Report from Budapest

Budapest: the city continues to wake up, artwise. There is no shortage of money, and this helps. A friend reports brisk sales of Porsche Cayennes and other luxury cars, which are everywhere. Thousand-dollar handbags can be purchased (and are being purchased even by Hungarians) at the new Louis Vuitton store next to the opera house, which also diligently displays the Olafur Eliasson Eye in its window. The art market is also coming to life. Last fall saw the million-dollar sale of a small painting by Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka, the wonderful and woefully under-appreciated mad pharmacist who was Hungary’s answer to Van Gogh.

40-kerettel-s.jpgPictures of Csontvary can be viewed at the Museum of Fine Arts which is currently showing its own Van Gogh exhibition, the first ever in the country with dozens of smaller and major works set in a unique viewing gallery where pictures are set in triptych-like viewing booths in which people can look at works undisturbed by the hordes of visitors. (A space-age entryway has been installed at the gallery, with pneumatic double doors which first let you into a tiny cubicle, close behind you, then open in front of you.) There is the requisite cinderblock-sized catalog. The show is the first major exhibition to receive full-on corporate funding (from ING) — it all looks and feels very western. Best of all, Van Gogh did the museum a favor in having a name consisting of seven letters: precisely the number of spaces between the vast pillars on the museum’s facade, which are now filled with giant banners, one for each letter. The whole paraphernalia of modern museum marketing is in evidence.

Across town, the Ludwig museum is humming along on the Duna embankment. It’s part of a mega office-apartment park development where the developers installed a controversial cultural block. One element of it is Europe’s ugliest cultural building, the spectacularly awful National Theater (at right). Next door, a somewhat better complex was built in a subdued international modern style. It contains a National Concert Hall and what was destined to be a museum for Hungarian Art, a kind of Hungarian Whitney. It was all a giant boondoggle (at one point they were going to install a private collection on a permanent basis, but it turned out much of the works were in a legal limbo), but in the end it turned out fine because they moved the Ludwig collection down there from the castle. The museum now displays a fairly decent overview of international works. Again, it all looks, feels, and tastes like, well … just about anywhere

All of my friends who have made it big are all into collecting art. When they mention this they say it with a sense of pride and duty (and sometimes, a slightly squeamish embarrassment, the kind that people feel when they don’t quite know whether it’s cool to spend this much money). The new rich feel duty-bound to do the kind of things the rich do everywhere. So they go off to Bali and China, check into expensive hotels when in New York, and along with the cashmere Hugo Boss suits and the high-end Audis and the heated indoor pools comes a fashion for building a small contemporary art collection. This is not just about a duty to live well and to show it, but also a duty to prove that once again there is a collecting class in this country. Showing the world “we can do this” is a big deal in this tiny landlocked nation of ten million people, who for understandable historic reasons suffer from a massive and chronic inferiority complex.

At any rate, the art market is now climbing heartily, for reasons both good and bad. Homegrown auction houses are doing brisk business, and two of them have grown above the herd, forming a kind of local Sotheby’s-Christie’s duopoly. Galleries are sprouting up everywhere, although it looks like nobody has quite figured out how to make this business work in a country where even the top grossing artists are selling only in the single-digit thousands, at best. The good news is that the players are in place: a new generation of artists, collectors, and dealers, with a new infrastructure of galleries, auction houses, even a bunch of decent magazines and journals. Venerated artists like Moholy-Nagy are already doing very well abroad. All that is needed now to generate international visibility in the contemporary market now is for a group of local collectors to seriously get behind younger artists, ands attract more interest from the West. Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “Report from Budapest”

  1. Interesting report, András. Budapest sounds a lot like what I’ve heard about Moscow – the somewhat halting but inexorable rebirth of the collecting class, post-Communism.

    One question and a followup: You say “Galleries are sprouting up everywhere, although it looks like nobody has quite figured out how to make this business work in a country where even the top grossing artists are selling only in the single-digit thousands, at best.” So, what are your nouveau-riche friends (I mean that adjective descriptively, not perjoratively) buying? Foreign art? Hungarian old masters? And are they buying based on private tastes, professional advice, critical coverage?

  2. I would be curious to know the prices being paid in Budapest for the top Hungarian contemporary artists. I would suspect they seem modest compared to the China prices. This would be partly a demand side issue (more, richer Chinese chasing the works) and partly a trend issue (China is hotter than Hungary at the moment). But it would be very interesting if the prices ever became broadly similar. That would suggest that some sort of “new un-historied artist in exploding economy” price level was being set. There would be less downside risk in that sort of market. At least less downside than in the tulip flower style mad rush that is the Chinese contemporary Art scene these days.

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