Author: Veronika Ratzenböck
Austria's history in the 20th century was marked by the decline of the Habsburg Empire and the end of the monarchy, by difficult times in the First Republic between the wars, by its annexation by Hitler-Germany and its status as a German province between 1938 and 1945, and by a period of allied occupation from 1945 to 1955.
Austrian post-war cultural policy was mainly prestige-oriented. It favoured support for federal theatres or festivals and ignored contemporary works of literature, theatre, the visual arts and music. Most of the artists and intellectuals who had been driven away by Nazism during the war were not invited to return.
The post war-attitude toward culture changed with the general European politicisation and radicalisation of the 1960s and 1970s. The cultural vanguard became a political factor and was employed as a tool to prepare for the upcoming political changes in Austria, i.e. the Social Democratic government of Bruno Kreisky, which promised modernisation and reform in all areas including a concept of culture embracing all expressions of life. Moreover, cultural policy was regarded as a variation of social policy.
A package of cultural policy measures of the Federal Ministry of Education and the Arts was adopted in 1975. Its main goals were to improve the cultural habits and education levels of the public and to reduce the educational gap between city-dwellers and the rural population. A culture service (ÖKS) operated by the Ministry was established to create contact between artists and culture workers on the one hand and schools, adult education establishments, companies and cultural centres on the other. This marked a turning point insofar as it launched a dialogue between governing bodies and artists and art mediators. The decisive step towards the current system of arts promotion was taken up at this time, and was gradually extended and refined over the next 25 years, including the establishment of various advisory bodies (incl. boards, juries and commissions and specialised curators). Such bodies were given some decision-making powers in an effort to make the arts support-system more democratic. Intermediary bodies were also established, supervised by the government and to some extent anchored in private business.
In the 1980s, the country was seized by a veritable culture boom in the sense that more and more events were organised and cultural spending increased approximately seven times the annual amount of the past 25 years. In general, the reason for the increase was due to the support for large-scale events, numerous festivals and major exhibitions.
Towards the end of the 1980s, cultural policy priorities shifted and discussions became focused on issues of cultural sponsorship and privatisation. This was at a time when there was a renewed grand coalition between the Christian Democratic People's Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and against the background of the major political changes of 1989. In 1988, public support for the arts was enshrined in a federal law: the Federal Arts Promotion Act. While public discussion on privatisation was initially of marginal significance in the 1980s, it became a hot topic in the latter years of the 1990s, especially in fields such as musicals, popular operas and museums which – judged by international standards – were able to raise a greater share of funds in the market than the more avant-garde art forms.
Between 1998 and 2006 all cultural-policy agendas were in the hands of the State Secretary for Art and Culture, who was part of the office of the Federal Chancellor.
In 1998, a discussion on the re-structuring of cultural policy was initiated. The Chancellor and the Secretary of State for arts affairs commissioned a working group of experts to analyse Austria's federal cultural policies and administration. Proposals were elaborated to modernise and improve public cultural administration / cultural management (Weissbuch, 1998). Although these proposals were widely discussed in the press and among cultural policy makers and artists, they were not implemented.
Another major political shift was brought about in 2000 with the building of a coalition between the People's Party (ÖVP) and the right-wing Freedom Party. This political shift encountered fundamental criticism from many social, political and cultural forces, nationally and internationally. In general, the cultural policy objectives of the coalition, re-elected in 2002, have been focussed on restructuring public support for culture (outsourcing of public cultural institutions and reduction of the cultural budget). Greater emphasis has been placed on prestige culture, the creative industries and the promotion of economically oriented projects (such as festivals to increase tourism). Since 2007 there has been a separate ministry for art and culture again– the Ministry for Education, the Arts and Culture (bmu:kk). Apart from responsibility for the media (Federal Chancellery, BKA) and international cultural policy (Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, BMeiA), all art and cultural agendas are re-united under one roof. Cultural policy on the federal level focuses on the themes of cultural diversity and cultural provision, internationalisation, promotion of young artists, improving the working conditions of artists and cultural and creative workers, promotion of contemporary art, new media and film, and the promotion of participation in arts and culture with a special focus on art and culture education.