For well over a week the Hungarian media has been full of stories about some highly irregular activities of László Baán, director of the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts. They are not calling into question his managerial skills. By all accounts Baán has been an outstanding director of the institution. He transformed the exhibition policies of the museum, resulting in a most successful series of exhibits year after year.
Baán’s background is unusual for a museum director. He has a degree in economics and philosophy and for a while worked as an economist for one of the research institutes attached to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. For a brief period he dabbled in politics on the local level: for four years, between 1990 and 1994, he was a member of the Budapest City Council. His career really took off during the first Orbán government when he became assistant undersecretary in the ministry of national cultural heritage, a new, short-lived ministry created by Viktor Orbán. He remained assistant undersecretary after the fall of the Orbán government until he was named director of the museum.
László Baán’s name has been in the newspapers for a number of years now because after 2010 Baán, who—as we will see later—has excellent connections with the Fidesz leadership, convinced Viktor Orbán to create a “museum quarters,” to which most of the important museums would be moved. Unfortunately, the cluster of buildings is planned to be built in Városliget, one of the very few green places in Pest. Arguments go back and forth about the ecological impact of the project, but Viktor Orbán seems determined to proceed with the plan. He did have a few objections, though. There were two buildings he didn’t like, so Baán, who in the interim became government commissioner of the project, dutifully scrapped them. Apparently Orbán’s enthusiasm for the project stems from his desire to relocate the Hungarian National Gallery from the former Royal Palace so he can move his office there.
Although Baán has been praised for his work at the Museum of Fine Arts, lately his reputation has been tarnished. It seems that Baán viewed the museum as if it belonged exclusively to him and his Fidesz chums. The man who is especially implicated in the affair is Árpád Habony, Viktor Orbán’s mystery man. No matter how hard reporters try to pin down high-ranking politicians about the exact nature of their relationship to Habony, they refuse to utter a word. They would rather act stupid, just as Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, and István Tarlós, lord mayor of Budapest, did in the last few hours. And they don’t dare to say anything about the man’s relationship to Viktor Orbán since about a year ago the prime minister said that he has no adviser named Árpád Habony.
Viktor Orbán may not want to admit Habony’s importance to him, but László Baán is happy to tell the world that Habony is a very old and close friend. Their friendship goes back at least to 2000 when Baán was still assistant undersecretary in the ministry of national cultural heritage. During that period Habony’s firm, which specialized in “cultural communicational counseling,” received job after job from the ministry. Their working relationship developed into true friendship, and in 2004 Habony’s firm helped Baán put together his application for the directorship of the museum. Three years later, in 2007, when Habony got married, Baán let Habony use one of the grand chambers of the museum free of charge. Baán was Habony’s best man. Today DK is suing Baán for breach of fiduciary responsibility. Another person who rented the same chamber for private use had to pay 1.5 million forints. And when MSZP wanted to rent the same room when the president of the European Parliament, the Swedish prime minister, and several EU commissioners were having a gathering in Budapest, Baán refused to rent the place for any amount of money.
All this came to light about two weeks ago when Átlátszó, an investigative NGO, took legal action to force the Museum of Fine Arts to reveal where ten late baroque paintings of Dutch and Italian masters were stored when they were out on loan to two filmmakers who needed them for props. It turned out that the paintings were kept in the apartment of Habony’s former mother-in-law in downtown Budapest. The value of these ten paintings was 265 million forints or $952,000. Baán is right when he claims that lending pictures of lesser value is commonplace and that currently about 3,000 works of art can be found in government offices and institutions. But individuals normally pay a premium to borrow works of art, and they must have adequate insurance coverage. In this case the ten pictures were on loan for three months. Per picture the museum was paid only 15,000 forints for the duration.
How could that have happened? Easily. Before 2011 the museum could lend works of art only to government and private institutions, but in 2011 two Fidesz MPs–László L. Simon and Endre Gyimes–introduced an amendment that now allows pictures to be lent to private individuals as well. It seems that Fidesz politicians want to have well-known paintings in their houses to impress their visitors. Moreover, earlier the minister in charge of cultural matters had to approve the loan. Today he doesn’t.
But that’s not all. In 2008 the museum decided to entrust a company with the job of renting the halls and running the museum’s online store as well as the store situated in the museum. And what a coincidence, the man who heads Kultúra 2008 Nkft., which handles the business side of the museum, is Zoltán Rostás, earlier Árpád Habony’s business partner.
What did all this remind János Lázár of? The good old socialist days. “If the leaders of institutions think that similarly to the socialist times they can develop their institutions with the help of connections and familiarity [with important people] they are mistaken,” Lázár claimed. Of course, he is wrong, and he himself must know that. Things are worse now than they were in socialist times. Much worse. This whole corrupt bunch runs the country as their private fiefdom.