’s looming economic challenges and the impacts of the war in Ukraine, cultural investments would be postponed indefinitely.

Investments will come, but not now. We have postponed everything, but just like in business: everything is left open as an option

he said at the time, citing the new National Gallery, one of the most controversial elements of the heavily protested Liget Budapest Project, as an example of postponed but later to be realised investments.

BENKO VIVIEN CHER / MINISZTERELNÖKI SAJTÓIRODA / MTI János Csák, Minister of Culture and Innovation, receives his appointment document from President Katalin Novák at the Sándor Palace on May 24, 2022.

Csák attempted to bridge the ominous fact of dwindling resources with a well-worded change of perspective, stating that what really matters is not the amount spent on culture, innovation, science, education, or family policy, but rather how these funds take effect in society. In other words, do the “money spent” and the “concrete poured” manifest in “cultivated minds”, and how do they enhance Hungary’s competitiveness and capacity for action? – he would pose the central question of his speech, which, although containing few concrete promises, was rich in ancient wisdoms and jargon familiar from business bestsellers and leadership training courses. Two years have since passed, with little sign of renewed momentum in the field of frozen cultural investments, and the term’s remainder is also expected to be more about austerity than abundance of resources. In light of this, Csák’s successor, Balázs Hankó, will also have to seek opportunities for self-realisation elsewhere.

Scandal at the Opera House (and at the Academy of Music)

Even if he didn’t really have the opportunity to announce large-scale investments, there was still plenty of movement in personnel policy during Csák’s tenure. His first major trial was the commotion in the Hungarian State Opera House surrounding the competition for the title of general director. The case initially seemed like a settled matter, as in the autumn of 2022 it appeared that Szilveszter Ókovács, who had been leading the institution for over a decade, would easily win confidence for another term.

However, Csák’s ministry unexpectedly declared the tender invalid and subsequently re-launched it, leading to a record number of eleven applications, including from opera singers Andrea Rost, Erika Miklósa, and Levente Molnár, as well as the Opera’s then-chief conductor, Gergely Kesselyák. This resulted in months of public bickering and increasingly harsh exchanges, until Csák ultimately entrusted Ókovács with the position again. This decision came despite information leaks indicating that the application of the reigning general director of more than ten years had received only two supporting votes from the professional committee appointed by the Ministry, while Kesselyák’s proposition had received nine.

MÁTHÉ ZOLTÁN / MTI János Csák and Szilveszter Ókovács, Director General of the Hungarian State Opera House, at the commemorative event titled “Hungarian Opera 200” at the Hungarian State Opera House Eiffel Art Studios on December 22, 2022.

This chaotic process did not necessarily project the image of a strong-handed minister. Nor did the scandal-ridden rectorial election at the Academy of Music, where the conflict between the Ministry and the university has resulted in a crisis that has not subsided to this day. ‘Personalised’ criteria made it quite transparent that Csák and the Ministry wanted to see conductor and violinist András Keller at the institution’s helm. However, Keller – the only candidate meeting the criteria – withdrew his application after realising that he would not enjoy the Senate’s support. The prolonged crisis at the Academy was deepened by the stalemate between the Senate and Attila Kotán, the chancellor appointed by the Ministry – giving in to intensifying protests, Kotán would eventually leave the institution in March. Since then, it is the Deputy Rector for Education that fulfils the responsibilities associated with the now empty rectorial seat. According to Csák, the rectorial election was disrupted by lies and slander, and the minister expressed his regret that a “close-minded, petty and narrow perspective” had taken hold at the Academy of Music. He also stated that the university continues to operate despite the doomsayers,

it’s only that its educational, research, and international performance is, unfortunately, dismal.

The harsh judgement is nuanced by the fact that the Academy of Music was the only Hungarian university to rank among the world’s top 100 in a well-known international university ranking’s field-specific list. Making a significant leap forward, the Academy ranked 22nd in the performing arts category, competing with institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, the Oslo Academy of Music, and the Lyon Conservatory, while surpassing prestigious institutions such as the Leipzig and Berlin universities of music, King’s College London, and Salzburg’s Mozarteum.

However, there were instances where decisiveness was not lacking: the dismissal of László L. Simon was one of these cases. Last November, L. Simon had to leave the National Museum because of a few LGBTQ-themed photos in the World Press Photo exhibition. On far-right Mi Hazánk’s initiative, Csák decided that youth under 18 should no longer be able to visit the exhibition, as that would allegedly violate the so-called child protection law. The dismissal occurred after L. Simon’s team stated that they had found no legal means to bar those under 18 from the museum. The case also gave rise to the theory that the zealous child protection initiative was a mere pretext, and the true reason behind L. Simon’s dismissal was a personal conflict within the Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA). This was hinted at by László L. Simon himself a few weeks later at his inaugural speech at MMA, ironically titled Artistic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy, in which he criticised the growing prevalence of ‘pseudo-prudery’ as particularly harmful.

While pornography is distributed freely and porn actors are somewhat euphemistically called stars and adult performers, they want to ban the depiction of sexuality from the museum’s space, or chastise an artist for using obscene words or depicting erotic positions

said L. Simon, balancing his speech masterfully between expressing an independent opinion and declaring loyalty to the government.

VARGA JENNIFER / 24.HU László L. Simon at the opening event of the World Press Photo exhibition at the Hungarian National Museum on September 21, 2023.

Towards desertification

It wasn’t long until Csák’s next controversial move, with a quasi-reversal of the previous situation: in the case of the National Theatre, the Minister of Culture did not fire, but somewhat forcedly kept director Attila Vidnyánszky in his position. Vidnyánszky announced his resignation in the wake of a mid-performance accident seriously injuring two actors, but Csák would not accept his decision, and leaders from several cultural institutions would urge the director in unison to change his mind. Their pleas were heard, as after an internal investigation concluded that no single person had been responsible for the accident, Vidnyánszky “withdrew” his resignation, which János Csák generously accepted.

Csák’s ministerial tenure saw the already bleak prospects for independent and private theatres further deteriorate, as these institutions struggled to survive the past few years under the dual pressure of dwindling state funding and rapidly rising operational costs. Not all would manage to tackle this challenge, as evidenced by the closure of several acclaimed theatrical companies and venues.

The minister frequently emphasised the importance of private patronage and ticket revenue, stressing that theatres cannot rely solely on state support.

Until now, cultural institutions finding themselves in a tight spot would call on ‘Uncle State’, who helped as circumstances permitted. The time has come for them to strive towards finding their potential consumers

– this was a typical articulation of the minister’s philosophy.

Independent theatres, however, pointed out that the support framework that emerged after the abolition of the previous system – that gave corporations the opportunity to support cultural institutions for tax benefits – was non-transparent and unfair, with state funds being distributed through grant requests rather than applications, making predictable theatre operations impossible. “The practice of theatre policy is particularly destructive because – beyond the demand for ideological compliance – it has once again revived the recurring and gravely mistaken notion that the financing of Hungarian performing arts could be shifted towards commercialisation. Both ideas are harmful in themselves, but together they lead to the irreversible desertification of Hungarian theatre culture” – claims Örkény Theatre’s solidarity statement last year following the announcement that theatre company Kultúrbrigád would cease their operations at Átrium Theatre at the end of the 2023/24 season (you can read more about the struggles of independent and private theatres in this article).

Onwards on the path of centralisation?

Starting from this year, more and more signs indicated that Csák not only aimed to shape Hungarian culture through personnel appointments and the ideologically motivated channelling of support but also sought to fundamentally reshape the system of the nation’s cultural institutions. A leaked draft of a new cultural law suggested that Hungary’s cultural landscape could be soon characterised by total centralisation and standardisation. City theatres with county-level jurisdiction could fall under the National Theatre led by Attila Vidnyánszky, orchestras under the leadership of the National Philharmonic and György Vashegyi, while creative artists might find themselves under the umbrella of Szilárd Demeter’s Petőfi Cultural Agency.

ADRIÁN ZOLTÁN / 24.HU Ceremonial event at the Museum Garden where Minister János Csák gave a speech on March 15, 2023.

Szilárd Demeter played a key role in this process, having gained increasing influence in literature and popular music over recent years. As of March, he is also the leader of Budapest’s National Museum, which is still not likely to be his final destination – in a discussion held at the Prime Minister’s Office at the Carmelite Monastery, Demeter presented his ideas for the reorganisation of Hungarian culture, and many signs indicated that his ideas were being considered.

There was a conversation behind closed doors at the Carmelite Monastery between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Minister János Csák, and myself, where I also made it clear that if they had been looking for someone to fix the Hungarian National Museum in its current state, that person would not be me. If the question is about tidying up the public collection system – which, I repeat, is of strategic importance to me – and trying to strengthen it from a systemic logic perspective, then that is a meaningful challenge

– said Demeter, who is presumed to lead the Széchényi Ferenc Public Collection Centre, which will be established as a holding company encompassing six institutions:

  • the Petőfi Literary Museum,
  • the National Széchényi Library,
  • the Hungarian National Museum,
  • the Museum of Natural History,
  • the Museum of Applied Arts,
  • and the Museum of Commerce and Hospitality.

Demeter’s potential leadership of this newly established holding indicates a significant step towards a centralised and unified approach to managing Hungary’s cultural heritage institutions.

In April, Csák himself acknowledged that the preparation of the new cultural law’s draft was underway, but he claimed that the details leaking to the press were from an earlier version. He emphasised that there is complete artistic and cultural freedom in Hungary, with everyone able to hold performances according to their own desires, and the state does not intend to restrict anything. He promised the efficiency of institutions to be assessed based on objective indicators, with the data even made public, and that the planned integration does not mean that Attila Vidnyánszky would dictate what, say, Debrecen’s Csokonai Theatre should perform.

It is currently unclear how Csák’s departure will impact these plans. We asked Szilárd Demeter in writing whether he was aware of the resignation in advance and how the leadership change might affect the integration processes announced in the spring and what he expects from Balázs Hankó, Csák’s successor.

Minister Csák indicated to me in private last week that such a decision was to be expected, which I acknowledged. It is not within my competence to decide who the minister should be; my task is to perform my duties in cooperation with the appointed minister, no matter who they are. Balázs Hankó is a smart man, he thinks in terms of systemic logical connections, he is a father of several children, he knows what is at stake and what the goal is

– Demeter replied.

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