Thursday, December 2, 2010

REPORT: Arts Freedom Under Threat in Hungary

From the HUNGARIAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION, a section of AICT-IATC, forwarded to the United States section by Secretary General Michel Vaïs

Róbert Alföldi

A highly-contested and controversial “media law” of the present government promises serious control over the whole media, including blogs. The new Media authority—formed by members of the ruling party—will have the entitlement to control and punish. This week, independent cultural papers and sites are published with a blank cover page as a protest sign against this control.

Governmental attacks on the National Theatre and its artistic director, Róbert Alföldi, were only rumors until the “case” was recently discussed on the floor of Parliament. Members of Parliament described Alföldi as deviant, rowdy, and treasonous, and called the present National Theatre dangerous and mischievous. They are calling the work presented in the National Theatre obscene, pornographic, anti-national, and anti-Hungarian, and are demanding the expulsion of director Alföldi from the National. The Secretary of the Ministry of National Resources commented: “Everything will happen in due time.”

On December 1, one of the parties of Parliament, Jobbik, organized a demonstration next to the National Theatre’s building with the sole purpose of replacing the director. Artists, writers, critics, and theatre goers—organized by a Facebook group—also gathered in front of the National marking their sympathy for this theatre and artistic freedom. Since the beginning of Alföldi’s tenure in July 2009, the National Theatre has prospered and undergone an artistic rebirth. The director was awarded the precious Critics’ Prize in September 2010 for “renewing the National Theatre.” He also received a similar prize from the City Council of Budapest. Many works presented in the theatre received international critical acclaim were invited to international festivals.

Alföldi’s contract does not expire until June 30, 2013. His dismissal would mean the termination of this contract without any legal base, and this, consequently, could create a dangerous precedent: from that time on the leader of any cultural institute could be dismissed based on the aesthetic ideal of a given political party.

Another major cultural institution in the country, the Opera House of Budapest—the best financed institution—is also undergoing difficult times. The artistic director of the Opera, Balázs Kovalik, an internationally celebrated director, was dismissed this past summer. There is still no appointed general director to take his place.

Because appointments of theatre directors in the provinces are made directly by the local governments, decisions were often based on political sympathies for the ruling political party. This has been always the same, indifferent of political climate. The process has a legal face and an illusory professional basis, because seemingly directors’ applications and eventual appointments are based on competition. There is a board of professionals who evaluates the applications and makes recommendations to the local government. But this board is either formed of people with a particular political view who are certain to make the “right” decision, or it is an indeed free board whose proposal is not taken into consideration. This situation was recently repeated when the new artistic director was named to the theatre in Tatabánya, and a fine previous leadership was replaced.

The independent theatres in Hungary are most vulnerable in this current climate. This is the field that is most mobile, young, and willing to take artistic risks; this is the field that contains all dance companies, and most of the production houses and freelance artists. It has been only one year since the so-called theatre law, which guarantees for the first time that a minimum 10% of the total budget for the national theatre subsidy goes to independents, came to operate. One of the new cultural leadership’s first actions was to cut this subsidy, although it is such a microscopic part of the whole budget.

The theatre law will undergo a serious rework in the spring 2011, and there is little hope that the 10 percent for independents will be maintained. We are addressing you, the international theatre and media community, because we want to preserve the freedom of artistic expression and speech we gained 20 years ago after the social changes.


  1. In defense of Róbert Alföldi:

  2. it is a pitty that one has to defend alföldy, who is a mediocre theatre maker. but one has to defend him, because politics has no right to interfere with art.