Interiew with László Baán, the government commissioner in charge of developing of ‘MuseumPark’

The last day of September 2011 marked a milestone in the history of Hungarian museums. A government decree issued on that day stipulated that up to 30 September 2013 László Baán would be the government commissioner in charge of developing a ‘MuseumPark’ in Budapest’s 56-ers’ Square, while keeping his present position as head of the Museum of Fine Arts. The current plans envisage that part of the merged collection of the Fine Arts Museum and the Hungarian National Gallery as well as the Museum of Hungarian Photography would move to the new ‘MuseumPark’. According to preliminary concepts, the Fine Arts’ building in Heroes’ Square, designed by Albert Schikedanz, will become the gallery of old masters while the New Gallery behind the Kunsthalle – to be built as a result of an international design tender – would exhibit and collect works from the mid 19th century to the present. Hungarian and European art would be presented together in both buildings. It has also turned out that the Fine Arts Museum and National Gallery will merge by the end of February 2012 and the post of Ferenc Csák, who objected to the government decision and then resigned from his position as the National Gallery’s director, will cease once and for all. Part of the museum profession reacted with protest to the decision in a manner unparalleled in Hungary’s museum history. Objections included the lack of professional consultation and feasibility studies, and there was opposition to the ‘reunification’ concept because of the different evolution of the two collections. It is already clear that, alongside implementation of the investment by 2017 (planned mainly from European Union funds) the structure of museum institutions in Hungary as well as the practice of Hungarian art history can expect great changes as the debates, consultations and negotiations envisioned for the next two years unfold. In October and December MúzeumCafé talked to government commissioner László Baán about the plans and preparations.

When it turned out last February that the underground expansion of the Fine Arts Museum had been cancelled, the urban planning and development concept outlined by the then Andrássy Quarter project seemed only a fleeting idea. Yet you are now in charge of working out the concept of a new museum quarter with the working title of MuseumPark as a government commissioner and soon as the director of a merged giant institution. The train has set off, what is the timetable like?

As from 29 February 2012 the Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery become reunited. The latter was separated from the body of the Fine Arts Museum by a ministerial decision in 1957. From 1 March the unified institution will, of course, continue to operate in two national museum sites. By 30 June the government will finalise which collections can be accommodated in the new museum quarter. On the basis of the already effective government decision, this will be the site of the New Gallery (the present collection of the Fine Arts Museum and the National Gallery spanning from the 19th century to the present) and most probably the photographic collection moving from the town of Kecskemét to a building to be erected for the Museum of Hungarian Photography. Then we’ll have nearly one and a half years to work out a professional and architectural programme which will clearly enable a design tender to stipulate what the new buildings will have to contain from the cellar to the loft. 30 September 2013 is the deadline for finalising the concept.

What will be the name of the new institution?

Both museums, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Hungarian National Gallery will keep their names and their national museum status until the national art collection moves from the Castle to the new museum quarter. By then the new building where part of the unified collection will move will certainly have a permanent name. At the moment it has the working name New Gallery.

On the one hand two national museums are merging, on the other a new museum building which is significant for both the capital and the country is outlined whereby the two collections, until now presenting international and Hungarian works of art separately, will have a new context. Both issues would require serious professional and social debate – primarily in Hungary. Was it accidental or part of the concept that you first talked about ‘reunification’ of the two collections and the possible launch of the construction to a foreign publication, ‘The Art Newspaper’?

With regard to both they asked me. If a Hungarian journalist had asked me about it I would have answered in the same way. I must add that since raising the issue of reuniting the two institutions in 2007 there has been no substantial professional questioning or debate in respect of how I would imagine it concretely, while the general practice in Europe shows that public collections in national galleries exhibit national and international works of art side by side nearly everywhere – so it was a really obvious issue and a cardinal one, especially considering the presentation of  Hungarian art.

Now things have changed and even a debate has been outlined, although you left the conference of the Pulszky Society in November where no questions were asked publicly after your presentation of the issues. Why could that be?

A public exchange of ideas had been greatly expected before the conference and I went there in order to share my viewpoint with the participants and give answers to emerging questions and opinions. That there were no questions, no opinions and statements expressed is a fact which can be explained in various ways, but it is not me who has to give the explanation. As already noted, one thing is certain – it was four years ago that I raised the issue of institutional unification. It was not something out of the blue; nor was the concept of a museum quarter, as that has been on the agenda for over a year, since presentation of the manifesto of István Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest. Did any of the protesting professional bodies initiate or organise a discussion about that?

Why would they have done so? Museums are struggling for survival, a significant change did not seem feasible under the present economic conditions.

Anyone can assert in his sleep that you need more money to maintain a given structure; you don’t have to be particularly daring and no significant intellectual performance is required. A professional organisation begins to be mature (see for instance the activities of the Urban and Suburban Transport Society from the beginning of the 2000s) when it is continuously able to effectively take a stand about the issues of a given structure’s internal professional problems and their renewal, as well as the issues of the desirable professional standards. As I see it, in Hungary the organisations of the state budget institutional system and their professional elite have hardly been exposed to the pressure of thorough and consistent professional debate in recent decades. That is precisely why there have been no real social and professional discussions which would be conducted about some specialist strategy by professional and civil organisations without the assistance of the state. The state has not spent time on these discussions, but the professional organisations have not excelled either. For decades the interest in maintaining the existing structures has overwritten the elementary need for the funding national or local communities to occasionally redefine the operation of these structures in a desirable way. This is especially true regarding how the Hungarian National Gallery has functioned. I am convinced that every museum professional, including those criticising the government decision, is aware that the present building of the Hungarian National Gallery has never been suitable for exhibition purposes and is getting into an increasingly hopeless condition physically. The Gallery’s Hungarian and international exhibition policy has also been seriously criticised, mostly behind the scenes. However, no professional organisation has been consistently concerned with the Gallery’s strategic vision.

When in its standpoint the AICA criticised the lack of professional consultations and feasibility studies and the ‘dissolution’ of the Hungarian National Gallery you cut the argument short, asserting that “the standpoint of the AICA is a peculiar misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what has happened”. Does such a reaction do good for debate?

The reaction was appropriate for the statement. If the AICA had not stated that the Gallery was going to cease to exist but instead that its institutional independence was going to cease I would not have used the expression that it was a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the government decision.

The merging of the two institutions coincides with a drastic staff reduction. Everyone is frightened for their job and position. It is possible that this fear also contributes to the silence of museum employees.

The 20 per cent cut prescribed at the end of 2011 is being carried out by the present administration of the National Gallery. I have not and will not intervene in that in any way.

Can the dispute get out of the present deadlock?

I don’t see a deadlock. I am ready for any public debate and professional work discussion, which is concrete and is looking for the best solutions within the framework of the government decision. Of course, discussion is possible while opposing the government decision and I express my arguments in that respect, too. However, my appointment is still about preparing the largest museum development of the past 100 years and renewing the strategy of the unified national public art collection. My door is permanently open for those who want to be involved in that as partners. Otherwise I cannot imagine a nicer task for a museum expert or a person who loves museums than creatively take part in planning a brand new museum. I am sure more and more people will realise that.

What is your plan concerning the process of preparing unification of the collections?

We will set up committees where first of all the art historians and curators of the two museums – who in effect are in charge of each collection – will work out the theoretical and practical schedule of the unification of collections, which will provide the basis for creating the architectural programme of the new museum building and the redefinition of the exhibition rooms in the Museum of Fine Arts. They can decide how to separate the works that will go in the old and the new buildings, what permanent exhibitions will be here and there, what will be presented next to one another on the walls, what contexts are put forward, and what the relationship between the Hungarian and international works will be like. The boundary between the Fine Arts Museum and the New Gallery will no longer be drawn along national lines, as is the case at present between the Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery, but will involve the periods of art history, as is usual in Europe and is also in the elementary interest of Hungarian art. The period boundary will obviously be marked somewhere in the 19th century, but where exactly will be determined by these working committees.

The issue will undoubtedly generate a major professional debate outside the museum, too. What Hungarian and foreign experts will be included in this discourse?

The majority of prominent experts in the field are working in the two now merging museums. Therefore, in the first round the staff of the two museums and as a next step Hungarian professionals working outside will be included in the consultation process. I do not exclude a point in the future when it will be worth inviting international experts.

Merging the two institutions is effectively going to take place in a short time. What will the new merged institution be like? What departments will go and how will new heads be chosen? Will these posts be advertised for applications?

A temporary situation is coming about for the time being, probably with a temporary Organisational and Functional Regulation to oversee the direct tasks emerging as a result of the unification. Only the functional departments and units, such as management, operation, museum education, communication and so on will merge, but the new, unified major departments will have an organisational unit in both buildings. However, the different units of the collections will remain independent, since organisational unification makes no sense until they are brought together physically. By the end of February I will sit down with each person in a leading position in the Gallery and I will learn about how they have operated so far and their vision for the future. There will be no big surprises – those who have worked very well will carry on being in charge.

What about practices which are different but work well in both museums, for example the record systems? Will the Gallery adopt the system that’s used in the Fine Arts Museum?

It would be too early to say. The record system or digitization are characteristic tasks which cannot be unified from one day to another. Before making a decision we will examine which approach promises a better result. However, that requires a relatively long period of time. It’s the same as regards reviewing the relationship with sponsors. Both museums have their sponsors with contracts for 2012. Thus as a unified institution we can approach our sponsors only in 2013. There will be processes which will unfold on their own paths for a while, but the time will come when it will be rational to make them go in one direction.

Have you gained some experience from last year’s successful joint exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts that you could build on?

It had mostly symbolic value. It turned out that the two collections can be presented together in the world, in the most prestigious galleries or museums. Of similar importance is the Marcell Nemes exhibition, which pays tribute to a great Hungarian art collector. Both museums can thank him for many works of art. In its theme and spirit this exhibition represents a small advance towards unification of the collections.

Can exhibitions and exhibition policy be a means in the dispute that surrounds the unification of the two museums?

I would like the Hungarian public, the two museums and the profession to profit from the institutional reunification in the forthcoming years by temporary exhibitions both in Hungary and abroad. The National Gallery’s operation so far has perhaps had been lagging most behind, particularly as regards being involved in having Hungarian art acknowledged internationally, in its European canonization. Although the Gallery has organised several professionally outstanding exhibitions abroad during its more than half a century of existence, it has never taken its own independent exhibition to the really significant canon-making museums of the western world. This is not a result of some Hungarian misfortune, since the best of all the other arts – theatres, orchestras, dancers, film-makers, writers and so on – have reached top European levels in their own fields. The fact that the flagship of Hungarian fine arts, the Hungarian National Gallery, has presented itself so poorly in asserting its interests and values internationally as compared to similar Hungarian players in other genres of the arts has nothing to do with the quality of its collection or the professional competence of curators working in the Gallery. Just the opposite, the institution – its unsuccessful structure and strategy – has produced this outcome, which is well below the potential, despite the strength and prestige of the collection and the professional staff.

What will happen to the Kunsthalle? Will it carry on between the old and new building of the Fine Arts Museum or will it necessarily merge?

The plan for the museum quarter does not affect the Kunsthalle, since the government decision is concerned with national public collections. The Kunsthalle will continue to hold exhibitions as the most important national exhibition space for contemporary art.

The issue of reconstruction of the Roman Hall, moreover the whole building designed by Schikedanz, appears in a different light after the government decision.

If the plans for the museum quarter get the necessary EU support it will be much easier to accelerate the reconstruction of the Fine Arts Museum, since elements of the reconstruction could become part of the museum quarter project. Thus, for example, reconstruction of the Roman Hall, which has been closed for over 65 years since the end of the war, could be carried out within the project as the hall might be the most suitable space for exhibiting the Gothic winged altars currently held in the National Gallery.

What happens after 1 January 2014 if it turns out that Hungary cannot reckon with EU funds?

If the European Union exists – and it represents such a strong community of interests which in all probability will survive, moreover become more unified – there will also be a system of EU support. In this case, financing for construction of the museum quarter as an outstanding project supported by the government will be possible without any difficulty. Incidentally, the estimated cost of the planned development totals 30-40 billion forints. Hungary has received 8,000 billion forints in the present EU budget cycle of seven years and the country can reckon with a similar sum in the period of the next budget beginning in 2014. As a comparison, the sum to be spent on the museum quarter would be enough for building a 10-15 kilometre motorway stretch at most. The sum spent on constructing Budapest’s fourth underground line, which is only seven kilometres long, would be enough to build 20 museum quarters.

What is most likely to be built on 56-ers’ Square?

The aforementioned building of the New Gallery is certainly one, as determined by the government decision regarding the new museum quarter. Beyond that the Museum of Hungarian Photography can in all probability be constructed there in order to hold and exhibit the collection of the Kecskemét Museum of Hungarian Photography, which functions under extremely poor conditions, attracting just 3,000 visitors annually. It could anticipate the number of visitors per year to increase a hundredfold. The possible idea for a further collection or collections to be accommodated in the same area will be clarified in the forthcoming months and in this connection the Museum of Ethnography and the Museum of Architecture have also been mentioned. I would call attention to the fact that the government has decided in favour of an international design tender, which is especially noteworthy given that no public building has been constructed in Hungary following such an international tender for more than 70 years. The complex of buildings to be erected must be of such iconic value whereby, together with the collections held and exhibited, it could become a new emblem of Budapest and, indeed, Hungary.

You have been appointed not only to unify the two museums but also to review the whole institutional structure of Hungarian public collections.

The system of national public collections – that is I must review the position of national institutions. In view of that, after consulting the cultural ministry I will have to make a proposal concerning which institutions to involve in the new museum quarter and possibly in the Andrássy quarter, where several properties in state ownership can be found. Rethinking all these gives us the opportunity to make a shift within the public collection system. As is known, there are several museums whose problems cannot be resolved in their present buildings.

State secretary for culture Géza Szőcs mentioned merging the Museum of Ethnography and the Skanzen Open-Air Museum at a press conference in December. When can we reckon with that?

He should be asked that. Preparing such a structural integration is not included in my remit. However his statement, just like government measure 1365/2011, shows that the government has proposed the task for state bodies to fully review and rationalise the operation of institutional structures. Integration of the Fine Arts Museum and the Hungarian National Gallery can be regarded as a first step and will surely be followed by several other national institutions. During renewal of the institutional structure both the strategic requirements to meet the expectations of the 21st century and handling the daily problems of institutional operation must be dealt with. The latter is no small task since the Hungarian National Gallery alone had accumulated a debt of nearly one hundred million forints by the end of 2011, and that is growing day by day. Thus institutional integration must also resolve the issues relating to consolidation of financial management.