The parliament voted to accept the highly debated amendment of the bill on cultural activity on Wednesday. The changes are less serious than many feared after an early draft was leaked; however, it still holds significant differences, possibly giving a hard time to some of the opposition local councils.
The bill submitted to parliament on Monday was passed in a fast-track legislative procedure with 115 votes in favor, 53 against, and 3 abstentions.
Under the law, local council-run theaters will be financed from the local council’s budget and state theaters from the central budget.
According to the changes, local councils can decide whether they want to operate their theaters exclusively with local funds or choose a mixed funding scheme involving both the state and the local councils. If the municipality chooses the latter, they can submit an application which is then assessed by a governmental decree.
The mixed funding scheme is the subject of a specific agreement between the local council and the government, which guarantees the artistic freedom of the theater but lays down detailed rules about many things, including the method of the leader’s appointment.
The law ultimately puts the local councils in a position to decide whether to give up on the state subsidies or take the money, but then the government will have a say in how the theaters are operated and who leads them.
The act also establishes the National Council on Culture (Nemzeti Kulturális Tanács,) responsible for strategic planning. Its president will be appointed by the government, its members including the president of the Hungarian Academy of Arts and the leaders of cultural strategic institutions. This institution prepares development plans and makes recommendations to the government. The bill also determines culturally significant institutions and provides them with financial support for a five-year period through a long-term financing agreement.
Several thousand people, a significant part of the theatrical art profession and the leadership of Budapest, protested against this act as they fear Fidesz is changing the way culture is financed in order to take control of it.
During the parliamentary vote, many opposition MPs held a black theatrical mask in front of their faces.
At a press conference held jointly by MSZP (Socialists), DK, LMP and Párbeszéd, Socialist MP István Hiller said the legislation curtailed artistic freedom and cultural autonomy. He criticized the government’s argument that local councils that want theaters should be responsible for operating them on their own, saying that recent government measures had made it impossible for local councils to finance their own theaters.
LMP’s Péter Ungár called it an “illegitimate” decision that Human Resources Minister Miklós Kásler will have a say in the appointment of theater directors. He said theaters belonged to their respective communities and local councils were entitled to appointing their directors.
On the other hand, there are people who find the amendment fully justified as they think it is reasonable for the government to have more leverage over theaters and other cultural projects that are mostly state funded anyway.
Attila Vidnyánszky, director of Budapest’s National Theater, one of the most respected theater professionals who is thought to be a supporter of the ruling parties, named this as the main reason.
Vidnyánszky believes the government’s new legislation would handle decade-long problems of the sector, including discrepancies in funding, in a democratic manner. He thinks that the current system was “unfair” as the Budapest municipality gave 20% less funding on average to the city’s theaters than other local governments. Although almost 80% of theaters’ funding comes from the Ministry of Human Resources, the body has no say in the internal affairs of theaters.
Interestingly, the government politicians referenced the recent sexual harassment case at Budapest’s Katona József Theater, involving the acclaimed stage and film director Péter Gothár as the main reason for the change in the law. Weirdly, even the law text, without explicitly mentioning it, refers to the sexual harassment case. In the past few years, other sexual harassment cases were made public but no change in the law followed those.
All debates aside, the newly accepted culture act makes less and smaller changes than its draft which exploded in public discourse in early December, causing an enormous outrage. Most importantly, despite the original bill including it, the government will not have the right to appoint the directors of the local theaters, the National Cultural Fund did not cease to exist, and the operating subsidies for independent theaters have not been withdrawn.
It is also worth mentioning that even without these drastic changes, opposition local governments might have a hard time ensuring the operation of their theaters if they don’t want to cooperate with the government.