Zsuzsanna Szalka

Meet Zsuzsanna Szálka, a Hungarian international cultural manager

© Gábor Valuska

Zsuzsanna Szálka is an international cultural manager and lecturer in cultural management. She has been the co-ordinator of CEU Culture Hub, the director of Átlátszó Hang New Music Festival, Budapest, programme advisor to the House of Music in Hungary, music curator of Ördögkatlan Festival and the founder and festival manager of the Night of Choirs Budapest. She has been a recurring visiting lecturer on cultural institutions in the Cultural Heritage Studies Programme of CEU since 2014, and a guest lecturer on cultural management at universities in Budapest, Pécs and Lviv. Between 2014-2017 she was the head of concert management of the Liszt Academy of Music. Between 2007 and 2013 she worked as manager of International Affairs at Müpa, Budapest. More recently, Zsuzsanna was also project manager of MusicaFemina International (2018-2020) and Play It Loud (2021-2023), two EU projects with the aim of raising awareness about gender balance in the music sector, with the help of its international partners.

Over the last decade or two there is not much of Budapest’s cultural life that Zuzsanna Szalka has not had her hands in. She is something of an artistic catalyst, roaming through the profession without ever quite settling into a traditional job description category. The role she has carved out for herself is like the centre of a Venn diagram: a chunk of production, the glue between artists and management, the welcome match-maker between disparate genres and the convenor of fresh ideas.

Cultural management and being a cultural manager as a professional is going through great changes,” she says. “To develop as an artist you have to have management skills too. You need to brand yourself and work on your identity so you can see how to communicate and sell what you do.

The days when a manager was just a booking agent in a particular discipline – classical music, theatre or visual arts – are slipping away as younger audiences look for more eclectic experiences. For many artists, brought up to perfect their performance within predetermined parameters, this can be a challenge and they can feel adrift. “Artists need someone to brainstorm with,” says Zsuzsanna, “to help devise a project then manage and sell it.” This takes more than a superficial administrative engagement. “Different stakeholders bring different possibilities. I often programme cross-genre performances, which means I have to help form them and that in turn means I have to identify with the idea; to be able to say, ‘this is great’ or ‘this is not going to work so well’. It means being able to put myself in the artists’ shoes.

The way engagements are shaped is changing too – partly as a response to the economic, sustainability and bureaucratic demands of moving artists over long distances – but partly out of a sense that everybody benefits when artists stay longer and become more involved in the social and intellectual fabric of an event.

To be successful, she does not see newness for its own sake as necessary for a project, whether a single performance or a festival. Instead she looks for, “transference; the demonstration that the event is making progress, that it is not just happening because it is available but that it is looking to be innovative.” Zsuzsanna cites the Ördögkatlan Festival as a good example because of all the varied activity around it. She sees the audience not as isolated and passive but as part of the process of delivering the art form. The Ördögkatlan Festival started as a theatre event but is now multi-genre, “with courtyards full of music and fun children programmes“. Interactive workshops for the audience are an important way of making them participants, for example by contributing to the writing and presentation of an instant opera.

Co-curating is becoming more important,” Zsuzsanna feels. “I am never going to have an impact on the repertoire itself. I don’t wish to. I am there to make it more coherent. I want to be there when the concept is being formed as part of the creative team but later it’s about the process of production: still management but working closely with the artistic directors, linking and networking between all the contributing organisations.

Alongside her festival and venue work, Zsuzsanna is very active as part of the Cultural Heritage Studies Programme at the Central European University, now operating from Vienna after it was forced out of Budapest after pressures on academic freedom; part of the Hungarian government’s crackdown on liberal democracy. Location aside, the CEU is becoming a cultural hub for the transference of skills. She herself studied not only in Budapest but also in Dublin, where she first became involved in transforming a city area into a cultural melting pot. She regards teaching while still active in the profession as hugely important and the international nature of contemporary projects has to be celebrated. “One is educating all the time while one is doing that,” passing on the experience but also the practice to the next generation so that they can continue to expand their horizons.

Interview and article by Simon Mundy

“”If, after a day spent in natural environs, you listen to a concert in the evening and have the feeling that the world is at peace, I am happy. Music is capable of keeping people’s souls sane and opening their hearts to their surroundings, to society, to their family and friends, and it proves that life is worth living.” Kurt Masur, Honorary Patron of the Usedom Music Festival © Usedom Music Festival