New Leadership for Austria’s Cultural Reopening

Having faced growing criticism from all sides, State Secretary for Cultural Affairs Ulrike Lunacek resigned May 15.

Facing growing criticism, State Secretary for Cultural Affairs Ulrike Lunacek (Greens) resigned May 15, after only 4.5 months, citing insufficient funds to support the cultural scene through the crisis.   Moving swiftly to re-fill the key post, Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler appointed Andrea Mayer May 19, chief of staff to President Alexander Van der Bellen, with experience in the Cultural Ministry dating back to 1993.

New Leadership. New Hope

Mayer’s appointment was welcomed across the board, from both politicians and the cultural establishment: Salzburg Lieutenant Governor Heinrich Schellhorn (Greens) praised her as a “crisis manager” and former SPÖ party leader and MP Thomas Drozda as “capable and engaged,” while incoming Staatsoper direktor Bogdan Roscic described her as “a passionate fighter for the needs of artists.”  

Most, however, cited her experience on the ground: President of the Salzburger Festspiele, Helga Rabl-Stadler, hailed Mayer’s proven track record on the Festspiele Curatorium: “She is competent, steadfast, and a skilled negotiator. And what is also extremely important, has a great love for art and culture,“ Rabl-Stadler told the ORF. But as state secretary, she will have a fight on her hands, she warned: “In the time of Corona, there is a legitimate struggle over resources among very different interest groups.” For this, she will need Kogler’s support.

In addition, Mayer is well connected. “I know all the people,” said Mayer at the installation, a network she has built over the past 27 years in the field. First joining the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in the early 90s, she became Section Chief for Art and Culture in 2007.  She has also served on committees at various cultural institutions, including the Belvedere.  She has been chief of staff for President van der Bellen since 2017. 

Mission Not Accomplished

Ulrike Lunacek had become State Secretary for Cultural Affairs in January, well aware of her shortcomings. Her long-standing career as a European Union politician, serving at one point as Vice President of the European Parliament, left her poorly equipped for the crisis ahead. Sixteen weeks ago, Austria’s cultural scene was still in full swing. As the country’s first recorded Coronavirus death on March 12, strict quarantine was imposed March 16. With people legally obliged to stay at home indefinitely, cultural events across Austria were cancelled.

When stores had reopened by May 1 and restaurants, cafes and bars by May 15, the question of reviving Austria’s cultural life loomed large. This was Lunacek’s moment to shine. She had hoped to announce a plan for the gradual reopening as well as a program of further financial support, but acknowledged she “had not accomplished the latter”.  

Her parting wishes, Lunacek said, were threefold. First, immediate financial support for artists: Before resigning she issued a directive doubling the €500 social security checks for artists from the Covid-19-Fonds. Second, increasing appropriations for culture: Truly “rebuilding” the scene post-Corona would require significantly more funding than allocated so far. Finally, insuring the freedom of the arts going forward.

Relevant Experience is Key

Ulrike Lunacek is no novice in Austrian and European politics. Her career as a party-politician begann in 1995 when she ran for the Austrian National Assembly for the Green Party, failing, however when the party fell shy of the 4%-bar. Elected to the Austrian Parliament in 1999, she remained there for a decade, specializing in foreign affairs and LGBT rights. In the the European Parliament from 2009-2017, she headed the Austrian Greens-delegation, VP of the Parliament and EP Rapporteur on Kosovo, among others. In 2017, she pivoted back to the national stage running as the lead candidate for Green Party but suffered a historic loss when her party failed to secure a single seat for the first time in 37 years.

While the current circumstances were extraordinary and unforeseeable, her lack of relevant expertise should have been a red flag from the beginning. The justification at the time of her “European experience” seems, in retrospect, ill conceived.

With Andrea Mayer widely hailed as uniquely qualified for the job, her appointment has given Austria’s artists and arts institutions a much-needed glimmer of hope just as the culture sector prepares to get back on its feet.

Sophie Spiegelberger
Born in New York, raised in Moscow, Sophie now lives in Vienna where she is a freelance graphic designer, contributing writer at Forbes and director of communications for Democrats Abroad Austria.

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