The Fine Art of Condescension

Budapest National GalleryAccording to the London Observer, Dr. Charles Saumarez Smith, outgoing director of Britain’s National Gallery, had this to say recently about his difficulties raising money from the government: He did not want his institution to end up like “the National Gallery of Budapest.” He was worried his museum would be left “endlessly reshuffling the works it already has.”

Being in Budapest at the time of those remarks, I can report they didn’t ruffle many feathers. Rather than pretending to be a comic emblem of artistic failure, Hungarians are busily rebuilding an artworld from the mess left behind by communism. There’s a long way to go, but signs of progress are everywhere. Among them is a promising changing of the guard at several top institutions and a de-politicization of culture in general. State money doesn’t flow to the arts as lavishly as at points west, but museums are getting facelifts, and yes, some are acquiring.

New facilities are coming online, from the Ludwig Collection on the Danube embankment, to a private museum near Lake Balaton founded by a bespoke shoemaker with a passion for collecting, to the sleek 1950s bus depot in the heart of Budapest that’s supposed to become a new design museum. Corporate support is kicking in. Private money is on the way, if the frothy auction market is an indication. Patronizing the arts is newly fashionable.

As far as the National Gallery of Budapest – properly called the Hungarian National Gallery – is concerned, Dr. Smith’s condescending comparison is somewhat misplaced. That dusty museum, lodged in the awkwardly renovated Royal Palace, is confined to showing Hungarian art. Recently there have been calls to reunite the collection with the international holdings of the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, which is the London National Gallery’s true counterpart as the country’s flagship museum. The latter is, slowly but surely, collecting. It has just closed its most successful exhibition ever and it’s building an ambitious underground extension.

A bright spot on the emerging art-world landscape is the media. I was interviewed on the main TV station (still state-owned), which airs a nightly cultural news show – in prime time. Flipping through Art-magazin, one of a new breed of art glossies, one can find advertisements by insurance companies offering to protect your art collection, along with dozens of new art businesses. A financial advisory firm is even organizing a conference on art investing with invited speakers from UBS and London’s Fine Art Fund.

Maybe Dr. Smith can find a good new job in Budapest.

Leave a Reply