(c) Creative Austria

What does it mean for a city when artists have to retrain as nurses, when after the crisis many may not want to come back to the opera, and when many cultural institutions and creative businesses increasingly take on the role of socio-political actors in their neighborhoods?

A conversation about the relationship between culture, creative people and municipalities and about socio-political and cultural-political perspectives for the time after the Corona crisis.

Panelists: Margarethe Makovec, Kunstverein <rotor>; Christian Mayer, Program Manager Cultural Year Graz 2020; Günter Riegler, City Councilor for Culture, City of Graz; Wolfgang Skerget, Head of the Office “Graz UNESCO City of Design”

Chair: Hansjürgen Schmölzer, Editor-in-Chief CREATIVE AUSTRIA


A year without “normal” cultural life also means that the position and role of art and culture in society is fundamentally questioned and perhaps re-evaluated. With what perspectives?


I have noticed in recent months that there is an enormous appreciation for the field of art and culture. You can just feel it. You notice that for many people there is an extreme basic need for it. And that’s across all generations. Young people like to go to the movies, older people maybe to a sytriarte concert. Embedded in a larger social framework, where you might go for a glass of wine afterwards, etcetera. By the corona-conditioned omission of these social discussion and meeting possibilities we lose a lot of the possibilities of being human, which is constituted by living together with others.

For the Cultural Year Graz 2020, we are currently working on a project that we have deliberately called “The School of We”. We want to examine what kind of “we” we are actually talking about when we talk about and define cultural commonalities. Is it an exclusive “we” of those who have always lived and consumed close to art and culture, or can art and culture also take on an inclusive function and get very close to people. Especially through the public space. We conceived the project “The School of We” even before the Corona pandemic. But because of this special situation, it takes on a much broader meaning: artists are currently working with people from the Annenviertel district of Graz on five squares to develop frameworks that encourage people to come together, exchange ideas and spend time in public space, and in doing so, make the treatment of common property and the community as a whole the subject of their work.

I am convinced – and the pandemic clearly reinforces this – that art and culture are capable of much, much more than merely serving traditional event formats. Cultural institutions and art and culture in general will be able to make a huge contribution to society in the coming years. Perhaps more than would have been possible without the pandemic.


The program call for the Cultural Year Graz 2020 started from the central question: “How do we want to live?” and focused on culture as a community-building element in society. The program was ready before the pandemic. What would have changed about this program – which has now been extended into 2021 because of the shutdowns – if the call had been made after the pandemic broke out?


Nothing at all in the basic approach. Quite the opposite. The approach of opening the door wide and inviting artists to deal with future issues for the people of a city has only really gained in importance as a result of the pandemic. Artists on every continent are now addressing similar issues. Art was often perceived by many as something elitist on the fringes of society. Today, much more often than in the past, we speak of artistic ideas becoming social ideas. For the program of the Cultural Year Graz 2020, this aspect was pushed very strongly. We invited people to think transdisciplinarily and to consider how major global developments are intertwined with the local conditions of a city. We have to bear in mind, as Peter Sloterdijk has also emphasized, that contemporary people experience two or even three epochs in one life span. People are no longer able to process the paradigm shifts that this entails. The call for Graz 2020 was also based on this fundamental problem. It was a matter of looking at topics that shape and change our everyday reality today, and at the same time also picking up the people and asking them about their differently experienced everyday realities. If you think of a city like Graz as a city of culture, then of course it is always about asking about the issues of the day. This is very much in contrast to the “culture of representation”, which is constantly being relaunched, but is actually completely outdated.


Last fall, the world conference of UNESCO Cities of Design, to which cities around the globe belong, was hosted from Graz. The conference focused on questions about the creative, democratic shaping of our use of resources, digitalization and social coexistence. What possibilities do we have for action – also at the municipal level?


Joseph Beuys would have turned 100 this year. That’s why I recently read up on him again. Decades ago, he already outlined many developments that have gained a general presence today – especially through social media. His Fluxus actions anticipated much of what we can see thousands of times a day today on all social channels. Art has always had the role of seismographically recognizing developments at an early stage and putting them up for debate. In this context, I therefore find it exciting and important to continuously expand and strengthen the connection between art and culture on the one hand and the more application-oriented areas of design on the other. If we want to constructively shape – i.e. “design” – our environment, our everyday life and our coexistence, then we first always need visionaries, artists who look ahead, experiment and investigate without already being subject to the dictates of purpose and usability. Art can thus be a driver that triggers dynamics that are carried on by others in a formative way. At this year’s UNESCO City of Design Conference, we saw a large number of best practice examples for the design of social coexistence or also the conditions of our resource consumption, which have gained their ideas and drawn their strength precisely from this interlinking of art, culture and design. I also see this as a core task of the Graz – UNESCO City of Design office: to act as a catalyst for such creative transfer processes.


Irrespective of the Corona crisis, a number of issues can be clearly identified that will have a dominant influence on social and cultural change in the coming decades: Climate change, scarcity of resources, digitalization and, along with it, an inevitable redistribution of time between gainful employment and other forms of activity. A few years ago, the city of Graz drew up a cultural policy position statement based on sociopolitical conditions that have changed significantly within just a few years – and have been further intensified by the Corona crisis. So what of it still applies today?


First of all, we drew up and wrote down this status report and a cultural policy model at the time, because we didn’t have one in that form. My aim was to obtain advice from competent people on the Cultural Advisory Council. As a business economist, I came to culture from the outside. 

For me, the central question is: How can we ensure that we do “the right thing” in cultural policy? Should we have advisory boards, as we do, or should politicians also intervene in a steering role. The dialogue process that we have started has shown that the existing system with advisory boards and cultural advisory boards is considered to be okay.

One question that has preoccupied me since the outbreak of the Corona crisis is whether the basic need for public funding for culture, which is cited time and again, actually exists. We are already seeing changes in the cultural scene as a result of the crisis. Artists who have lived precariously in the past are now training in the care sector, for example. So the pandemic is already changing the cultural fabric of the city. And the question is, should we simply let these changes happen, or should we intervene to control them? The biggest concern of Bühnen Graz, for example, at the moment is whether people will come back to the theater at all after the crisis. Now we’ve lived for half a year without new productions, and many people, especially older people, may be saying: now we can do without opera.


The Corona Crisis as a Cultural “Flurbereinigung”? What damage could be done?


If you’re a guitarist, for example, and you’re without performing and earning money for a year, you have to look for something else to survive. That’s true. But the question is: What does a city lose when it loses artists and creative people? First of all, you can look at it from a purely economic point of view: The economic value added by art and culture is enormous. According to a study by the Ministry of Economics, 10 billion euros per year. But among the artists themselves, only a very small proportion really participate in this to a well-paid extent. Most of them work in the precariat. It is therefore a matter of pursuing short- and long-term goals in this area. In the short term, special project budgets, such as the current Culture Year budget, generate both a USP, a program offering for the population, and regional value creation.  In the long term, however, we should ask ourselves a different question in the context of art and culture. Namely, how we want to live with it as a society as a whole and what it can also contribute to our everyday lives. Graz has enormous potential here, and a long-term strategy should also develop holistic concepts in all strategic areas, from profile building to urban and district development to training opportunities and the funding system, which include the transfer zones in the field of design and business.


In this context, I see the multi-layered nature of the funding system in Graz as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Because this diversification also triggers transfer processes between the various sectors. The Corona crisis has led to a certain skepticism about “more and more, bigger and bigger. The small-scale differentiation of the structure of our cultural and creative scene has certainly contributed significantly to the fact that at least many in this area have come through the crisis to some extent so far. The Murinsel, which we operate, is a comparatively small venue. But we have been able to hold 102 small events even under these difficult conditions. One of the artists recently said to me: Your commission paid my rent for two months. Small lean structures with low administrative overhead are an advantage in such situations. The creative studies programs at FH-Joanneum produce a large number of graduates every year. And many of them then start as one-person businesses. Of course, they all don’t have it easy. But this small-scale nature also contributes to the resilience of the scene.


At the same time, however, this small-scale nature of the scene is being confronted with global concentration processes. Amazon is emptying entire shopping streets in the historic centers. The Corona crisis has further accelerated the dynamics of the shift from small-scale stationary retail to global market-dominating online retailers. With far-reaching effects on the structures and living conditions in the city centers. The first floor zones of city centers will therefore need new and sustainable usage concepts if they are not to become deserted. A place for the creative scene?


You have to look at this in a differentiated way. Art cannot be instrumentalized for a purpose. Artists initially work from their position. Intrinsically motivated, because they “have to do it.”  Giving a commission, for example, “to revitalize the inner cities” won’t work that way. 

But we can approach artists with questions. That was also the thinking behind the call for the Graz 2020 Year of Culture. We asked questions about the big issues of the future: Climate change. Digitalization. New worlds of work. We invited people to look forward for us with the means of art. And not primarily backwards. Art and culture can open up new perspectives for us, but as a cultural politician I am well aware that art cannot be instrumentalized.


Bringing new perspectives into the socio-political discourse with art and cultural projects has been a core part of the work of Kunstverein rotor in the Annenviertel district of Graz for many years. Both in an international context, focused above all on South-Eastern Europe, and above all in the immediate local environment of the Annenviertel in Graz. With which goals?


Artists often recognize things and contexts that are still latent and not immediately visible. They often take on the role of a seismograph. Formulate an expanded thinking space and also criticism. In many of the projects we do, we also try to bring this into the public space that immediately surrounds us. Because then art becomes really interesting. If it also succeeds in directly and locally creating a direct involvement of the people. Graz has a high level of education. There are many people interested in art and culture. By stepping into the public space, we generate involvement and public discourse. This is incredibly important, especially at a time when society is breaking down into increasingly isolated social bubbles. And in multicultural neighborhoods like Lend or Gries in Graz, there is a very special potential because of their diversity.


While one still encounters multi-layered local social relationship networks in small-scale urban neighborhoods in the historic centers and can also refer back to them in cultural work, this is not the case in newly built greenfield projects such as the “Reininghaus” district of Graz, which is currently under construction. No one knows anyone. Except the people in their own online social bubble. What role does culture play in such dynamic urban development processes for the society that is just forming there?


This is one of the topics that concerns me most in terms of cultural policy: How we can make Reininghaus not just a dormitory town, but also a place of social interaction with art, culture, design and a lively creative sector. In the middle of this area still stands the Alte Tennenmälzerei of the former Reininghaus brewery. This old building complex offers a wide range of potential uses, especially for the cultural and creative scene. A variety of creative interim uses are already taking place there and I think that we will soon be able to report on the next development step there.


Cultural policy can primarily intervene in a stimulating way with the funding instruments at its disposal. In addition to basic funding for cultural institutions and individual project application funding, a larger, thematically defined thematic call has now been used as a funding instrument for the first time in Graz with the Kulturjahrcall. Should this be repeated? Perhaps again with a focus on transdisciplinary work?


Yes, I would like to make this a cyclical element of cultural policy in Graz. To take a look every few years at the big questions of our lives and the future of cities, and to specifically ask artists about them. Of course, we have to think about the setting in which this should take place. Should it continue to take place within the cultural office, as it did this time? Or do we need another institutionalized form? Do we want to make it more independent of the respective political actors? Since we’ve only done this once before – during the Corona crisis, of all times – the whole thing is still very fragile. But I see this future orientation as an opportunity to justify using taxpayers’ money.


When steirischer herbst was founded, there was still the Iron Curtain. Graz is geographically located at a crossroads between the Alpine region, the Balkans and the Pannonian region, and thus at that time also directly on the border between Western democracy and Communist countries. The cultural exchange in this “Trigon” area was based on long-established relationships and was – at least in the cultural field – also able to overcome such seemingly insurmountable borders at that time. Today, in our immediate neighboring countries, we are again witnessing an undermining of basic democratic rights and freedoms. In Hungary with Orban and the Fidesz. And what path the Jansa government in Slovenia will be able to follow is not yet foreseeable. What is the cultural-political role of the Human Rights City Graz today in this geographical and historical context, and what tasks does cultural policy have to deal with?


As a very young journalist, I had the opportunity to conduct one of the last interviews with Hanns Koren, without whose political support the founding of steirischer herbst in its later form would not have been possible.

The interesting thing about him was: Koren was, from his background and also his scientific background as – as the discipline was still called at that time – “folklorist”, a confessed conservative. Nonetheless, as a cultural politician, he worked hard to ensure that the initiators of steirischer herbst at the time were able to work completely independently in terms of content, and in doing so he also exposed himself strongly and was exposed to attacks. This high degree of liberality was also the heyday of Styrian cultural policy at the time, which radiated far beyond Styria. If you think back to the provocative potential of the steirischer herbst posters of that time: against the background of a discourse that is currently increasingly dominated by “political correctness,” you would be in hot water today. What was possible at the time with a view of the Trigon Raum and the Iron Curtain cutting through it therefore had primarily to do with a political and cultural mood in Graz at the time and not just with the border location itself.


From this historical perspective, I ask myself: What are we working on today? What is art rubbing up against today? Where does it poke through? The absurd thing is – and the capitalist system is perfect at this – it understands excellently how to integrate contradiction into itself and then make it useful for itself. Let’s think of advertising: it is sometimes bolder and more radical than art today. And on the other hand, let’s look at the major cultural institutions, say the Salzburg Festival, for example. Let’s look at what’s happening there …: Where does culture still have power? Where can it still make a difference? That’s what we have to focus on.


If you compare the 60s and 70s with today, you have to say that the “brown” spirit was much stronger in Graz back then. That’s why the artists, but also the cultural politicians, who – for example at steirischer herbst – took and created a free space for themselves, were much more exposed than they are today.

But today we see – and here the geographical position of Graz as a hinge to South-Eastern Europe becomes very interesting again – that in this area a forced tendency towards nation-statehood is spreading again. Similar to the situation before the First World War. And I think it’s absolutely necessary that we develop cultural projects and submit them for funding that counter this with a larger European idea. Because if you don’t do that, then these regions also dry up intellectually: Budapest has seen an enormous brain-drain. To more liberal cities in other European countries, like Berlin, for example.


But there is also a brain drain of creative people from cities like Graz. And in this case, it is not related to the liberal-democratic circumstances, but rather to the socio-economic conditions and development prospects for artists and creative people. The small-scale nature of the creative scene with its many EPUs, which we praised earlier as a resilience advantage, is also its weakness.

If we look at the film industry, for example, in which we ourselves are active: To date, it has not been possible to bring productions and production budgets to the city on a relevant scale, even though there are many qualified people in Graz and also the corresponding training institutions. The good and qualified people therefore go where they can work on top projects. And that is where the framework conditions for major productions are also available. In the case of film, this is essentially dependent on two factors: Production companies of sufficient size and with sufficient equity to be able to handle larger productions. And tax incentives at the production location. The reason why cities like Stuttgart or Munich are also interesting for large post-production orders from the really, really big Hollywood productions is essentially the tax incentives offered to film productions there. This applies above all to the postproduction sector, which now accounts for the vast majority of film budgets due to the increasing digitalization of film production. This has been completely overlooked in Austria. We make do with funding instruments that are essentially focused on the local scene and therefore remain stuck in the small-scene. 

In our company we also have a visual effects department with which we have been working as a subcontractor for almost 10 years, even for big Hollywood productions. But it is completely absurd: The colleague who is responsible for this has been working for years alternately in Berlin, Munich, Sydney or somewhere else because of these subsidy conditions, because the sales have to be made there due to the subsidy regulations. But this also means that the lion’s share of the added value to be generated remains in this region.

If we want to prevent a brain drain of creative people from Graz, then we must also address these structural issues politically. It is true that the Ministry of Finance has a major formal responsibility in this regard. But I believe that it is the task of the cultural cities to lobby for this at the federal level. After all, they are the ones who would ultimately benefit most from the creation of attractive tax conditions in this area. 

It is true that the entire domestic film scene gathers in Graz once a year at the DIAGONALE. But when the festival is over, almost all of them are gone again. Even the – comparatively small – Austrian productions are essentially produced in Vienna or elsewhere. So far, postproduction has only taken place on a local level. International co-productions are only really promoted from a tourist perspective. This is a design flaw that needs to be corrected, because it means that we are systematically giving away much more sustainable value creation potential in the area of post-production. To fix this, we first need the political will to do so. All that is needed is to transfer the subsidy system and the fiscal framework from, for example, Baden-Württemberg or Bavaria to Austria. This would open up enormous opportunities for Graz in particular: With the Kunstuniversität and the FH-Joanneum, we have educational institutions that can produce good people: From sound to film music to visual effects and editing. But these people either have to leave the city if they are really ambitious, or – if they want to be able to make a living from their work – they essentially remain stuck in the provincial market of commercial and industrial film, where their artistic talents wither away.


I see this in an even broader context: In general, the perception of art and artistic things has changed fundamentally in recent decades. Art no longer has the smell of the “ivory” so strongly, but is much more to be touched. This can also be seen in the museum sector, where England in particular has shown us a lot and set an example: Museums and the art presented there are not self-contained. Public museums are largely free – i.e., with free admission – and thus much more a part of people’s everyday lives. At the same time, one also observes an expansion of the concept of art more and more towards the socio-political role of art. This continues in the field of art education, where curators and education teams are increasingly thinking and working in a transdisciplinary context. In other words, we can observe a mutually influencing process of change here, driven both by a change in society’s relationship to the art business and, conversely, by a change in the art business itself with an increased attention to sociopolitical issues. In the process, digitization is also dissolving old boundaries between different sectors at great speed. Today, we can engage online at any time with any topic that interests us. Netflix etc. are available around the clock. So why should I bother with the limited opening hours of museums in my home country, for example, when I can find what I’m interested in elsewhere at 10 or 11 p.m. – whenever I have the time and the inclination. Museums must also react to these processes of change. And be able to react.


One reason why the inevitable change in this area has not yet really happened in our country is a certain fixation on numbers on the part of the supervisory bodies of cultural institutions. In many places – including here – visitor numbers and visitor revenues are still regarded as the central parameters for the success of museums and other cultural institutions. However, this does not provide a comprehensive overall picture. Even if you look at art and culture from a purely economic perspective – which, as we have already discussed today, would be far too narrow a view – you cannot gain a meaningful picture from the operating figures of a cultural institution alone. The truth is that in Austria, a country of tourism, completely different sectors and businesses live from a basic cultural offering that is produced by the cultural institutions but monetized elsewhere – for example, in the tourism businesses.


In the field of tourism, this has long been recognized. Within the framework of our CREATIVE AUSTRIA project platform, we are in regular exchange with those responsible for culture and tourism in Austria’s cultural destinations. This applies not only to cultural cities such as Graz, Linz or Salzburg. Christian Schützinger, the managing director of Vorarlberg Tourism – a region of which one would initially think that they live mainly from winter and mountain sports – has focused his destination strategy very centrally on culture. For him, the cultural offering is one of the central quality aspects, but it also serves to develop a “narrative” about the destination. In Linz, encounter formats are currently being developed for one-to-one encounters and conversations between artists and visitors. All of this no longer has anything to do with superficial quantifiability but serves the “narrative.”


In this context, both digitization and the Corona crisis are once again bringing an aspect to the fore that, in my view, opens up new potential opportunities for museums in particular. Namely, the aspect of what is specific to the respective location and the respective museum. Before Corona, “world art” was shipped around en masse and set up as a tourist magnet in the form of assembled blockbuster exhibitions. In recent months, this has no longer worked due to Corona. Neither the sailing through the area of world art nor the generation of a mass attraction from it.

The curators began to take a closer look at their own collections and were sometimes quite surprised at the treasures that could be found there. 

And I think to myself – quite fundamentally: perhaps that is the order of the day. Even in a sustainable way. That we first work out of our local framework conditions with our cultural concepts. Do things that can be physically seen and experienced here and only here. For which there is an actual reason for the here and now.

After all, we live today in the awareness that we can get everything digitally on our cell phones from anywhere at any time. And that’s precisely why it no longer has any real meaning for us.

The future of culture probably belongs to real things in real life again.