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The Value of a Call: Assessing the Autonomous Culture Call of Summa Artium, Budapest

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The Value of a Call
The Budapest Observatory, February 2020
The Value of a Call
Assessing the Autonomous Culture Call of Summa Artium, Budapest
The call
In the autumn of 2019, the Budapest based Summa Artium Culture Supporting Private Fund awarded
360 million forints (about one million euro) to 94 cultural operations in the frame of the Autonomous
Culture Call. The objective was to compensate for the marginalised position in which the
independent cultural organisations increasingly find themselves vis-à-vis the financing opportunities
of the Hungarian state. The Call was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations,
now based in Berlin.
Altogether 424 proposals arrived at the Call in the following categories:
Theatre and dance
Strengthening authentic places
Contemporary visual arts closer to people
Supporting projects of autonomous cultural organisations
Open air contemporary arts
The 103 winning projects of the 94 organisations were selected by the Board of Summa Artium, upon
the advice of two expert teams on performing arts and visual arts respectively. (Further details about
the Call are presented in an Annex to this paper.)
How does the Autonomous Culture Call relate to the subsidies paid from public sources in the
country in the same year? At first, and indeed even second or third look, the mere question appears
as nonsense. The Hungarian state is acknowledged to be the European champion in terms of
spending on culture. According to Eurostat, in 2017, the latest year with available data, with 1.2% of
the GDP, Hungary excelled in the percentage of culture within the total general government
expenditure (followed by Latvia with 1.1%). This high proportion has apparently remained the same
also in the subsequent two years. In the year of 2019, we have identified 390 billion forints spent on
culture from central government coffers. 360 million versus 390 billion, one against more than a
thousand: does the matching make any sense? the question emerges again.
For the answer, we shall examine the nature, structure and details of public cultural expenditure in
Politicised culture without policies
Unique among countries in Europe, Hungary is a state without explicit cultural policies. Certainly, the
main government priorities can be put together from politicians’ speeches and interviews. These are
largely confirmed by the actual measures taken, including financial decisions which are the most
objective signals about priorities. Yet, apart from the examination of occasional communication
pieces on the one hand, and of the composition of public expenditure on the other, the observer
cannot draw on any cohesive strategy, plan or programme. No cultural policy paper, worthy of the
term, exists in Hungary. In fact, this is in line with the general attitude of the administration: the
ruling party, Fidesz has won three parliamentary elections without producing a proper election
programme and Viktor Orbán has not indulged into a face-to-face political debate for fifteen years,
Nem pártatlan, parttalan in the weekly Magyar Narancs (6 February, 2020) was based on this paper.
The Value of a Call
The Budapest Observatory, February 2020
not even at election times. At entering office, ministers and state secretaries for culture rarely go
beyond generalities and refrain from delivering a detailed programme or plan.
The concordance between declarations and facts, mentioned above, is, however, in part a merit.
Thanks to the lack of pressure for exposing full-fledged policies, decision makers are relieved from
facing the promises and deadlines contained therein. They are also saved from the solemn bullshit
that abound in most high-level policy documents. This makes life easier for politicians in a pragmatic
Attempts to identify actual cultural policy priorities in Hungary meet with various hurdles. One of
these is the extremely confusing arrangement of cultural items in the annual national budget. The
respective lines are spread under several chapters, where the state secretariat for culture in the
Ministry of Human Capacities stands for only about a third of the cultural provision. Next to tiny
items like 30 million forints to the Budapest Gipsy Orchestra or 3.7 million to civil society heritage
protection organisations, there are enigmatic large blocks like 20.9 billion to public collection
Rapid reaction administration
The absence of a stable general frame of reference is conducive to improvisation, and indeed it is its
basic rationale. In 2019, as much as 33% of the cultural expenditure of the government took the form
of ad hoc decrees, a phenomenon probably not matched by any other European government. On top
of the relevant 100 lines in the national budget, these decisions constitute 67 separate allocations.
Most observers suspect that most if not all them are the product of the unpredictable improvisation
of a single person the prime minister himself.
The same phenomenon appears one level below. A quarter of the resources of the National Cultural
Fund is fully at the personal discretion of the minister, without any limitation or plan, an issue
certainly without parallel in European democracies. In 2019 the minister in charge of culture (the
Minister of Human Capacities) distributed 1.75 billion forints to 344 projects we shall later visit that
A blatant example of the out-of-the-blue kind of measure is the case “after TAO”. The mystical
acronym stands for corporate tax: between 2009 and 2018, theatres and other performing art
organisations could get donations at the expense of corporate tax paid by enterprises up to 80% of
the amount of their ticket sales. The total amount of this foregone fiscal revenue grew year by year;
the tricks swelling the sums were open secret across town. Instead of repairing the scheme, the
government abruptly called for an end. After months of nerve-racking silence, on the last days of
2018, a government decree established a fund of 37.4 billion to compensate the sector for the
income that organisations had calculated in their budgets based on the deleted law. With one stroke,
the government created a previously inexistent huge fund about four times bigger than the
National Cultural Fund for the entire cultural domain for the performing arts. While distributing
grants from the fund, the government violates its own promises contained in the regulation and has
shamelessly endowed institutions and projects with dubious value yet definite affiliations.
Methodology of observation
Before diving further into the composition of the impressive bulk of 390 billion, the total of
government expenditure on culture in 2019, we shall dwell on some methodology issues. First about
statistics. With the Cofog system
, Eurostat has an instrument to compare the public expenditure
One must admit that this reader-unfriendly character of the budget is for the most part an older Hungarian
legacy, dating back before the Fidesz administration.
Cofog, the Classification of the Functions of Government, has been applied and developed by the United
Nations from the 1970s.
The Value of a Call
The Budapest Observatory, February 2020
between countries. Cofog class 08.2 comprises cultural services. In principle, all cultural allocations
must be put under this heading. Unfortunately, the harmonisation of cultural spending lags behind
that occurring in other fields (which are often ridiculed, remember bent banana and curved
cucumber). Also, many of the items do not easily lend themselves to categorisation. How to split the
costs of the opening ceremony of a sport event between entertainment, sport or culture? Do
subsidies to a music school qualify as culture or education? What about costs of a local religious
festival: social, cultural or religious spending, and/or economic if it generates tourism revenue?
Neither Eurostat nor the national authorities are capable to monitor each case and to make precise
decisions. This state of affairs warns one from citing too many digits and encourages the use of
rounded figures.
In fact, Hungary’s eminent position in the comparison of spending on culture in European
comparison has nothing to do with classification manoeuvres or errors. We are confident that fine
tuning statistics will not alter the general picture. The country is among the highest spenders in the
adjacent categories in class 08 Recreation, culture and religion, that is in Recreational and sporting
services, Broadcasting and publishing services, and Religious and other community services as well
Another important feature of the Cofog system is that it distinguishes between central and local
expenditure. The latter includes the public spending of the local governments: in Hungary of the
three thousand plus municipalities, the counties and the districts of Budapest. There are European
countries, where total local cultural spending is much superior to that of the centre: Poland is one
noteworthy case, where nearly three times more is spent on culture locally than by the government
in Warsaw. Hungary has been inching in the opposite direction in the past few years: today a little
more than a third is spent locally. In our actual investigation, however, this dimension has no role,
because all figures mentioned so far and in the rest of the paper refer to central government
Key Features of the governmental finances
The primary yardstick at taking a closer look at the 390-billion-forint cultural expenditure of the
Hungarian state is relevance to the objectives of the Autonomous Culture call. The great majority of
the state cultural expenditure, however, altogether about 70%, goes to infrastructure. Besides
running institutions and organisations, construction and reconstruction dominates the list. This is
especially true of the ad hoc government decrees, about two thirds of which finance buildings. We
can safely establish therefore that about 70% of the 390 billion total does not relate to live cultural
creation, the broader scope of the Autonomous Culture call, or only indirectly at best.
Concerning the division of the subsidies by sector, literature and the visual arts are almost absent or
hidden in the central budget. On the 2019 map of cultural finances, the budget line of 30 million to
the Hungarian Writers’ Union is the only miniscule explicit appearance of literature. We nevertheless
know that a considerable share of the allocation to the National Cultural Fund (maybe 10%) benefits
writers and their readers and that a few more items indirectly affect this cultural domain. Among the
ad hoc measures, however, 375.3 million is earmarked to the Petőfi Literary Museum, the latest
power base of the regime, to finance the launching of Országút, a new literary journal.
No less hidden are the visual arts. The state can contribute to their flourishing by subsidising
museums, something the Hungarian government does generously. Yet our data do not reveal which
part of those subsidies benefits contemporary creation: next to historical and other collections
probably a small percentage only, and the great majority is absorbed by the infrastructure anyway.
We therefore refrained from considering the amounts spent on museums as a point of reference for
assessing the relative impact of the Autonomous Culture call. The only single measure explicitly
You can read more about this in Public Funding of Culture in Europe, 2004-2017.
The Value of a Call
The Budapest Observatory, February 2020
targeting the visual arts is 53 million dedicated to memorial by Miklós Melocco to Wesselényi, a 19th
century personality, via a government decree.
Support given to certain community initiatives and common causes was also a dedicated target of
the Autonomous Culture call. Twelve of the winners can be identified as such, ranging from the
Aurora Civic Centre through the upgrading of the studios of the Tilos (“forbidden”) Radio to the
activities of the 1956 Institute or the ARC public exhibition. Owing to their amorphous nature, we are
disregarding this group from spotting eventual relevant items when mapping public cultural
Within the arts, similarly to most parts of the world, the performing arts receive the bulk of
government subsidies. That was the case with the Autonomous Culture call, too, with a focus on
contemporary artistic creation. Bearing in mind that contemporary creation may also prosper upon
classical or conventional material, at watching public money spent on the arts, we consider all kinds
of performing arts as relevant to the Summa Artium call. The 37.4-strong new fund beats everything.
Without this unprecedented addition, only 1.4 billion connected to the Performing Art Act and less
than a billion more from the National Cultural Fund would serve the sector.
A word on quality and efficiency
Earlier in this text we used the term “dubious value”. It is not sensible if not outright counter-
productive to apply value judgments in cultural matters. In the arts, more than in any other field,
quality is a sensitive issue, especially aesthetic quality. Even if the judgment is justified by “experts”
or with the number of those sharing the opinion.
Different is the case with the rationale of cultural policy decisions, the worth of which can and should
be put to measure. Public support to culture is investment. Investment is done for dividend. The
yields after public cultural finances can be sought in a scale that includes the economy, tourism,
regional and urban policies, diplomacy, education, even health and so on. The success of cultural
investment can be measured also in political terms like buying loyalty or strengthening cohesion
through shared identity.
Investing into any sector is to a great degree self-referential. Its success is measured by the
sustainability of the respective sphere of societal action. In this connection, key is the affinity for
renewal, innovation. Assuring the availability of unbound, mobile funds available for upcoming, new
players, novel approaches and experiments; the promotion of divergent thinking is a must for any
sector. (This is one of the fundamental lessons of the history of western civilisation.)
Culture is no exception. Public cultural investment benefits the sustainability of the sector. Besides
the status quo, the permanent regeneration of culture in the respective community is a basic duty.
Supporting unorthodox initiatives is one important criterion to set against any cultural policy.
It is easy to see the high degree of overlap between autonomy and the ability for renewal.
Acknowledging the autonomy of individuals and organisations, and promoting their operations is
therefore a signal of the affinity for renewal of any policies.
Autonomy is an issue with special significance in closed societies. Providing assistance to
autonomous cultural initiatives in Belarus or Morocco, Iran or Cambodia has a double mission: it
helps culture flourish and critical thinking to prevail. (Remembering the lessons of western
civilisation.) By the same logic, promoting autonomous cultural initiatives has a twofold value in
Hungary today.
Unfortunately, we are lacking the techniques, indicators or even terms of assessing the soundness of
cultural policies. The large body of literature on cultural policies has not produced practical
instruments to tell the worth of a measure, whether in absolute terms (in the mirror of the expected
The Value of a Call
The Budapest Observatory, February 2020
return), or in relative spectre (how else could the expected result be reached). Most of the literature
on cultural policies is advocacy driven, the more for the better is the base line.
Ironically, the high proportion of ad hoc policy measures suggests a highly responsive cultural
administration in Hungary. With the birth of the 37.4 billion post-TAO compensation fund the
Hungarian government gained an instrument to support unorthodox cultural initiatives. Browsing the
list of approved grants does not fully satisfy this hope.
Matching lists to lists
We take it for granted that the invited jurors kept to the agenda of the Autonomous Culture (AC) call.
Without the opportunity of going through the detailed applications, and without anticipating the
realization of the promises in them, we consider that the 103 projects of the 94 winners serve
autonomy and fresh art. By matching their list can we establish the added value of the AC call: what
were the potential chances for the same operations to receive support from state funds in 2019 to
realise their agenda.
We shall first see the eventual openings for the 94 AC winning operations to receive financial support
from the state. For the largest group, performing art organisations, in the former years the
stipulations of the Performing Art Act (Emtv) were the natural link. In 2019, this budget line featured
1.4 billion forints, to be distributed through a cumbersome procedure. After all, 14 organisations out
of the 94 AC winners received more than 10 million forints from the various Emtv funds, and 35 more
got less than that. Thus 49 winners of the call officially qualified for performing art organisations.
The sudden appearance of the post-TAO cornucopia has changed the scene although this, by
definition, followed the disappearance of the revenues planned to arrive through the TAO scheme. In
principle, this 37.4 billion was supposed to be distributed along normative lines. Unfortunately, by
the end of the year the post-TAO fund became one more basket for a wild array of debatable
projects. Somewhat fewer AC winners took this hurdle than the previous one: 41 of them received
from this source. Three got hefty amounts over 100,000, and 19 got between 10 and 100 thousand.
The third redistribution instrument is the National Cultural Fund (NKA). Next to the performing arts
the operations in the visual arts and literature can also apply from this source. Although a few
representatives of the independent sector take part in the decisions as members of the selection
boards, the level of concordance with the AC call is even lower: 30 of them received NKA grants. This
is due to the meagre amounts at the disposal of the NKA boards. Symptomatically, from the 30 AC
winners only seven could get over 2 million forints.
The Minister’s Fund from which any cultural project can be subsidised without open tender or ex
post justification was introduced before. This public cultural financing nonsense is not located in the
budget of the ministry it devours a considerable chunk from the funds of the various disciplines at
the NKA. Between January and December of 2019, the minister decided on 344 grants, an average of
5.1 million forints. The analysis of this list reveals the most honest portrait about the cultural
priorities of the system. An equestrian project tops the list with 60 million, followed by the Small
Virtuosos with 50 million forints. Two AC winners appear among the minister’s grantees, the
unbeatable Ördögkatlan festival and the publisher Pesti Kalligram.
Redistributing public funds is not the primary function of the Hungarian Art Foundation (MMA). In
2019, their open call generated 689 applications, every second of which received a small average of
half a million forints. Although in principle almost all were eligible, very few participants at the AC call
answered the MMA invitation. Once again, Ördögkatlan was the only one to succeed. Two more AC
winners tried and failed (Három Holló Kávéház and Szegedi Egyetemi Színházért).
A newly created board on „Gesamtkunst” is in fact an addition to the Minister’s Fund, seen by the nature of
their 20 grants. The average is 12 million, topped by 50 million to the Small Virtuosos, the greatest favourite of
the leadership.
The Value of a Call
The Budapest Observatory, February 2020
There exists a central sum in the national budget for non-governmental organisations to finance their
projects and operation. The very name suggests its orientation: The National Cooperation Fund
(rhyming at the official denomination of the Fidesz regime as System of National Cooperation), which
does not promise much success for AC winners in non-governmental status. The lists of beneficiaries
from the 5.9 billion forints fund are not available. We cannot thus confront our prejudice with the
Recognition by the public
With laborious efforts, browsing the records of the 94 winners we could specify the exact nature of
their values against the criteria in the AC call. We could seek benchmarks to prove their excellence,
comparing them with organisations more favoured by the System of National Cooperation.
(International recognition would be among these measures.) One relatively reliable test is the degree
of acceptance and support that these organisations receive from the broader communities. In
Hungary, the scheme of 1% channelled from citizens’ personal income tax lends itself to such an
inquiry. The analysis of the 27.432 lines in the spreadsheet of the 2019 choices (done after the 2018
income) shows that 5534 citizens benefitted 48 AC winners, which produced 37 million forints to
them: more than half went to Tilos Radio. (Each taxpayer could nominate one beneficiary only.)
In addition to the top ten AC winners on the 1% list we added a few more cases with the numbers of
supporting persons to underscore the value of the citizens’ recognition, a tangible proof of the worth
of these organisations in the eyes of their communities.
2723 Tilos Radio
882 Menhely, an independent theatre group
447 Pintér Béla és Társulata, a key player in the alternative scene
264 Veres 1 Színház, an independent theatre
123 Apolló Egyesület, a cultural ngo
32 Magyar Állami Operaház, the national opera theatre
7 Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum, the national museum
3 Nemzeti Színház: yes, three taxprayers altogether chose to channel their donation to the
national theatre
The only full list with which to compare the AC winners’ scores is that of the MMA application that
was briefly mentioned above. 38 organisations received the top 1 million forint MMA grant. From
them eight appear on the 27.432-line spreadsheet of the 1% donations thanks to altogether 95
citizens. This roughly equals the 92 taxpayers who chose Ördögkatlan festival on the AC list.
We can conclude that although not excluded or administratively discriminated, the 94 operations
that the juries of the AC call recognised as defenders and promoters of progressive artistic and other
causes were marginalised during the distribution of public finances for culture in 2019. It is no
exaggeration if we consider them orphans of the regime who, on the other hand, have been readily
adopted by the citizens, when opportunity allowed. The 2019 Autonomous Culture call was at the
same time a symbolic act and an effective contribution to the sustainability of independent cultural
creation in the country.
Most of the supported projects could not be realized without the support of the Summa Artium
Culture Supporting Private Fund, and with a high probability, several organizations would have
ceased their operations by now. By early 2020 the Fund is empty, having paid the contracted sums to
the supported organizations. The question of continuity is raised at every instant, and Summa Artium
is working on filling up the Fund for a new call to be made in the middle of 2020.
Péter Inkei , The Budapest Observatory
The Value of a Call
The Budapest Observatory, February 2020
Annex: Further details on the Autonomous Culture call
Altogether 424 proposals arrived at the call in the following categories:
1. Theatre and dance
2. Strengthening authentic places
3. Open air contemporary arts
4. Contemporary visual arts closer to people
5. Supporting projects of autonomous cultural organisations
The 103 winning projects of the 94 organisations were selected by the Board of Summa Artium, upon
the advice of two expert teams (performing arts and visual arts). The main features of the respective
categories are summarised on the basis of the winning applications.
1. Theatre and dance
Within this section, the grants cover three areas.
1.1 Classroom theatre.
20 million forints have been divided between three applicants to realise regional showcase events in
three regions of the country. The grant contributes to 34 theatre and dance productions to be
performed in front of a high school audience at 118 occasions.
1.2 Continued performance
63.6 million forints serve the continued performance of 94 pieces at no less than 506 occasions by 21
autonomous theatre groups.
1.3 National showcase
The fifth edition of the DunaPart national festival receives 6.8 million forints. Independent groups
present 26 selected productions to critics and cultural managers from the country and abroad at this
highly successful event of the autonomous theatre scene of the country.
2. Strengthening authentic places
109.2 million forints (an average of 3.9 million) contribute to the subsistence of 28 autonomous
cultural organisations, providing services or information for artists and the audience. Their activities
most typically include providing venue and infrastructure for exhibitions, producing publications and
performing art events with specific societal engagements, or publishing critical reviews and studies.
3. Open air contemporary arts
In this category 10 open air events received altogether 28 million forints which enables them to
include contemporary artistic creations in their programme. These projects attain tens of thousands
of people, in the majority of cases reaching out to social groups that would otherwise have limited or
no connection to contemporary arts.
4. Contemporary visual arts closer to people
27 exhibitions and 2 projects aiming at the promotion of contemporary visual arts have been
supported with 28.5 million forints. 11 organisations take charge of the execution of this activity.
5. Supporting projects of autonomous cultural organisations
28 autonomous cultural organisations have received 103.6 million forints to support the realisation
of a variety of nearly 400 projects that include films, theatre and literature. The greatest single
subsidy of 10 million went to the association that includes many of the best known writers of the
country and which is usually dispreferred by public cultural financing channels, to help them run
literary clubs.
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