Austria is a federal state and most cultural competences are assigned to the Bundesländer (“cultural sovereignty”) by the general clause of Article 15 of the Constitutional Law. On national level, cultural policy is the responsibility of the Arts and Culture Division of the Austrian Federal Chancellery.
The previous and current national governments and most of the Bundesländer draft their core objectives for arts, culture and cultural policy in legislative programmes or culture strategies. With different importance, the main priorities of recent years are to promote emerging artists and contemporary art creation; to strengthen the presence of Austrian artists abroad; to mediate cultural values as well as to create the conditions for cultural participation of a broader public; to strengthen the role of cultural education; to generate wider interest in art and culture among children and young people; to create suitable framework conditions for cultural work, such as the subsidies for culture institutions and artists as well as the improvement of their working conditions and to promote particularly women as well as new media and film. National cultural policy is furthermore responsible for the federal cultural institutions and the protection of cultural heritage. Other objectives have been the democratisation of knowledge and information by providing access to digital and digitalised cultural goods as well as international exchange and collaboration. Recently, partly more emphasis has been laid on private commitment for the arts as well as commercial success and exploitation of creative work.
The main features characterising cultural policy making in Austria on all levels of administration can be divided into three categories:
- Basic cultural needs: cultural policy in Austria undertakes to ensure the freedom of art and artistic expression, diversity, (gender) equality, pluralism, quality, creativity and innovation, identity and internationalisation. It safeguards and stimulates general conditions for artists and possibilities for them to flourish as well as an equal access to art and culture.
- Management: culture policy decisions are supposed to be transparent and geared towards promotion, competition and efficiency. It promotes public-private co-operation, flexibility, decentralisation, longer-term planning options, service orientation and evaluation.
- Socio-political objectives: cultural policy moreover is engaged to improve participation, integration, social security, representation and also understanding the economic effects of the cultural sector.
Austria’s history in the 20th century was marked by the decline of the Habsburg Empire, World War I and the end of the monarchy, an atmosphere of departure as well as disturbances and uncertainties during the First Republic from 1919 to 1934, the annexation by Hitler-Germany, World War II and the status as a German province between 1938 and 1945 and by the period of allied occupation during the Second Republic from 1945 to 1955. With the signing of the State Treaty in 1955, Austria, the “cultural nation”, started from scratch.
The post-war cultural policy was mainly prestige-oriented. It favoured support for federal theatres or festivals more than 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 cultural policy was recognised from then on as part of social policy.
A package of national cultural policy measures was adopted in 1975. Its main goals were to improve the cultural habits and education levels of the public and to reduce the gap between city-dwellers and the rural population. This marked a turning point as it launched a dialogue between governing bodies, the artists and the field of arts and culture education and mediation. 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 (boards, juries, commissions, curators). 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. Cultural spending increased approximately seven times the annual amount of the past 25 years due to the support for numerous large-scale events, festivals and major exhibitions. In the late 1980s, cultural policy priorities shifted and discussions became focused on issues of cultural sponsorship and privatisation. In 1988, public support for the arts was enshrined in a federal law: the Federal Arts Promotion Act.
In the 1990s, discussions on privatisation took place, especially in fields such as musicals, popular operas and museums, which were able to raise a greater share of funds in the market than the more avant-garde art forms. Entrepreneurial thinking became more important and the accession to the EU in 1995 reinforced the primacy of the economy.
A major political shift was brought about in 2000 with the building of a coalition between the People’s Party and the right-wing Freedom Party. The cultural policy objectives of this government have been focussed on outsourcing of public cultural institutions and a 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).
The political auspices changed once more in the following two legislative periods between 2007 and 2017 when the commitment for the promotion of the arts and culture was reaffirmed. The social democratic culture ministers responsible implemented cultural measures, e.g. scholarships for emerging artists and measures to improve the international profile of Austrian artists abroad. To improve the working conditions in the cultural field, efforts to reform the artists’ social insurance were stepped up. Further focal issues were the support of the Austrian film industry, the increase of subsidies for federal theatres and museums and an intensified promotion of art and culture education in school.
The refugee crisis and the migration flows since 2015 have made people more apprehensive, hence the Austrian parliamentary elections 2017 resulted in a marked shift to the right. The concept of culture in the government programme of the centre-right coalition is characterised as being more traditional. Strategic cultural policy aims are the promotion of contemporary art, the protection of the cultural heritage and the strengthening of the Austrian cultural identity. Particular value is attached to the cultural education of the younger generation. Even though the commitment to the freedom of the arts were confirmed and public funding for access to art and culture has been guaranteed, arts and culture are likewise seen as locational and economic factors and efficiency and profit-orientation have been increasingly emphasised.
Since May 2019, Austria has a transitional government. Until the general election in September 2019, the agenda for art and culture was the responsibility of the Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs.