Literary grants handed out secretly in an opaque network of state-funded agencies
The Hungarian government allocated HUF 1.8 billion in 2021 to Petőfi Cultural Agency Ltd (PKÜ), which was created from Petőfi Literary Agency Ltd (PIÜ) and is part of the Foundation for Hungarian Culture chaired by Szilárd Demeter (head of Petőfi Literary Museum, Ministerial Commissioner for the Integrated Development of the National Library, the Hungarian Book Sector and Public Literary Collections), whose aim is to restructure the support system for Hungarian-language periodicals. However, the mysterious “invitations to tender” can also be noticed in the Hungarian journal culture. In this article, we summarise what is and is not known about the literary grants under the influence of Szilárd Demeter.
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According to the government decision published in the Hungarian Gazette (Magyar Közlöny) on 17 November 2020, “the Government agrees with the need to restructure the support system for Hungarian-language periodicals in order to increase the Hungarian-language literacy and promote cultural dissemination”, and therefore “calls on the Minister of Finance, with the involvement of the Minister of Human Resources, to ensure the provision of additional resources of HUF 1 800 000 000 in 2021”. The Minister of Finance has certainly responded to the call: from 1 July 2021 to 31 July 2021, applications for operating grants and professional programmes were open for fiction and scientific journals.
As we wrote, the budget was just the HUF 1.8 billion set out in the government decision, although the amount used according to the call for applications was only HUF 1 billion. The rest (800 million HUF) was mentioned in the text but not linked to a specific purpose. Because of all this, we submitted a freedoml of information request to clarify the role of this huge amount of public money. A few days later we received an answer which only contained information about the open call for tender and the fact that no decision had yet been taken.
Rapidly multiplying journals
However, we can try to spot the signs of transformation ourselves. As far as cultural applications are concerned, nowadays applications can be submitted not only to the competent specialised colleges of the National Cultural Fund (NKA), but also to the Hungarian Academy of Arts and the PIÜ, which now transformed into PKÜ.
No wonder that in such environment more and more literary journals appear. We recently discovered that from June onwards, the PIÜ/PKÜ will also publish a monthly journal called Magyar Kultúra (Hungarian Culture). The journal’s Facebook page doesn’t show much activity and for some reason they don’t have a website – the link provided is just to collect subscribers.
PKÜ will publish a spectacular (and probably quite expensive) English-language series of ‘best of’ contemporary literature from 2020. There’s everything: crime, drama, children’s literature, short fiction, comics. It is intended, in the words of editor-in-chief Levente Dániel Pál, as a promotional publication to draw the attention of the international book market to current trends in contemporary Hungarian literature.
According to márkamonitor.hu, “the content and visual message of the PIÜ publications stands out from the advertising noise that is also flooding literature, and the series stands its ground in the extremely strong international field of literary catalogues”.
The publications can be found here, but here are some of the names of the authors: Zsolt Kácsor, Ádám Berta, Szonja Herczeg, Tibor Noé Kiss, Róbert Milbacher, N. Nagy, and others. Éva Péterfy-Novák, Miklós György Száraz, Ágnes Mészöly, László Réti, Péterfy Gergely, Zsolt Láng, Róbert Hász, István Tasnádi, Krisztina Tóth, Gerzson Nagy, Sándor Jászberényi, Andrea Tompa, Tamás Kötter. Yes, the star of Megafon Center close to current ruling party and many others.
And that’s not all: in addition to the PKÜ journals reviewed in our last article, another magazine appeared out of nowhere about a week ago, called The Continental Literary Magazine. As its website does not yet show any activity, we can learn from their Facebook introduction that the aim of this quarterly English-language magazine, which will focus on Central European literature, is to offer a platform for the whole Central European literary community.
Nothing is officially announced about its editor-in-chief or editorial board, but it is rumoured in some circles that Sándor Jászberényi, writer, journalist and former author of Átlátszó, will take on this role.
Even though the company will exist from 1 July 2021 Petőfi Cultural Agency Nonprofit Zrt. (As we said, it has no website, no public e-mail address, and uses the plf.hu domain (which can be understood as an abbreviation of Petőfi Literary Fund), just as it did when it was Petőfi Literary Agency Nonprofit Ltd.
In fact, apart from the fact that new journals are growing around it like mushrooms, and that it is announcing tenders worth millions, we don’t really see how the PKÜ works. According to Opten’s database, the company is currently still state-owned, but according to press information, it will be owned by the Foundation for Hungarian Culture, about which Szilárd Demeter, chairman of the foundation’s board of trustees told Index just a month ago that
“We set up the Foundation for Hungarian Culture to protect a significant part of Hungarian culture from the effects of changes in the political conjuncture. For large-scale cultural developments, a timeframe of at least five to ten years should be expected”.
It is interesting to note, however, that the Facebook post of oppositon politician Róbert Halmai (from Momentum) put the same issue from a completely different perspective, when he wrote that “with the registration of the Foundation for Hungarian Culture, Szilárd Demeter’s octopus-like network will be detached from the Hungarian state. Thus, even in the event of a change of government, he can essentially control a huge fortune single-handedly. He will remain a major player in book publishing and literary life, an alternative supplier of libraries, will control the entire field of fine arts, will have control over major museums, and will be able to make decisions on the popular music sector as well.”
Halmai has also collected a list of the real estate that has come with the companies into Szilárd Demeter’s empire. The list is quite impressive, though by no means complete, according to its author. Across the country, it includes several castles, apartments, monuments, weekend houses, and art galleries as well.
“It is difficult to estimate the value of the wealth that has been transferred from the hands of the state, and indeed from the hands of all of us, to the hands of an unaccountable and uncontrollable foundation. Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to talk of a hundred billion or more – which has now essentially changed hands,” – the Momentum politician wrote on his Facebook page.
But what goes on in the conference room?
One of the exciting aspects of Demeter’s procedure is the “negotiation”, which is of course not visible to the public.A great example is the press release issued by the Presidency of the Association of Hungarian Publishers and Book Distributors (MKKE) on 23 March 2021 and its opaque consequences. In the spring, the MKKE’s presidency issued a statement with the following content:
“In order to mitigate the consequences of the epidemic situation for the book industry, the Association of Hungarian Publishers and Book Distributors (MKKE) has held talks with Szilárd Demeter, the Ministerial Commissioner for the Integrated Development of the National Library, the Hungarian Book Industry and Public Literary Collections. As a result of the discussions, a HUF 200 million tender for book publishers will be launched under an economic programme to help micro and small enterprises, similar to last year’s “Book for Home” tender.”
No one should start searching the internet for traces of this ‘call for proposals’ (including the call, deadline, applicants, etc.), because they will find nothing except an interview published on 29 April 2021 by synhaz.online, the Director General of PIM himself says that “right now we are buying books worth HUF 200 million from Hungarian publishers, which we will distribute to 7,000 school and public libraries. The list of books has been reviewed and approved by experts from the National Széchényi Library”.
We can find no call for tenders for this, nor are we aware of the book list, nor are the ‘experts’ who reviewed the books known to the public. (Although the libraries in Szarvas, Dorog and Kisújszállás thanked the PIÜ for the 34 books they received for stock development.) The reason is that this tender, with the catchphrase ‘invitational scheme’, landed directly in the publishers’ electronic mailboxes.
In the interview mentioned above, Demeter outlines another peculiarity of his approach to the spending of public money and the processing of data of public interest in connection with certain ‘book innovation projects’: “I wouldn’t say these things in advance, so that there will be surprises”.
There seems to be little chance of transparency in the culture funding procedures analysed here, mostly because of the so-called “invited applications” or invitations to tender, which nourish the Hungarian literature, even the corners of it that have been shaded by accusations of being part of the opposition or even having a too strong critical tone.
At least, the documents obtained by Átlátszó show that today in the Hungarian cultural funding system there are many examples to this practice, which provides funding to anyone who expresses a wish to receive it. One only needs to be resourceful enough to find this ‘some way’, firstly, and secondly, to be able to express it. In return, the non-public nature of the ‘invitation to tender’ protects one from possible accountabiliy.
Translated by Zita Szopkó. The original, more detailed Hungarian version of this article was written by Enikő Darabos and can be found here.
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