Artists Also Profit from His Money


Born into a world of small farms, and having spent some time in one of the top positions of the City, Gábor Kovács knows the value of self-reliance—and that a little help can go a long way. In 2003 he founded the Kovács Gábor Art Foundation with a capital of HUF 3bn, setting out to support visual artists who stand a fair chance of standing on their own feet in time.

Now one of the 100 richest Hungarians, Gábor Kovács travelled a long way before he decided to devote a considerable portion of his wealth, worth over HUF 40bn, to the cause of art. He was born and raised in Kakasszék, a small farm on the Great Plain, and when asked what he wanted to be in life, he offered joining the cooperative—or becoming an ambassador. At the age of 18 he started his studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Upon graduation he returned to Hungary, and joined the staff of the First Vice President of the Hungarian National Bank. He only insists on mentioning this phase in his career as this was where he learnt, between 1980 and 1985, the value in business of honour, honesty and one’s given word. Ever since then he has considered a gentlemen’s agreement worth more than a written contract. He went on to become the Budapest managing director of Citibank, and then worked for two years in London as the vice president of the same financial institution. Meanwhile, in 1989, he founded a company in Hungary, Bankár Ltd., the management of which he took over in 1991. At the time, the world was all about money, about transactions, securing deals, making profit. Gábor Kovács lived the life of an accomplished banker and investor. Over a decade he invested in 50 to 60 companies, which he quickly passed on, growing a vast fortune.

His interest in art dates back to 1991, when he wanted to decorate the Budapest office of his company. He hung eight paintings on the tall white walls, including a work by István Csók. He soon noted that his visitors always asked about the pictures first, before discussing business. Before long, he was an avid collector. He used the auctions to educate himself, to learn about the artists, the periods, the styles, soon recognized by the auctions houses as a regular. He did not buy to invest; what he was after in works of art was personal involvement, which in the case of certain genres, such as the landscape and the portrait, was responsible for particularly intensive experiences. Over and above the aesthetic pleasure, he soon discovered the social value of the collector’s activity, and he started to turn away from the material world towards spirituality. This, he says, was what moved him to establish the Kogart Foundation in 2003, with a capital of HUF 3bn. With the act he became an official patron of the arts. Art needs support, he said in interviews, but the help should go to those artists who can keep going later, even without help. Accordingly, the Foundation set itself three goals: to popularize the visual arts, to provide financial help to young talents, and to create a high-quality contemporary collection. Kogart House is the home of all these activities: the fully renovated palace on Andrássy Avenue, which boasts a 1600 sq metre exhibition facility, was opened in 2004. The world of business and the government proved willing to respond to Gábor Kovács’s initiative: since 2008, each of the 100 Hungarian companies with the largest revenues have provided an annual support of HUF 1m towards the building of Kogart’s contemporary collection, and the Ministry of Culture also contributed HUF 50m. In 2012, the ninth Fresh exhibition was organized in Kogart House, a display that presents young artists at the beginning of their careers. Gábor Kovács purchased and sold a number of companies over the years, looking for, and often finding, that particular value of a business that would make it truly marketable. Finding real values has also been his motivation in supporting young artists. Rather than buy and lock up an El Greco or a Van Gogh, he wants to discover and support new talents.


In addition to a lot of luck, says Gábor Kovács, one also needs to accept challenges to reach the top. The founder of Kogart has done so on many an occasion, and the general lesson of his career is that there are no shortcuts to the places that are worth reaching.

Art patronage is one of the best ways in a welfare society to improve the spirit of the community, and it even has direct and indirect benefits for the person acting as patron.

To reach and to maintain balance or harmony is key to the happiness of every person, but we often make the mistake of expecting money to provide this balance. Obviously, Gábor Kovács can rely on a secure financial background to act as a patron, yet it is worth remembering, even in the heat of making a living, that besides economic balance, there is a balance of the mind or the soul, which is one of the most vital ingredients to personal happiness and contentment.


Márton-Koczó, Ildikó: Az 50 legjobb magyar üzleti döntés – és 15 a legrosszabbak közül (The 50 Best Hungarian Business Decisions – And 15 of the Worst Ones). Budapest, Alinea Kiadó, 2013. pp. 47-50.