Miskolc case



Chances for Urban Art Festivals in Hungary

Péter Inkei

(assisted by Zsuzsa Hunyadi, Judit Friss and Gábor Mondik)

for the EFRP workshop in Helsinki, 11-12 April 2008


This paper relies on two main sources. One is a research commissioned by the culture ministry of Hungary about the role of culture in the urban development of six major provincial cities. The other source is the mass of information accumulated in connection to the festival board of the National Cultural Fund, including the monitoring documentation, especially in the year of 2007.

Out of the six cities, Miskolc will be in focus, for the following paradox. Cultural traditions in this city appear to be the least favourable for a successful arts festival. And yet, this is the place whose festival comes closest to urban festivals, as defined the following way: events that consciously aim at creating, shaping or enhancing the image of a city. In its preparation and execution inhabitants and communities of the city take important part. Whether these events are initiated, owned or supported by a city, is of secondary importance.


Culture-based Urban Development, 2006

The findings of the research commissioned by the culture ministry of Hungary about the role of culture in the urban development of six major provincial cities was published in 2006 in a book entitled Kulturális alapú városfejlesztés (Culture-based Urban Development), by Zsuzsa Hunyadi et al. The main instrument of the research was a complex survey based on samples of a few hundred citizens from each city.  


The major events board of the National Cultural Fund

This board was established in 2005 with the aim of giving grants to a wider circle than festivals, the so called major cultural events, which included festivals, promotion campaigns (e.g. for libraries), etc. Also festivals other than arts could apply, e.g. folklore, food and drink "festivals" and the like. 

In 2006 cultural events could apply for 1300 million Forints (about €5,2 million). This went to 108 events, an average of ca €42 thousand.

In 2007 800 million (about €3,2 million) was spent (300 million of which jointly with the tourism board of the industry ministry), benefiting 83 events, averaging about €38 thousand. Also in 2008 another 130 million (€500 hundred thousand) was distributed between 14 cultural events in Pécs.

The board introduced monitoring of the supported events, which was an innovation in the life of the National Cultural Fund, where evaluation of projects is generally based on papers only: closing documents and reports. In 2007 monitors visited 57 events. Further to monitoring the use of public grants, and the implementation of what was contained in the application, they collected information on a wider scope, in fact carrying out a survey on festivals and similar events in 2007.


Presenting the six cities

Besides Budapest (1,8 million inhabitants), there are six Hungarian cities with a population over 110 000, from west to east: Győr, Pécs, Szeged, Miskolc, Debrecen and Nyíregyháza. Miskolc, focused in this paper, is at one end or the other from most scales on the characteristic aspects presented in the following Graphs. Admittedly, from the multitude of data presented in the book, we selected those, which underline the decisive peculiarities of this city.

Graph 1 - population by the 1930 and 2001 censuses. The growth of Miskolc was the fastest, 300% in fifty years (200% plus). Which may also imply that lasting commitment to the city is weaker than in the other five cases.


Graphs 2-4 - general characteristics, which usually show a slope from west to the east.

  • Longing away: % of those who want their children to leave town. Only the inhabitants of Nyíregyháza, near the Ukrainian border, are more pessimistic about future expectations for the next generation in their home town, than in Miskolc. Nevertheless, 27% is a very high figure, too.

  • Linguistic incompetence: % of those who do not speak foreign languages. The people surveyed in Miskolc admitted a much higher proportion than the miserable national average.

  • Intolerance: % of those who admit feeling dislike towards the Roma. (The question applied the traditional name of Gypsies, which is gradually replaced by the politically correct term of Roma.) The Roma represent around 5% of the population in Hungary, less in the west and more in the east, including Miskolc. Similarly to other countries in eastern Europe, social difficulties and conflicts appear in a concentrated fashion in, and with regard to this ethnic minority. One knows that this is a particularly serious issue in Miskolc, nevertheless this high majority of the inhabitants admitting smaller or greater degree of antipathy towards the Roma is astounding.


Presenting Miskolc, and the opera festival

It is time to introduce Miskolc in a somewhat more systematic way. A regional centre from several centuries, the historic cultural traditions are impressive. Every educated Hungarian knows that the first permanent theatre in the Hungarian language was established in Miskolc in the early 19th century.

The 20th century, however, fundamentally changed the character of the city. The industrial era brought along spectacular development, making the city one of the most important centres of heavy industry in the country. As such, Miskolc shared the fate of other industrial cities. Differently from the cases in England, the Basque country or the Ruhr area, Miskolc, like many other post-industrial cities in the east, has not yet eliminated the social symptoms of depression - as Graphs 2-4 clearly show.

It is against this background that the idea of an international opera festival was born. The brainchild of a couple of arts managers from Budapest, the idea met the support of the city leadership, especially the vice-mayor, a member of parliament. Quoting from the website of the festival, they:

"...launched the first Bartók + Verdi event in 2001 with a no less ambitious goal in mind than creating a new festival tradition and putting Miskolc on the cultural map of the world as a new and fascinating tourist attraction. The idea was to create an annual International Opera Festival for the Eastern European public with a focus on Béla Bartók + another internationally acknowledged composer (it was Verdi in 2001, Puccini in 2002, Mozart in 2003, Tchaikovsky in 2004), later broadened to include distinct styles (the composers of Bel canto in 2005, those of Verismo in 2006, the French composers in 2007, and will be the Slav composers in 2008).

The main aim of the festival is to encourage cultural co-operation between Hungarian artists and artists within the European Union, especially in the contemporary and classical music performance (opera and ballet), focusing on Béla Bartók, one of the most original figures in 20th century music. Another aim was to become a Gateway to the East by offering a geographically convenient and constant venue for the best opera performances in Central-Eastern Europe every year, in particular by performing and promoting the full scale of Bartók's music written for the stage."

All six cities were represented with centrally supported and monitored major cultural events in 2007 - Table 1.


Main festivals

Generic relationship

Site specific










Days of Pécs






Open Air Festival




Bartók + Opera

Castle Folk






Flower Parade




Happy Art




Three of them are closely ("generically") linked with the city hall, Miskolc being one, as we could see. We chose another of the three, Szeged, as the case study for the Circle round table conference on festivals in Barcelona, last October. (The picture we showed about the oldest Hungarian art festival, the Szeged Open Air Festival is short of flattering. Having achieved a great success by winning the title of European Capital of Culture in 2010, the city of Pécs shows overall problems on the cultural scene, which will be seen in the next graphs, and also experienced by our monitors. (Due to the approaching of 2010, nearly a dozen cultural events received central grants in 2007.)

Not only the broad social and historic background did not deem Miskolc to start an opera festival. Although the symphony orchestra of the city regularly concerts in Budapest and the National Theatre of Miskolc plays opera and operetta (in March 2007 Puccini's Madama Butterfly four times, Strauss's The Bat five times), neither the demand of the public nor the technical facilities in the main venue, the local National Theatre, are really determine such a brave choice. The same can be said about the infrastructure in the service of tourism in and around the city (which, by the way, is equally true about all six cities.)

Against all odds, the initiative has become quite a success. The name of Miskolc became associated with the festival - which is corroborated by other cultural projects and investments. The city hall bravely advocates for the slogan Culture builds the city (in Miskolc). People from Budapest and other parts of the country attend the festival in great numbers. The international character is mainly manifested on the stage rather than in the audience; nevertheless, the overall niveau stands international comparison. The festival is also the favourite of the central authorities, which is manifested in the special financial grants it receives year after year.

The Miskolc opera festival shares many of the goals and attributes of an urban art festival. The opera performances are searching for new solutions, sometimes taking place at unconventional venues: the spa in a cave at Tapolca, the ice hockey stadium as well as the abandoned huge hall of a former heating centre.

Opera (or classical concerts for that matter) can little rely on local traditions in Miskolc. Therefore it is the accompanying fair, shows and gastronomic events where the organisers not just allow local vendors to take part but insist on elevated standards and encourage originality.

Special emphasis is laid on dissemination of knowledge and information in the form of free lectures and film shows, both for children and adults. 

Both the comparative research of the six cities and the reports of the monitors prove that the Opera Festival and the related cultural efforts of the city hall have successfully changed the image of Miskolc, and of festivals and similar events in the eyes of the inhabitants of the city.

On the other hand, the same sources prove that the actual habits and preferences of the inhabitants have been little affected, at least after the first few editions.


Impacts of the festival

Graphs 5-8 will illustrate the first statements, about positive attitudes of the inhabitants of Miskolc.

  • Miskolc is the city whose inhabitants are the most satisfied with the cultural events organised in the town. (The poor performance of Pécs is a gloomy forecast for the Capital of Europe events is 2010.)

  • With 73% of positive answers, the leading position of Miskolc is even more marked with regard to the perception of recent improvement of the cultural events in town. (The second place of Szeged is probably due to the consolidation - after years of discord - of the management, as well as the programme of the Open Air Festival.)

The previous two questions refer to festivals and events in general. Expressed satisfaction in Miskolc is only partly attributed to the flagship event, the opera festival. One festival of a couple of weeks, no matter how successful, is too little for achieving considerable impact. It is therefore vital if there are similarly attractive events at other times of the year - preferably is strategic alliance with what is our main concern: the international art festival.

In Miskolc, a peculiar event represents the counter-point to the opera festival: dedicated to a dish that the city is famous for, the kocsonya (pork jelly). It is a truly pedestrian food, thus the Kocsonya Festival is mainly a plebeian feast, also successful at that. Nevertheless it is done with taste and combines cultural elements into its programme, involving the theatre and the city gallery.

  • When it is about civic concern, or curiosity for matters of the city, Miskolc gets behind more consolidated fellow towns. Still, the proportion of those who declared interest about cultural affairs of the city places Miskolc relatively high among the six:


  • Success is most apparent in the sphere of symbolic declarations. From the lists consisting of real and fictitious slogans, altogether 19% of people in Miskolc voted for city of culture, and culture builds the city against other options, which is higher than Pécs, officially in the 2010 fever. (The very low percentage in Szeged is in sharp contrast with actual performance and engagement in cultural matters, as shown in the following graphs.)


Graphs 11-13 present indicators of actual cultural performance and engagement, where the figures on Miskolc are more consistent with its sociological realities than in the areas of perception and declarations shown in the preceding graphs. To make ends meet is more difficult in Miskolc than elsewhere, which is why fulfilling material needs are the priorities here.

  • Fewer inhabitants of Miskolc attended a festival in the past year than in any of the six cities. (The top position of Szeged shows that - in addition to their overall high level of cultural activity - people in that city vote with their feet in favour of their Open Air Festival, disregarding the criticism about the provincial and conventional character of its programme, expressed among others in the above cited case study of ours.)


  • When asked about the importance of various factors in relation to well-being, festivals were given lower weight in Miskolc:

Even less favour is given to culture when it is in direct confrontation with other sectors. People in all other cities would spend more of the city's money on culture than the Miskolc inhabitants. (Especially in Szeged.) 

  • Budget: what percentage of the city budget to spend on culture? The 5,9% that citizens in Miskolc would offer to culture is way below all other cities. And especially below the 7% of Szeged. (This graph closely correlates with actual cultural habits, which in our selection is represented by Graph 11 above, the attendance of festivals.)

The case of the Miskolc Opera Festival shows that determination yields fruit even against the odds. An art festival can effectively affect the image of a city, both in the eyes of its inhabitants and the outside observers. This positive change, however, does not necessarily bring about modifications in the patterns of cultural behaviour in the short term.


Why cannot urban festivals fully flourish in Hungary?

When we consider the obstacles from turning the Miskolc opera festival into a full-fledged international urban art festival, we will list symptoms shared by all six, and other provincial cities in Hungary. Some of these apply to the greater part of east and central Europe.

  • There is a lack of proper infrastructure. Stages are old fashioned and typically too small. Alternative venues are also poorly equipped with technical facilities.
  • Neither hotels nor restaurants really cater for the needs of the kind of tourists that an international art festival attracts.
  • Few Hungarians speak foreign languages, which is a hindrance in general services as well as in private communication and orientation, particularly in the east of the country.
  • The wishes and skills to rely on civilian self help and co-operation to a greater extent are little developed, as is the general culture of volunteering.
  • Engaged city leadership that fully incorporates culture into its strategic thinking is a rarity - this is where Miskolc seems to single out positively.
  • In the countryside it is particularly hard to find business and other private sponsors with strategic plans and thinking - and the necessary disposable resources.