Its launch in 1994 was glorious and full of hope. It was an independent organization set out to finance culture. It was gradually subjugated, then engulfed by the ministry, by power. In 2019 almost 11 billion HUF was available, the lion’s share of which was used by the minister and the projects determined by the ministry. AN INTERVIEW BY JUDIT CSÁKI.
Revizor: You have been dealing with the financing of culture for decades, doing practical work in the trenches. Currently…?
András Török: At the moment I am the chairman of the board of trustees of Summa Artium and the manager of Fortepan. But spiritually I am still the retired president of the National Cultural Fund. In the past sixteen years, until recently, I did indeed do practical work as a cultural manager. I kept three project management positions: I run a cultural newsletter, a book club and Fortepan. I am a fortunate man: I worked with my obsessions my whole life. I follow the cultural and political life, I always get up close to everything, scrutinize it, and form my own opinion. I resent tribal thinking, which results in frequent rebukes from the side that I do belong to after all, but I am fundamentally a crossbreed, a right-wing liberal.
R: Is it inconceivable that a situation triggers you to give up contemplation for activity, and to take part in the process?
AT: In a way I did recently enter the arena: we conducted a high-value tender at Summa Artium. This tender was brought about by the abysmal state of things. If things were better, this would never have come about.
R: A few weeks ago, I thought we would be chatting about a done deal, and the NCF would have ended its days by now. Since when are you paying attention to it, and at which moment did you get involved?
TA: Almost from the start. The law about the National Cultural Fund was passed in 1993, the time of the MDF government. In those days I wasn’t really interested, I was an assistant editor and typographer at the journal called 2000 and showing an interest in politics wasn’t “in” among those people, we were more focused on intellectual life. The NCF was set up in January of 1994, its first president was György Fekete, ex officio as Secretary of Culture. Then came the change of government, and the new minister, Gábor Fodor asked me to be the new secretary, so I too became ex officio the president of the Fund that went live at about this time.
R: I read somewhere that actually the idea of an independent organization for financing culture came up already during the last days of the one-party system…
AT: That is correct, the writings of Éva Kuti and Miklós Marschall reveal that, they write of examples abroad.
R: By the time you got there, the system was up and running, the director was Pál Perlik.
AT: He was a great public servant, the NCF was at least as much his child as Fekete’s. He showed me the ropes, as I was absolutely clueless. For a long time, I was there at the NCF every Thursday, we discussed everything with Perlik. I wanted to go there in person in order to get to know the people as well, not only the operation. And then on the 31st of December 1995, Gábor Fodor, the minister and I were both sacked (I in my own right, as secretary), and from the following day I continued working as the full-time president of the NCF. Bálint Magyar became the minister, we knew each other well. He told me he would gladly go on working with me, but it wasn’t going to fly, because “Gyula wants your blood”.
R: Meaning Gyula Horn, the prime minister?
AT: Yes. I have no idea why he lusted for my blood, we spoke twice altogether, and even then, I was just answering questions, letting my yea be yea and my nay, nay. So Bálint offered me two things there and then – one was the founding of the Hungarian Institute in London, the other was the NCF. I chose the latter, because I thought it would give me a chance to be constructive far from the daily political skirmishes.
R: What was the relationship between the ministry and the NCF like?
AT: Smooth, in my view; the NCF was the treasury of the ministry, but during the times of Fodor and Bálint Magyar, it wasn’t up from grabs. Formally it was a separate, state-owned money fund, its source was the cultural contribution. The political boss was the minister, and I was the hands-on boss. Interestingly I was not the supervisor or employer of the director, Pál Perlik, that was the minister. And the money flowed in automatically.
R: What was the budget of the minister?
AT: Ten percent. It was truly for unexpected expenditures, not for personal handouts. For instance, when something collapsed in the Matthias Church, Fodor gave money for the repairs. And even this sum he reallocated to me, because he did not want to deal with scroungers. Disposing over such a vast amount of money was a terrible dilemma.
R: In those days – in 1994 – it was 700 million HUF. Apart from the minister’s budget, were the decisions made by the professional divisions?
AT: Yes. In the organization there was the Committee, of which I was the chair. Its job was to divide up the incoming money between the professional divisions.
R: And the Committee had no budget of its own? It had no right to start a project? Had no role in making decisions about tasks of special importance, or in financing these?
AT: No. When I was the president as Secretary of Culture, I had an informal influence on the process; for instance, I visited all the professional divisions and tried to get them to write the best possible tenders, because I am convinced that good decisions require good tenders. When it became my full-time job, I participated more actively. In 1996 we launched a public library program, and then Bálint succeeded in increasing the amount of the cultural contribution. Everyone was happy, thinking now there was money to distribute. And then I said, this is not how we’ll distribute it; we spilt the increment into three equal parts, one part was distributed proportionally between the divisions, the second part was distributed equally, and the third part was obtainable through applications proposing something special. This gave birth to several grand initiatives, for example the Orpheus Audible History of Music CD series, conceived for students and teachers by László Dobszay and the professional division of musicians.
R: The Digital Literary Academy was also launched by the NCF, was it not?
AT: Yes, but that used a different budget. It was perhaps our greatest achievement.
R: Who picked the members of the professional divisions?
AT: Originally the law said that half of the members should be delegated by professional organizations, the other half were sent by the minister. When Fodor became the minister, being the true liberal that he was, he said all members should come from the profession, there is no need for delegates from ministry departments. So the political delegates were sent away – in hindsight I would have waited until their mandates were up – and they were replaced with professionals. By the way, this wasn’t fortunate in all cases, because the membership of the divisions took a pretty haphazard turn. And it was also unfortunate that every branch of art had its own little playground, and the divisions tended to give too little money to too many applicants, in order to minimize scandals. From this perspective, I don’t think the NCF ever worked really well. The divisions were not proactive, they tended to just monitor the incoming applications passively – they didn’t really have a will of their own. They gave to good causes, but not enough, and they also gave to rubbish ideas, just to avoid scandal.
R: Should there have been a strategy or concept of financing culture? Drafted, for example, by the ministry?
AT: Nothing like that existed. It should have done. Not a political one, of course, the kind one tends to think about today, but a truly professional one. That reminds me, in the Netherlands every four years the new government says what it wants to see regarding culture, and the parliament makes a decision. At that time the name of the strategy was “shield or spine”, meaning that culture can be protected in two ways: you either shield it from the market, the forces of evil, Hollywood, or you reinforce its spine so it can protect itself. It goes without saying which one they picked… And around that time, in 1997-98 I wrote a strategy like that just for the NCF, I put nine months of work into it. By the time I finished, the government was voted out of power, and I placed this unlaunched strategy into the hands of Marcell Jankovics, told him he could modify it to any extent he wants, it can be his, but he chose to do nothing with it.
R: Which unfortunately means that the NCF ultimately remained a sort of a wallet.
AT: Yes, but that did have its advantages. For instance, the money of the NCF did not serve to complement the money of the ministry, it was meant to start new things. The greatest example of that is the Digital Literary Academy itself, which was launched entirely with NCF money, when in the fall of 1996 István Bart, a member of the Committee said that publishing was over the crisis, more and more books see the light of day, but the authors hardly get anything from it, “come up with something, András, this is why you are here”. So I had the idea of publishing everything on the internet, and paying the authors for their work.
R: But it isn’t the NCF anymore, who foots the bill…
AT: No, hasn’t been for a long time.
R: Publishers are not really happy about it, as putting the texts on the internet decreases book sales.
AT: I know. But back in those days reading on the screen was uncommon, e-books weren’t about, circumstances were different.
R: And so came the change in government.
AT: Yes, József Hámori became the minister. The most important change was that the separate money fund ceased to exist, the NCF became a project of the ministry.
R: We are in 1999, the year the Basic Program came about. And the budget of the minister went up to 50 percent, a brutal increase.
AT: Yes, it was, although they added that the large institutions of the ministry could only be granted funds from the budget of the minister. But the rise of the sum should have brought about the decrease of the percentage, not its increase. So even back then, Fidesz had its hand in the till.
R: And so it was payday for the cronies.
AT: Yes. And the delegates of the ministry were back in the professional divisions – which, by the way, was all for the better, because they, the government employees, heads of departments, clerks were more skilled and had greater experience. They knew what you could and couldn’t do, they were familiar with the legal aspects.
R: In 2002 Fidesz loses power – at that time NCF was disposing over 6-7 billion HUF, still coming from cultural contributions.
AT: Yes, but the cultural contribution was surrounded by ever growing controversies; even those benefiting from it said that the NCF was good, but its source of income wasn’t. László Harsányi, the capable economist, was Secretary of Social Affairs when I was Secretary of Culture, and I invited him to the Committee, because we were able to discuss systemic problems really well. And him becoming the president of the NCF in 2002 was a logical step. He vigorously immersed himself in the job. He said that there were too many professional divisions. I mused about that too, I took a glance at how this works in America, and in England, where the original founding document signed by George VI hangs in the reception of the Arts Council, as its creation was endorsed by the late king, but they work on a different scale, supporting really huge organizations as well. In America they support new projects, and in 96-97 they reorganized the whole thing, creating three categories: innovation, education and research, if memory serves right. I thought this might be the right direction for us too, but it was of course out of the question. In the Netherlands there are really huge public foundations independent from the state, state patronage is doing great, and these organizations are called quangos, that is quasi NGOs, they get their money from the state, but it is of course unthinkable that the state should in any way have a say in their operations. In the NCF the influence of the minister is much more significant, and the budget of the minister got bigger and bigger. To this day the NCF is being minced up, but it would still be a shame if it disappeared, even though it hardly resembles its original purpose.
R: So László Harsányi appears on the scene…
AT: Yes, and he did decrease the number of professional divisions, but failed to do any real, comprehensive reforms.
R: Revizor was started by him, in order to…
AT: In order to provide some professional feedback to the divisions, as opposed to a mere financial one.
R: Yes, but after one or two years there was no real demand for that, and that was when we parted ways.
AT: Before the shift in power the cultural contribution ceased to exist, and the revenue of the lottery became the income source of the NCF. Actually, the same thing happened in England, the National Lottery was started in 1994, for the very reason to support good causes with its revenue. So I find this a good thing, even from an administrative point of view, as the cultural contribution was difficult to collect, terminating it was a good idea.
R: And then came the Fidesz government, and with it László L. Simon. Many people say that the NCF is one of the reasons why private patronage is so meagre: patronage is tied to the state too strongly.
AT: I don’t think so. Private patronage is cumbersome, because unlike in other countries, the state does not support it with any benefits. Coming back to L. Simon: he wanted something. He had visions.
R: Yes, he wanted digitalization, he wanted the three-year tender cycle, which is all good. And then he was shown the door – OK, he didn’t have to move very far. But the NCF deteriorated one step further.
AT: Still, it would be a shame to wipe it off the map, even though the Hungarian Academy of Arts really elbowed its way in, which wasn’t beneficial at all, and then it ceased to be independent, and then L. Simon was gone, and then the directorate running the whole show was engulfed – that measure had no sense at all either.
R: They swallowed it whole, even though they had no purpose with it, they just wanted its budget. And now the applicants need to rely on the odd chance that one or two division members will make a professional judgement instead of executing a real or assumed political wish.
AT: That is the long and short of it, yes.
R: Aren’t you saddened by this whole story?
AT: György Lőrinczy is now the vice-president in name, president in function. (Rumour has it that minister Balog once told someone that Lőrinczy was his “hostage negotiator”.) He really is a “national centre” type of person, who tries to integrate, he looks at things up close, but sees the big picture as well. If they listen to him, he can set the NCF on a new and better course. One can only hope.
Translated by Péter Papolczy