Dear Friend, dear Colleague,
We’d like to express our gratitude for your support in our fight against the Hungarian government’s plan to centralize cultural decision-making and to try to bend the performing arts scene to their political will.
Here’s a brief report on the events of December 2019.
On 3 December a bill – which the Parliament was supposed to debate and vote on 12 December – was leaked. It contained the following:
- Closure of the National Cultural Fund
(The only remaining funding body that has a near-professional board of curators for each art form and the least influence by political parachuters.)
- A new funding scheme for city theatres, which shall give the possibility to the Minister to nominate the director of these institutions.
(City theatres have traditionally been financed by both the local government and the ministry by appr. 30/70%. In the new scheme, the municipality has the option to decide if it choses to finance its local theatre entirely from its own resources and, hence, preserve the right of professional independence, or to strike a co-financing deal with the ministry where the minister shall have a say in who leads it. Since the local municipalities don’t have the necessary resources to pay the ministry’s share, the outcome is predictable.)
- Cutting the annual operational funds for the independent performing arts organisations.
(Had this clause remained in the final version of the bill, it would have erased most of the independent performing arts scene within six months.)
- Setting up an advisory board to the Minister of Human Resources called The National Cultural Council to decide over the future of the entire cultural field.
(The Council will be manned by the directors of “Institutions of Strategic Importance”. The bill defined these institutions, 16 altogether, covering the entire cultural field and led by – often newly-appointed – directors with very close ties to the government. The list includes the National Theatre, the National Museum, or the Museum of Literature – just to name but a few.)
Actions of the Association of Independent Performing Arts (AIPA) after the bill was leaked:
- an open letter was sent to the Minister, and another one to each of the 199 MPs
- a petition was launched in order to alarm the general public
- inspired leading city theatres (Katona, Örkény and Radnóti) to join in
- more than 55.000 people signed the petition to date from Hungary and abroad
- 12.000 of them also sent a letter to their MPs
- on 9 December around 13.000 people joined the demonstration hosted by the above three theatres and AIPA.
- theatres postponed their curtain time by an hour so that their staff and their audience could attend both the demonstration and the show
On the morning of 10 December the bill was published on the Parliament’s website and debated in Parliament on the same day. The proposed bill was different from the leaked draft of a week earlier regarding some crucial points:
- no mention of the closure of the National Cultural Fund (though the National Cultural Council will still be set up),
- no mention of cutting operational funds for independent performing arts sector.
The bill was passed on the morning of 11 December (no surprise there, thanks to the two-third majority of the governing party in Parliament), and the new law took effect on Thursday, 12 December. And from this day on, the entire system of cultural financing became centralized and hand-driven.
Positive results, but still shaky future.
The fact that city theatres joined independent theatre-makers both at the demonstration and in the campaign (sharing the petition and joining the photo campaign and other activities) for the first time is truly significant. The campaign’s success was inspiring, the demonstration – with some brilliant speakers including the Mayor of Budapest, who considered it an honour to be on the same stage with the renowned independent theatre-director, writer and actor Béla Pintér – was truly uplifting. One might have felt that we managed to ’save‘ the National Cultural Fund and defend the independent sector. But it is probably a shortly-lived triumph. Experience has shown that with its two-third majority the Hungarian government enjoys passing laws overnight with no prior consultation with the stakeholders, except for their blindly loyal cronies who will benefit from the new law.
Thanks to the wide international network of the independent scene the news spread rapidly, and the State Secretary received some 200 letters from abroad, so he had to answer.
He stated for example that the annual spending in 2019 from the state budget for the performing arts may amount to HUF 125 billion or EUR 380 million.
(It is indeed a uniquely high proportion regarding the country’s population and GDP, but there is no break-down in the statistics of how much of this amount was spent on acquisition of real estate, renovation of theatres and other buildings, and what proportion of this sum was allocated to support religious(!) or other activities that have absolutely nothing to do with the performing arts.)
Fact is that the entire independent performing arts sector was subsidised by HUF 1.1 billion or EUR 3.3 million this past year, a mere 0.8% of the total. We believe that it is enough to refer to only this point of the State Secretary’s letter, as it says all.
Currently there is silence on our side. The whole theatre sector is waiting for a political decision from the Prime Ministre’s office. It is still not clear how the financing will look like in 2020. The series of actions in December brought the feeling of a bit of a victory, but noone from us could foretell what politics fancy to surprise us with tomorrow.
Association of Independent Performing Arts