Seeds of Hungarian culture abroad: Liszt Institutes from New York to Beijing

Het Hongaars Cultureel Centrum in Parijs. Hadonos, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Het Hongaars Cultureel Centrum in Parijs. Hadonos, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Geschatte leestijd: 5 minuten

The representation of Hungarian culture has a good reputation in the framework of the Liszt Institutes, scattered across 27 different cities across the globe. When traditional diplomatic instruments fall short to provide the right tone, cultural diplomacy takes over. It does not only exist as a complementary, but as a supplementary branch of diplomacy. In situations when political tension and ideological clashes create distance between actors, cultural diplomacy serves to still maintain a relationship between the parties. This is the case for Hungary at the moment; where the traditional diplomatic negotiations are in gridlock, cultural diplomacy still flourishes.

by Lili Zselyke Lévai

While the EU’s cultural diplomacy has both an external and internal dimension, for Hungary cultural diplomacy is particularly significant as a tool for European integration. The effectiveness of cultural diplomacy is frequently questioned due to its lack of assertive aspects that are generally attributed to hard power instruments. At the same time, it is fascinating to note that there are several platforms within the EU’s system that focus on soft power instruments. The success of cultural diplomacy is frequently doubted due to its tendency to be sort of “invisible”. However, this invisibility does not mean a lack of result in the end; it simply refers to a gradual and slower process. Imagine that each cultural interaction between two countries is a thread. At first, the created connection seems ignorable, but over the reoccurrence of that synergy the thread gradually becomes a strong bond; potentially strong enough to assure other type (let’s say economic) partnerships to be formulated.

Educational mobility

Among EU countries, one of the most prominent “threads” is educational mobility within the framework of the Erasmus programme. Hungary, having been recently cut off of this network, lost a significant access to cultural diversity that can only further worsen the current situation. The Liszt Institutes might be one of the last resorts for Hungary to uphold cultural connections to European neighbours. Cultural diplomacy holds the power to lessen the uncomfortable situation that the country finds itself in, its potential is only limited by the ones managing it.

While today there is an impressive palette of locations with Liszt Institutes, the Director of University Department in the Hungarian Cultural and Educational Ministry, Zoltán Magyary shows that the first institutes were created (with various profiles and goals) in Rome, Berlin, Istanbul and Vienna. From another angle, the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy – having been an expert organisation both in Europe and the USA for almost 25 years – explains that one of the original goals of Hungarian cultural diplomacy was “geared towards the ethnic Hungarian minorities living in the countries around Hungary”. Today, maintaining close ties even with the furthest points of the world is not a possibility but a historical reality. As it happens, cultural diplomacy followed the trend of increased migratory movements. On the one hand, there are more and more foreigners involved in Hungarian cultural heritage; and on the other hand, there is an increased number of Hungarian expats welcoming the work of these establishments.


The Liszt institutions offer different societies a glimpse into Hungarian culture. That temporary moment of connection (through an event, a language course, or collaboration) can establish a permanent sense of understanding. While many are attracted by the exhibitions, movie nights and soirées, few even dare to start mastering the language (mostly as an exoticism or a hobby). Hungarian – said to be one of the most difficult languages in the world – requires commitment, enthusiasm and a great professor. Also, THL2 is a journal series entirely devoted to the cultural communication and teaching methods of the Hungarian language to facilitate its mastering. After all, “language is the roadmap of culture”, they say.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, under the guidance of Minister of Culture Kuno Klebelsberg, the first cultural institutions were established in foreign lands – the first one in Istanbul which never ceased to function over a hundred years now. At the time, the institutionalised cultural representations aimed to provide young educated elites with opportunities abroad. Today, the Liszt Institutes still make available scholarships to support younger generations. Some of those scholarships provide youngsters with the possibility to study in Hungary, opening the country itself up to them. When it comes to Hungarian students seeking to discover the unknown, it is to preserve all that is dear to Hungarians and was left behind in the process of advancing in life. Cherishing their national cultures abroad, enables Hungarians to then open themselves up to others.

Top-tier cultural content

Each institution has its own story and its own way of integrating into the given cultural environment. The idea of multicultural communication requires participants to find a common ground based on various techniques. The particularity of the Liszt Institutes is the wide variety of well-managed cultural exchange. Exemplary of this is the comment of the former director of the New York institute, László Jakab Orsós, that the audience in New York is “spoiled” due to the unstoppable flow of top-tier cultural content that the city has to offer all year. While, in line with this, New York is a demanding “playground”, Paris has a long-lasting tradition of welcoming Hungarian artists.

Hungary’s isolated views in crucial contemporary challenges like its relationship with Russia and the migration crisis, increased the tensions in its bilateral partnerships – mostly in Europe. From the refusal of the migratory quota system to the recent rejection of imposing sanctions on Russia, Hungary had made it its habit to go against the grain; not to mention the ongoing legal procedure against the country at the Court of Justice of the EU. Due to these controversial affairs of the motherland, the Hungarian embassies, thus, are having a harder time negotiating agreements and gaining support for their work. Despite all of this, the number of cultural cooperations and joint art projects continue and are successful. Maybe the Liszt Institutes can re-establish trust and connection to these countries “thus allowing political and economic discussion to follow after”, as the IDC writes.

Domestic cultural situation

As controversial as it may be, the domestic cultural situation does not correspond to the success that the Ministry for Culture and Innovation achieved with external representation. The independent experts at the international cultural policy research centre, Compendium, explain that the government’s expenditure towards the active cultural projects (such as theatres, publishing, audio-visual and multimedia) has significantly dropped between 2015-2020. For instance, the SZFE (University of Theatre and Film Industry) has been regulated to an extent that it cannot fulfil its original functions. All this results in innovative young artists leaving the country in order to be able to follow their passion. The Liszt Institutes play a role in the reconciliation of these “involuntary migrants” as well. Given that the two ministries are run by the same government, this dilemma questions the essence of Hungary’s cultural sector: could it be that the Liszt Institutes are only a facade in front of a culturally deprived motherland?

In essence, the Liszt institutes do not purposefully project a fake image of Hungarian culture; but the contrast between its potential and the reality creates a sense of deception and disappointment. Indeed, Hungary holds a thousand-year-old cultural legacy that provides a firm base for cultural partnerships (for instance from a post-constructivist/historical approach) to be built. Undeniably, the Liszt Institutes are doing a great job embracing this potential to purvey a valuable presence on the international stage. Meanwhile, within the borders, this potential is not only neglected, but through reforms in the educational system, even cut off. Without a culturally enriched country, it is increasingly hard to uphold worthy cultural diplomatic relations in the long run.

Lili Zselyke Lévai is a student in European Studies at The Hague University of Applies Sciences.
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