Fundraising for Theatre in Hungary after the fall of communism

sduncan post on February 5th, 2013
Posted in Western Europe Tags: ,

By Zed Pitkin

We have to differentiate between three markedly different eras in modern Hungarian history, when it comes to Fundraising. In order to understand why professional fundraising still doesn’t exist today, we need to take a brief look at each of these phases.

Until 1945 Hungary functioned as a capitalist society, with market economy. It didn’t differ much from its other European counterparts. The education and health services were run as business. The poor and the needy was taken care of by the countless charity organizations, and the Catholic Church.
Theatre was a profitable capitalist enterprise. The monies were either put up by the Backer, donated by an Aristocrat, or put up by the modern and adventurous self-made-man. If a theater didn’t make profit, or at least didn’t break even, it went out of business.

2ND PERIOD, 1945-1988
In 1945 the communists took the over the country, and its social-economical structure had been dramatically re-organized. Health and education became free, and fully subsidized. Everybody had to be employed, by law. The salaries were quite even. Living standards were not very high, by western standards, but there were no such things as the Poor and the Needy anymore. And no more need for Charity either.
Lucky for them, because the rich left the country anyway, and the the activities of religious organizations were brought down to an absolute minimum. Religion in general had been either oppressed, or eradicated.
The arts were also fully subsidized, but accompanied by a strong ideological streak. This ideological oppression however started to loosen up very quickly, and by the 1980s Hungary was the most western one in the eastern bloc.

3RD PERIOD, 1988-2010
The Market Economy set in, and it hit theatre real hard. Soon most theaters faced a Shakespearean question: to be or not to be, and if yes, then how on earth.
Society at large went through some dramatic changes as well. For Education and Health services they started charging a small symbolic fee. This later became less and less symbolic. There was the Rich and the Poor again, but this time – nobody took care of the poor. Some new religious organization sprung up, like the Malta Love Services, or generous foreign benefactors, like George Soros came along, and established his Foundation, – but these were mere exceptions. And soon the poor got joined by the even poorer, Hungarians escaping from Romania. Homeless on the streets, and unimaginable view for an average Hungarian. In Poland religious organizations always played an active role in helping out the needy during bad times, and they did have some, also, religion served as a form of social resistance, – but not in Hungary.


From the mid 1980s on, certain figures of the art scene were on the lookout for ways to turn an artistic endeavor into a capitalistic enterprise. Part of the country’s main film production company was searching for financial independence, hence, from a segment of Mafilm the Objectív Filstudió was formed. The experiment was quite naive. They were trying to combine capitalist film distribution with government subsidized film making. To keep all the good stuff from the communist system, and enrich it with some even more good stuff from the capitalist system, – this just simply didn’t work.

In theatre, before the Berlin Wall caved in, every aspect of theatre was controlled by the Communist Party. Yes, it was fully subsidized, but party officials decided on what plays should be or not be produced, who should or should not be directing them, and even casting ideas were coming sometimes from “above”. By the late 1980s however the political leadership figured it out, that the only way to win over the evermore rebelling intelligentsia is to give them more freedom. In theatre, this meant artistic freedom.

The harshness of the market economy was hitting hard, and at the same time there were no mechanisms in place how to raise money for theatre. Fundraising as such, was unheard off. Even though the state subsidy was still covering about the half of the production costs, and the local city council was covering even some more, theatres had to scramble for money, – and they had no professionally trained personnel to do that. Not knowing what monies will come in from what source, they got into a habit of double bookkeeping. One book for themselves, just to see where they are, and another one for the government, and for auditors.

The ticket prices were rising, the number of theatre goers were declining, and the ever worsening working conditions slowly started eroding the strong cultural values.

To work in the theater was never meant to be a quick way to get rich. It always required the self-sacrifice and devotion that borderlines lunacy, but this new situation was just too much for most professional artists to bear.


The first private sponsorships appeared on the horizon.
And almost immediately, the weekend long, American style training sessions sprung up, promising quick result on how to find a Sponsor, and how to get quick money out of them. But this new market economy simply didn’t have any written, or unwritten rules, and there were no traditions to return to either. No proper business managers in place, in the capitalist sense. Some of the banks started sponsoring theatres her and there, but professional fundraising still remained an unknown phenomenon. The need was there, but nobody knew how to do it.

And there was also another setback. While theaters achieved a relative independence from government, a large part of their operating budget was still coming from up there, and somehow those government people never gave up on the idea, that artists are just artist, they are like kids, they always will need Big Daddy to look out for them. Government sponsorship came with a baggage, political ideology, expectations, etc. So on the end, in a way they were back to square one.

Management schools sprung up, and some of the big universities started offering courses on the subject as well. Terms like publicity, marketing, public relations, promotion,- soon became household names in theatre management, but often theatre managers had to learn it on the the job. And learn it fast, and learn it from scratch, and implementing it all while running the business itself. As the economical situation deteriorated, theatre directors were forced to reduce the number of artists employed, lower the quality of the productions, etc. There were running against declining audience sizes, raising costs, worsening working morals, – the myth of Sisyphus could have been modeled after this struggle.

And there was also the fight within.
While theatre managers were trying to run the theatre as a business, the artists themselves were resisting the changes big-time.
Theatre is still dominate by the Director and his Concept, and many of them would stubbornly deny that Fundraising and Sponsorships has anything to do with their work. Art, being Marketed ? How distasteful !

And I am afraid, this is it. This is where we are now.
Fundraising is being done, partially by the theatre’s business manager himself, partially by the public relations person, – but the wonderful Art of Begging and as we know it, doesn’t exist yet. Will it ever, I wonder.


Habits are changing slow … Let me give you one example.
If anyone walks by a street musician in Budapest, – automatically gives. The gesture comes from the deeply rooted belief, that art is important, because in one form or another, it is part of our lives. The person you give to is a Musician, and not a beggar.

If anyone walks by a street musician in Toronto, – automatically denies. You give to the homeless, but not the street artists. The gesture of not giving comes from a deeply rooted belief, that that Art isn’t important, it is Entertainment at best, like a Saturday night movie. Besides, it is free, and we love free stuff, don’t we ….


Literature of any kind on the subject is shockingly scarce.
Understandably, people who are making a pass at Professional Fundraising are few and far between, and even fewer has the chance to write about it.

Works Cited

On Hungarian Maltese charity service

On George Soros, the great hungarian benefactor

Objectív film studio

On theatre’s economical aspect

The main hungarian theatre site for individual theatres, theatrical organizations, etc.

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