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Cultural panorama – the recovery of the cultural sector in Hungary after the pandemic

A study published by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) in June 2022 concludes that culture can be a driver of both social and economic processes. The research, which covers OECD member countries[1], shows that the level of government spending on culture is correlated with the level of cultural consumption. In Hungary’s case, cultural expenditure as a share of GDP is very high by European standards. Since 2013, Hungary has been ranked among the five EU member states with the highest share of public spending on culture, since 2016 it has been among the three member states with the highest cultural spending, and since 2018 Hungary has been ranked first. Accordingly, since the early 2010s, we have seen a gradual increase in indicators such as attendance at theatres and museums. Regarding the former, the number of visitors per thousand inhabitants increased by 90% between 2010 and 2018, and regarding the latter by almost 40% between 2012 and 2019. This positive trend was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, but quickly recovered afterwards. Book publishing grew by close to 50 per cent between 2010 and 2022, accelerated by the pandemic. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of books and booklets published increased by 17 per cent per year. In addition, surveys show that paper books are also popular among young people.

It would be worthwhile to examine cultural consumption in a European comparison, but such a survey has not been conducted since the mid-2010s, when Hungary’s position was in the EU average. Since then, a number of indicators, such as attendance at theatres and museums and book publishing have improved significantly. 2023 was also a record year for the Museum of Fine Arts, with two of its exhibitions among the 10 most visited ever. In addition, indicators such as attendance at concerts also showed dynamic progress, but the pandemic caused a significant break in this respect at the international level too. There are few statistics on trends in recent years.

Author: Viktória Németh

Cultural participation as a driver of society and the economy

OECD’s 2022 research found that cultural participation has an impact on a wide range of social and economic areas. These include education, innovation, well-being and health, civic participation and acceptance between different social groups and cultures. Culture can also play an important role in approaching and addressing societal challenges from a new perspective, promoting resilience, skills development and pro-social (community-oriented and supportive) behavioural change.

The concept of cultural consumption

At first sight, cultural consumption consists of two words that are difficult to reconcile, as we often identify high culture and consumer behaviour as distinct spheres of life. However, statistical measurements examine different cultural habits, including the use of certain services (e.g. theatre, concerts) or the purchase of cultural goods (e.g. books). The very meaning of the expression ‘cultural consumption’ refers to the reception of cultural goods and intellectual content. These cultural goods include works of art (paintings, plays, musical works, etc.) or monuments (buildings of historical significance) that are part of the cultural heritage (Pavluska, 2017).

The following study focuses mainly on those habits of the different areas of culture that are specific to Hungarian society, are institutionalised cultural venues (museums, theatres) and are available in the KSH (Hungarian Central Statistical Office) database. Thus, it analyses attendance at museums and theatres and reviews the main trends in book publishing. The data for 2023 will be published by KSH in the summer of 2024, therefore the study examines data for last year such as attendance at the most popular exhibitions, as well as key programmes, including the Veszprém-Balaton Region European Capital of Culture programme, events linked to commemorative years such as the Petőfi and Madách commemorative years, and the exhibition marking the 170th anniversary of the birth of Tivadar Csontváry-Kosztka.

The study of cultural consumption is important in order to understand the current habits of society, their economic dimension, and the social and economic feedback as well as the economic stimulus of culture.

European Union overview

On cultural spending by governments

According to Eurostat data (2023), in the European Union ranking, Hungary consistently has the highest share of cultural expenditure in the budget in relation to GDP or is among the top member states. The share of budget expenditure increased gradually in the 2010s. In 2013, Hungary was among the five member states that spent the most on culture as a share of GDP. In 2016, it was in the top three, and since 2018 Hungary has consistently been the first in the ranking.

Figure 1: The chart on the left shows EU member states’ cultural expenditure as a share of GDP, in order, since 2009. The graphs on the right show, in order from top to bottom, museum attendance, the number of books and booklets published (not the edition size, but the number of works published), and theatre attendance as a share of population. By Viktória Németh. Source: Eurostat, KSH. The figure can be referenced here: https://infogram.com/culture-1h0n25y55ewel6p

It was particularly important for domestic cultural institutions during the period of the pandemic that the high level of budgetary expenditure was maintained. This may also have contributed to the dynamic recovery in theatre and museum attendance following the pandemic. However, available data suggest that in 2022 attendance levels had not yet reached pre-pandemic levels. For the year 2023, KSH will publish summary data in June 2024.

Figure 2: The chart shows the cultural expenditure of EU governments as a percentage of GDP in the last year before the pandemic, 2019, the year of the pandemic outbreak, 2020, and the year 2021, the latest period reported by Eurostat. By Viktória Németh. Source: Eurostat. The figure can be referenced here: https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/17566543/

Cultural consumption trends in Europe

Despite the fact that international statistics show a correlation between the level of cultural consumption and the share of government spending, Hungary was in the middle of the EU in terms of consumption habits until the mid-2010s, when the Eurobarometer (2017) survey was conducted. The results of the 2017 Eurobarometer are shown in Figure 3. A follow-up EU-wide survey could be indicative of the recovery in European cultural habits. At the same time, domestic statistics could provide guidance on how habits evolved in Hungary up to the period before the pandemic and after.

Figure 3: The chart shows the proportion of people in each EU country who regularly visited exhibition venues or participated in cultural events in the year of the survey (2017). By Viktória Németh. Source: Eurobarometer. The figure can be referenced here: https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/17566828/

It would be worth reassessing trends in Europe, as this would shed light on the effects of the pandemic and the subsequent recovery. It would also give an idea of how domestic cultural consumption, which had been rising dynamically until the pandemic, has evolved in comparison with the rest of Europe.

Changes in prices of cultural and leisure goods and services in Hungary

In Hungary, the price increases for cultural services and goods have consistently lagged behind inflation for other goods and services since January 2021. This may also have helped the sector to recover and visitors to return. The price of many cultural services, including museum tickets, is also linked to public funding of institutions. Compared to other cultural and leisure services such as cinemas, public institutions have also experienced more moderate price increases.

Figure 4: nflation trends and changes in the prices of cultural and leisure services and books since January 2019. by Viktória Németh. Source: KSH. The figure can be referenced here: https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/17567100/

The 2010s opened a new window on culture

Since the early 2010s, we have seen a gradual increase in indicators such as attendance at theatres and museums. Between 2010 and 2018, theatre attendance per 1,000 inhabitants increased by 90 per cent (Figure 5), while museum attendance per 1,000 inhabitants increased by almost 40 per cent between 2012 and 2019 (Figure 6). These positive trends were interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. For both indicators, a dynamic recovery started after the lifting of restrictions, although in 2022 the number of visitors still did not reach pre-pandemic levels. Therefore, the government continued to support the sector with state aid after the pandemic, and not only state-run institutions. One example of this was a call for proposals to support the operation and implementation of professional programmes by noncertified performing arts organisations. The Ministry of Culture and Innovation announced a tender for a total of HUF 830 million in 2023 to support the operation and professional programmes of mostly independent theatres, dance companies and music organisations without certification, as well as open-air, national and inclusive theatres in 2023. Theatres, dance and music ensembles submitted 191 applications. A significant number of the 189 valid applicants, 148 organisations in total, received funding (MTI, 2023).

Figure 5: The number of visits per thousand inhabitants per year over a period of one year is an indicator for comparing museum attendance over time and across countries. The graph shows domestic trends after 2010. By Viktória Németh. Source: KSH. The figure can be referenced here: https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/17567466/

Figure 6: For theatre attendance, theatre attendance per thousand inhabitants is usually used. The graph shows domestic trends after 2010. By Viktória Németh. Source: KSH. The figure can be referenced here: https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/17567500/

2023 is the year of recovery for the cultural sector

Programmes and commemorative years to promote culture

In 2023, a number of key events were organised to promote culture. The biggest event of the year was the European Capital of Culture title, which was won by Veszprém and the Bakony-Balaton region, alongside Timisoara in Romania and Elefsina in Greece. The joint project at the national and regional level was unique in that it held the European Capital of Culture title as a single experience region. Based on data from the first eight months of 2023, almost 1.2 million people visited Veszprém’s town centre for one of the 1192 events. The number of domestic overnight stays was 52 per cent higher than a year earlier, while the number of foreign visitors increased by one third. This number represented a sharp increase in the number of guests for the town of Veszprém. Despite this, the organisers also took into account environmental sustainability aspects, as the carbon footprint of visitors decreased proportionally. The number of cultural events in the whole region was even higher, with 2,800 events attracting visitors to Veszprém and the 116 towns and villages participating in the programme.

In addition to a number of flagship events, one of the biggest events of foreign interest in 2023 was the international Theatre Olympics initiative, hosted by a different country each year.

2023 was also special from a cultural perspective as it was marked by several commemorative years. 2023 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sándor Petőfi and Imre Madách. The government supported the programmes of the Petőfi commemorative year with almost HUF 9 billion, including the renovation of museums and the opening of new exhibitions, museum education sessions, community cultural events and publications. The programmes took place not only within Hungary, but also in Hungarian areas beyond the borders and in Hungarian institutions in many parts of the world. In addition, exhibitions, conferences, panel discussions, cultural programmes and an international theatre meeting were organised throughout Hungary and beyond its borders in connection with the Madách commemorative year (Magyar Nemzet, 2023).

In the case of fine art, the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts on the occasion of Csontváry’s birth was one of the most successful in recent decades. For the year 2023, data will be published by KSH in June 2024. However, the data available during the year suggest that two of the ten most visited exhibitions of all time at the Museum of Fine Arts were held during 2023. The exhibition of Renoir’s paintings had been visited by more than 200,000 people by December 2023, and the temporary exhibition was extended by two weeks in January 2024 due to the high level of interest. The exhibition to mark the 170th anniversary of the birth of Csontváry also attracted more than 200,000 visitors. One of the year’s highlights was the exhibition of Lajos Gulácsy’s life’s work, organised by the Hungarian National Gallery. The Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Centre, celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2023, also opened its first permanent Robert Capa exhibition (Magyar Nemzet, 2023).

Night of Museums is another series of programmes that measures the consumption of culture, in particular the attendance of museums. 380,000 admissions were registered for this year’s Night of Museums programmes, 50,000 more than in 2022. This shows a significant increase, with about 15 per cent more admissions than the previous year (Infostart, 2023). The growing popularity of the programme is part of the recovery from the pandemic. However, a figure which exceeds the over 400,000 visitors recorded in the late 2010s remains to be seen.

Book publishing and reading habits

According to a previous KSH survey in 2013, reading was the most popular leisure cultural consumption habit, yet only in 2014 did the steady downward trend in book publishing since 2008 reverse. Overall, the 2010s saw a significant turnaround in book publishing, with an overall increase of close to 50 per cent between 2010 and 2022, accelerated by the pandemic situation. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of books and booklets published increased by 17 per cent per year. Reading became a very popular leisure activity during the pandemic. According to a survey by the Federation of European Publishers (FEP), a third of the world’s population read more books and listened to more audiobooks at home during the pandemic than before. According to a joint survey by the Association of Hungarian Publishers and Book Distributors (MKKE) and Tárki, the proportion was similar in Hungary, with 31 per cent of online respondents spending more time reading books in 2020 than in the previous year. Paper books remained the most popular, while 18 per cent of online respondents spend more time reading digital books and 6 per cent listening to audio books. In Hungary, according to KSH data, book publishing is still booming after the pandemic. Future positive trends may be ensured by the fact that young people, the so-called Generation Z, like to read, and among them paper books are also the most popular, according to international surveys. This is also confirmed by the earlier 2020 domestic survey carried out by MKKE. Young people’s reading habits are not driven by compulsory reading, with self-study books being the most popular (Gunda-Szabó, 2023), while fantasy, science fiction, horror, superhero books and romance are also popular, according to further research (Kozics, 2023). In addition, the availability of a film version and various related online content also contribute to the popularity of a given book, indicating that habits are changing.

Figure 7: Number of books and booklets published in Hungary since 2010. (The number refers to the number of works published, not the number of copies.) By Viktória Németh. Source: KSH. The figure can be referenced here: https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/17567543/

Positive trends in reading, and in particular in young people’s reading habits, include an increase in the number of school libraries. According to the latest data released by KSH (2023), the number of school libraries increased by 4.6% from 2021 to 2022. More spectacularly, the stock of school libraries increased by 8.8%, while the proportion of loans increased by 9.6% (KSH, 2023).

Conclusion

Culture is the engine of social and economic processes. OECD international research has found that the amount of government spending on culture is correlated with the amount of cultural consumption. In the case of Hungary, spending on culture as a share of GDP has been steadily increasing since the early 2010s. Hungary has the highest expenditure on culture as a share of GDP in the European Union since 2018. The effects of this policy are consistent with the international experience reported by the OECD. As spending increased, more and more people were visiting theatres and museums and buying books since the early 2010s. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic caused a major disruption in institutionalised cultural consumption (attendance at theatres, museums, concerts). Meanwhile, book publishing and reading are enjoying a renaissance, with the number of publications reaching a decade high even after the pandemic. Regarding the performing arts, there is a rapid recovery, even if attendance had not reached pre-pandemic levels by 2022. The maintenance of a high level of state support by European standards is of particular importance for the sector in this context. An important factor for the sector is that price increases for cultural services and goods have been more moderate than for other goods and services.

According to international research by the OECD, cultural participation has an impact on many social and economic areas. They include education, innovation, welfare and health, civic participation and acceptance between different social groups and cultures. In addition, culture can play an important role in approaching and addressing societal challenges from a new perspective. Hungary’s economic performance corresponds with OECD observations. As an example, Hungary was ranked ninth in the UNIDO global ranking for medium and high-tech industries in 2019. The phenomenon is also manifested in the so-called creative industries. In Hungary, the creative industries accounted for a share above the EU average, with a share of 6-7% of GDP according to previous measurements, and a similar share in the labour market. The creative industries are mainly linked to a particular city, with Budapest playing an important role in the case of Hungary. In 2019, Budapest and Glasgow were ranked as the leaders in the category of “new jobs in the creative sectors” for the first time in the European Commission’s survey.

Reference list

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  • Gunda-Szabó Dóra: Olvas még valaki egyáltalán? Olvasási szokások itthon és Európában. https://uniside.hu/olvas-meg-valaki-egyaltalan-olvasasi-szokasok-itthon-es-europaban/
  • Infostart: Évtizedes csúcson a könyvkiadás, Arany János az aranyérmes. (2021) https://infostart.hu/gazdasag/2021/06/11/evtizedes-csucson-a-konyvkiadas-arany-janos-az-aranyermes
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[1] Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Netherlands, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States, South Korea.

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