What is it like to organize a contemporary art biennale in a suppressed society, which does not support your project, or simply even see it? This is the case with OFF-Biennale Budapest, an ambitious, independent art initiative, which was first launched in 2015, and had its second edition in 2017.
In the afternoon session on Tuesday, curator and the founder of the biennale, Hajnalka Somogyi, said that the biennale got its spark from the urge to gather energies and bring together a multitude of small activities that were taking place in Hungary’s fairly small art scene.
“In the beginning, it was more about protecting for something than demonstrating against the current government. The latter came as a consequence,” Somogyi explained.
OFF-Biennale does not get, nor accept, any funding from Hungarian government. It does not collaborate with Hungarian art institutions either. The total denial of public funding has meant very scarce resources; a tiny staff in a free-of-rent office space with a printer and a coffee maker.
Vienna-based ERSTE Foundation is one of OFF-Biennale’s supporters, among other non-Hungarian funders. Hungarian law states that an organization must announce its foreign funding above 24,000 euro in each printed or electronic material, which according to Somogyi has led to stigmatization, as Hungarian sponsors tend to avoid supporting foreign-funded operators – probably in the fear of losing their reputation.
Even though the scale of projects in the contemporary art world varies from shoestring experiments to the most expensive, megalomaniac ventures (such as Damien Hirst’s show in Venice last year, anyone remember?), there seldom exists an actual art biennale that would survive totally without the support of the public structure. In fact, in most of the cases, it is also the city, or even the country, that could not manage without the biennale either. A major art event brings travellers and money, and an attractive reputation. It felt disheartening to hear Somogyi say that the Hungarian government does not see contemporary art, does not understand it, and it’s not on their map in any way.
While Budapest OFF-Biennale remains unnoticed in the eyes of decision-makers, for the local community the festival has become a lighthouse. Somogyi told the audience that the biennale has had the power of attracting back Hungarian artists who have escaped abroad, at least for the length of their biennale project. This must have a huge meaning in a society that suffers from the flight of educated professionals. A Hungarian member in the audience confirmed this: OFF-Biennale has become a torch of hope and future in the local community.
I bet you all share my view that the biggest value of a conference like the one we are experiencing right now, EFC Conference, is in meeting inspiring people and listening to their stories, which sometimes resonate so much that, if you’re lucky enough, you manage to borrow some of their courage and enthusiasm to your own work. Needless to say Hajnalka Somogyi is my new idol.
Heljä Franssila is Head of Communications Kone Foundation