The Contemporary Collection of the Hungarian National Gallery
As the largest national public collection, the Contemporary Collection of the Hungarian National Gallery contains a significant number of Hungarian artworks made between 1945 and today. The acquisition of the collection can be divided into different phases: in certain periods the goal of what type of works to collect shifted in accordance with the actual cultural politics. Since the eighties, they extended the collection backward in time as well, so today they own thousands of pieces which were previously a blind spot due to political reasons, but relevant in terms of cultural opposition. The procurement process is still ongoing.
Budapest Szent György tér 2, Hungary 1014
Show on map
Name of collection
- The Contemporary Collection of the Hungarian National Gallery
Provenance and cultural activities
The Contemporary Collection was established by the director of the Hungarian National Gallery (MNG) in 1974, at the time of the museum’s relocation to the Buda Castle, under the name Modern Hungarian Department, in response to the directives set by the 1972 audit of the competent ministry (the revision had overlooked mainly group exhibitions related to living art). At first the date 1974 was set as the lower timeline for collecting, but this was later shifted back to 1945 due to bequests to the collection (from Béla Kondor, Lili Országh, and Menyhért Tóth).
In accordance with the canon-forming role of the collection, its actual goal is to present a representative overview of the tendencies, styles, and works of outstanding artist personalities of Hungarian art. However, the concept was not always open to this degree. At the beginning, the scope of available works was restricted by the yearly acquisitions of the Art Fund. At the end of the seventies, the staff of MNG was also charged with the task of proposing works to acquire. Later on, these proposals were given increasing weight, so that professional opinions could prevail in the shaping of the collection.
This process strengthened during the eighties, when the regrouping of the resources from the Art Fund to the ministry took place, so that it became possible to purchase works from larger group exhibitions as well. At the peak of the process, the museum staff was also allowed to acquire works from artists’ studios due to a separate allocated fund. In retrospect the current staff of the collection considers this period of the second half of the eighties as the “golden age,” when on both sides, experts (at the ministry and at the museum) were negotiating without much political intervention.
From the nineties on, the acquisition fund of the ministry, later the acquisition competitions for public collections of the newly established National Cultural Fund, constituted the resources. After some time, the fund in the ministry ceased, but later a certain part of the budget of MNG became available for acquisitions, from which the Contemporary Collection could also draw from time to time. However during these years, the purchasing power of museums dropped significantly.
The process of acquisition has not been smooth in the recent years. The museum staff always applied for the competitions of the National Cultural Fund with more works than could be supported. It happens regularly that the decision board cuts back the planned sum allocated to a work, and there were cases when they simply expunged certain works from the list. The cut back funds often have to be complemented with the internal acquisition budget of the museum, whenever it is possible, or in many cases, the artist sells the work at a fraction of the price in light of the prestige of being represented in the collection.
Current collecting policies are based on two factors. One is trend research: the museum staff observes actual art trends and tries to acquire relevant works through the competitions of the National Cultural Fund (in the last years they managed to purchase a few works with the help of the internal budget as well). The other merit is collection complementation, back in time, from those artists whose work is considered decisive in a certain period, but due to some reason did not became part of the collection earlier. Currently they are focused on acquiring such pieces from the sixties and seventies. A third factor could be mentioned as well: career tracking. If there is an early work from an artist in the collection and her career seems to be promising, then they may develop the oeuvre with another purchase.
From time to time there were experts in the staff of MNG who had a different opinion than the official viewpoint, who were sympathetic to tendencies and art phenomena excluded from official publicity (therefore not collected by MNG either), and looked for ways to find publicity for these works. The Műhely (Workshop) exhibition series started in 1976 in terms of the slogan of the period, “public education,” presented new works of young artists, and thus progressive tendencies and unusual mediums (sound-color-space, holography, laser, fire paintings) could appear in the official program of MNG.
In terms of acquisition, the staff of the Contemporary Collection kept testing the tolerance of the leadership (in terms of what works in a given period could be introduced in the wish-list, and could still get authorized and retransmitted to the ministry by the directorate). For these reasons, the activities that can be classified as cultural resistance varied from period to period depending on the viewpoint of the MNG staff—whose work can be considered simply the advocacy of professional confidence within the given possibilities.
From the point of view of the museum staff interviewed for this project, the definition and locations of cultural resistance were a “shifting pattern” of mobile, odd events, occurring temporarily in different locations out of necessity. In their opinion it is hard to reveal when and how these threads are linked up with the activities, daily routine, and the research program of a professional team working in a public institution, because these links appeared only on an informal level: thus the picture could be established only with fine work, from interviews, letters, allusions. The institutional history revealed from official documents does not cover these incidents that took place on a different level.
Description of content
The substance of the Contemporary Collection is heterogenous due to the nature of the institution. The collection was shaped by the various modes of acquisition in different periods: the slowly increasing role of professional knowledge, and the demand of the so-called “broad scope” of official cultural policy that prescribed the collecting of a wide range of topics and artists for public institutions.
In the sixties, it was primarily the materials of the so-called “two million” state purchases that landed in the collection, that is, the works of subsidized artists of the time. Art historical consensus started to prevail in acquisition politics only from the end of the seventies. Due to the relative professional autonomy of the eighties, they could efficiently utilize resources and the low prices of the local art market that made possible the headway of the process called collection complementation—which meant the acquiring of past works of artists previously marginalized, but judged significant from an art historical point of view.
In the beginning this was accomplished with inventive methods (called by one museologist an “egg dance”); for example storage affiliation was one of them: once the Studio of Young Artists ran out of storage space, they offered hundreds of works for free from their own collection in two stages. Transfer was also a recognized method of collection development.Today the number of works belonging to the collection are around 11,000 items. There are also deposits numbering around a thousand. Due to the collection complementation that started in the eighties, approximately ten percent of the works, around a thousand pieces, can be connected to the cultural opposition in some way. Many of these are well appreciated, and some of these works play an eminent role in the actual permanent exhibition as well, like those of Sándor Altorjai, Miklós Erdély, György Jovánovics, Dóra Maurer, Gyula Pauer, Péter Türk, and Tamás Szentjóby.
- graphics: 1000-
- other artworks (that cannot be classified by other filter categories such as paintings, sculptures, graphics, etc.): 500-999
- paintings: 1000-
- sculptures: 1000-
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
Budapest Szent György tér 2, Hungary
Show on map
Creator(s) of content
Important events in the history of the collection
- parts are closed to the public
Author(s) of this page
- Beöthy, Balázs
Petrányi, Zsolt, Százados, László, interview by Beöthy, Balázs, March 08, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection