eipcp Policies A Critique of Creative Industries
11 2006

GovernCreativity, or: Creative Industries Austrian Style

Language editing: Aileen Derieg

Monika Mokre

Monika Mokre





As in more or less every country – and especially every big city – between Finland and India, the Creative Industries are, at the moment, a big issue in Austrian cultural and economic policy. The hype of the CI is closely related to the change of government in Austria in the year 2000, when the Social-Democratic Party did not become part of the Austrian government for the first time since 1970, but instead the conservative People’s Party formed a coalition with the radical right-wing Austrian Freedom Party. This change of government led, in general, to a broad range of changes in Austrian politics that can be summarized – a little polemically – as the rise of neo-liberal economic concepts in combination with a considerable increase of repression towards critical political forces, not least of all in the arts. However, it would certainly be wrong to see the political change of 2000 as the expulsion from the social-democratic paradise of cultural politics. In fact, a form of commercialising culture and the arts (through festivals and popular exhibitions in the 1980s as well as through debates on the economic impact of creativity in the 1990s) was well on its way in the last decades of the 20th century. And even today, the social-democratic government of the city of Vienna is at least as active in the field of the CI as the conservative national government. Still – and although phrases of the kind “what would have happened if?” are among the most senseless in historical analyses – I think it plausible that the predominance of the CI in Austrian cultural politics is, to a high degree, caused by the general change of political aims that started in 2000, as this change was both an effect of the international hegemony of neo-liberal political concepts and one of the causes for their success in Austria.

The forms the hype of the CI takes are well known, since they are the same as everywhere else:

- Narratives on the CI start with the trivial assumption that creativity is an important economic factor.

- Afterwards, definitions of the CI are delivered that are too broad to really be classified as definitions.

- On the basis of these definitions statistical data prove that the CI are (1) a crucial economic sector with (2) virtually limitless future possibilities.

- Then we usually find the assumption shared by more or less all countries and cities focussing their attention on the CI that the respective own country/city has especially favourable conditions for this sector, although specific policy measures are necessary in order to further improve the situation.

- Finally, consequential positive prospects for employment, economic growth and success in international competition are described. And if working conditions in the CI are mentioned at all, profits and work satisfaction for those working in the creative industries are promised.

However, these international developments and assumptions overlap with specific national situations and it is out of the combination of these two factors that concrete conditions for the CI develop. Let me therefore briefly describe crucial factors of the Austrian “culture of cultural politics”.

Austrian Cultural Policy

For a long time, it was something like an Austrian truism that culture and the arts are a public responsibility and therefore to be mostly publicly funded. The roots of this specific relationship between politics and the arts can be traced back to the 18th century and thus to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The prosperity of the Habsburg territories was an important reason for the flourishing of the arts as well as for their dependence on state support, but generous public support for culture and the arts has survived the end of the monarchy. It is also a legacy of the Habsburgs that the lion’s share of public funds for the arts is centrally distributed, i.e. by the Republic of Austria. Furthermore, the strong dependence of cultural and artistic institutions as well as individual artists on the state led to an equally strong state influence on cultural activities. In short, it may therefore be stated that, up to the late 20th century, Austrian cultural policy was marked by the centralist and absolutist power of the Habsburgs. In accordance with this tradition, most public funding for culture and the arts went (and still goes) to the cultural heritage – including historical buildings, museums and the performing arts institutions that developed into high art. And it should also be mentioned that, overall, public financing for culture and the arts in Austria is still very generous in comparison to many other European countries.

However, this longstanding tradition has also been subject to changes. Above all, in the aftermath of the political movement of 1968 (and at the beginning of the government of the Social Democrats without coalition partners) cultural policy began to recognize and also to finance more contemporary art forms and projects. In comparison to the funds for the cultural heritage, public financing for contemporary projects has always been peanuts; still, it was enough to bring about a certain dynamic in the artistic and cultural scene in Austria.

The support for contemporary art by the Social Democrats came out of a certain political sympathy with the respective artists and art forms as well as a need to contest the conservative cultural hegemony in Austria. However, it always remained half-hearted and without a real cultural political programme. The programmatic understanding of cultural politics was mainly a by-product of the general welfare orientation of Social Democratic government summarized in the slogan: “Cultural policy has to be understood as part of social policy.” Most of all, this statement included a mission to open high culture to the lower classes – as audiences, not as producers. In this way, a traditional understanding of the educational impact of high culture was combined with the egalitarian claim of Social Democracy. And it needed only a very slight change of focus to transform this egalitarian claim into the call for commercialisation in the 1980s: The claim that the uneducated masses should learn to appreciate the high arts was changed into the claim that the arts should meet the taste of potential consumers of the arts.

It goes without saying that both concepts are highly problematic from the perspective of a democratic understanding of cultural policies – the paternalistic public hand is replaced by the invisible hand of the free market. However, this description also only partly holds true for Austrian cultural policies. Rather surprisingly, commercialisation in Austria went hand in hand with increasing public expenditure. To give two examples:

- While in the early 1980s the musical “Cats” was performed in all larger European cities, Vienna was probably the only city where these performances were highly subsidized.

- In an Austrian region, subsidies for the performing arts were calculated as the equivalent of earned income. Thus, those productions with the highest share of earned income also got the highest share of public money.

These contradictory or – to put it more bluntly – rather senseless ways of financing the arts can be understood as the overlapping of different traditions and new developments that is also of crucial impact for the Austrian way of dealing with the Creative Industries. While the international trend towards commercialisation was followed, the traditional state dependence of the arts was maintained. While cultural policy popularized the arts, commercialisation did not quite work out.

The most important influence of Social Democratic politics, however, is not to be seen in the changes of the cultural field, but in its general orientation towards distributional politics that led in Austria to the development of a strong and very successful welfare state. This welfare state was based on social partnership and resulted in a comparatively high level of social security that has been upheld for a longer time than in many other countries. The Austrian welfare model (like most welfare models of this time) was oriented towards big enterprises (of which, in the Austrian case, quite a few were state owned), full time employment and a high degree of job security as well as a tight social net. However, while social security has indeed been an important feature of the Austrian model, empirical studies have frequently shown that full time employment in a secure position has always only been the dominant model for a part of population – specifically for male Austrian citizens working in big enterprises. It has more rarely applied to women and never to foreign workers – nor to artists regardless of their sex and/or nationality not employed in the flagships of the Austrian cultural heritage. (Those employed in these flagships, however, have, in fact, been subject to labour laws of a rather absurd rigidity. For example, the prolongation of a performance or rehearsal of the Viennese Burgtheater leads very quickly to exploding costs as overtime has to be paid not only to those actually working but to the whole shifts of light and stage technicians etc.) Independent artists have lived precariously for a long time – and are therefore today euphemistically called the avant-garde of the new creative entrepreneurs. Still, the ideal of “regular employment with regular payments” made it possible to criticize these conditions and, in fact, subsidies for small and independent artistic projects somehow rose simultaneously with the subsidies for cultural heritage – although on a much smaller scale.

In summary, we can state for traditional cultural politics in Austria: an understanding of culture and the arts as a public task that led to a financial structure based almost exclusively on public subsidies;

- an understanding of culture and the arts as mainly consisting of the cultural heritage;

- the non-existence of acknowledgement for popular culture;

- the lack of programmes and formulated aims of cultural policies;

- a welfare state based on regular employment.

Creative Industries Austrian Style

It is, in fact, hardly surprising that the first attempts to introduce the CI in this specific national situation were mainly characterised by helplessness. When the then new state secretary for the arts in Austria, Franz Morak, published his first press releases in 2000, one could not avoid the impression that he expected Austrian CI to emerge simply due to his mentioning them. Six years later we can state that, in a way, this is in fact what happened: Political speeches are performative speech acts, if there is enough power behind them. They actually make a difference – however vague their contents may be. And vague they were, indeed. Morak told us that everybody is creative, that creativity is part of nearly every form of activity, that creativity is important for economy. He mentioned the White Paper of the Commission with its impressive figures of economic growth and employment chances (and he did not mention that evidence for where these figures came from was nowhere to be found in this paper), he mentioned the CI programmes of the UK, and he mentioned the one and only extremely successful Austrian enterprise that can be regarded as part of CI, Swarovski glass, which produces jewellery and other luxury items out of crystal glass. Then came studies proving the excellent conditions for the CI in Austria and especially in Vienna, producing a lot of numbers (of equally dubious origin as the ones in the White Paper) on the tremendous growth rates to be expected in the CI. And, finally, measures to support the CI were developed by the Republic of Austria and the city of Vienna.

Quartier 21

Let us take a look at these measures. One of the most prominent and also most contested one was the creation of a cluster of Creative Industries in a rather prominent and central space, the MuseumsQuartier Vienna. The history of the MuseumsQuartier would be a subject for another talk (maybe not a very interesting one, but certainly a rather entertaining one), but to make a long story short: The MuseumsQuartier is, basically, a complex of traditional arts museums in a partly historical building near the city centre. It was founded because (1) this historical building had to be used in one way or another, and (2) because some big museums in Vienna needed space to show their collections. As an English colleague of mine put it: it is a housing project for museums. As this is neither a very attractive nor a very trendy way of developing a cultural quarter, the MuseumsQuartier needed a fig leaf to make it more hip. This fig leaf was the “Quartier 21” offering space for contemporary cultural and artistic production and, above all, the CI. In this way the MuseumsQuartier could be peddled as a place that is not only devoted to the exhibition of creative achievements, but equally to their production, that not only deals with cultural heritage, but also with contemporary cultural activities.

In a way, the Quartier 21 fits perfectly in traditional Austrian cultural politics as described above, since it is a centralised top-down project (internationally rather unusual for the development of a cultural cluster). On the other hand, it also shows the inability of Austrian cultural policy to deal with the CI.

The (state owned) company administrating the whole MuseumsQuartier wants to make money in the space of the Quartier 21. Therefore it asks for rents – which are subsidized because rents in this part of the city are very high, but even with the subsidies, the rents are still too high for most small companies starting something in the field of the CI. Consequently, it was difficult to find tenants. Consequently, quite a few of them had to leave again as they could not afford the rent. Consequently, the only criterion for the selection of tenants has been their ability to pay the rent. Consequently, no synergies between the tenants emerge – similarly to the big museums in the MuseumsQuartier, which do not cooperate because they did not move there in order to cooperate, but in order to have new, more attractive buildings. The tenants of the Quartier 21 do not cooperate for the same reasons.

The location of the Quartier 21 – although it is generally a very attractive site – is particularly badly suited to small companies needing circulation in order to get attention and to sell their products. While there are lots of tourists in the courtyards of the MuseumsQuartier, only the most adventurous of them enter one of the small doors to the Quartier 21.

Public Support for the CI

Let us now come to another way in which Austrian cultural policies deal with the CI, namely public support. The Republic of Austria as well as many Austrian provinces and, most prominently, the city of Vienna have developed programmes to support and further the CI. Probably the most important of these programmes is “departure”, a company financed and commissioned by the city of Vienna. Departure finances “projects which encourage the development of innovative products, processes or services possessing an artistic and creative orientation, their commercialisation or the development of innovative utilisation strategies for artistic and creative products, processes or services.”

Applications for financing from “departure” are complicated and time consuming, and, thus, in many cases, not manageable for the many self-employed or companies with one or two part-time-employees, which make up most of the CI in Vienna. Consequently, many of the projects supported by departure come from relatively successful CI companies that would probably have been able to develop their products without this support. Although nobody would announce this officially, this bias towards the bigger and more successful CI enterprises seems to be intended. Every study on the CI in Austria has shown that most enterprises in the CI have an under-critical size. Obviously, the solution for this problem chosen by the city of Vienna is not to help these enterprises to enlarge, but to let them die while focussing their support on the fitter ones. This strategy is at odds with the proclaimed aim to foster the CI as a economic sector, because in this way not many CI companies will, in fact, survive.

“departure” finances exclusively projects. Thus, even those lucky enough to be supported for some time are not able to plan for a longer period than their current project is running. This again can be seen as an older feature of Austrian cultural policy implemented in the field of the CI: while it seems probable that none of us will live to see the day on which public financing for the big Austrian cultural institutions will stop, independent artists have always had to live from one project to the next. And we all know what this means for individual planning, for the possibility of having children, etc.

From a different perspective again, the programme does not fit its self-defined aims. The internationally unavoidable Richard Florida, who is currently also becoming the godfather of Viennese CI, does not actually make many points in his best-sellers, but one of the most prominent ones is that cities need a specific infrastructure in order to be attractive to CI people. And infrastructure does not develop through project support, but through investment in infrastructure.


If we summarize the points I have made so far, we can state with some confidence that Austrian policy on the CI is a failure. Therefore, we could expect that the CI in Austria – which were more or less invented by cultural politics, after all – do not exist. However, this is not true. On a small scale, CI clusters have actually developed in Vienna – one of them around the MuseumsQuartier, not in the Quartier 21 but in the surrounding streets, in cheaper buildings. Others can be found in former industrial buildings, not financed by the public hand but developed by the initiative of those working there. People in these clusters frequently do not earn enough to plan for longer than a year, they almost never earn enough to be able to re-invest in their companies; they are usually young and childless, not because the CI are so hip but because you have to find something more secure if you become older or want to raise children.

And many of them like their working and living conditions, at least for the most part. They feel that they are, in fact, a kind of avant-garde, and they pride themselves on not holding a 9 to 5 job (but probably 9 to 9 self-employment).

I presume that, here again, international trends as well as specific national situations are the reason for this attitude. For one, it is simply the dogma of neo-liberal times that is successfully implemented as a form of governmentality in the sense of Foucault. “Bear the risk for your own life and be proud of it!” Secondly, the paternalistic form of Austrian cultural policy has frequently led to a strong and strongly felt dependence, not only on public funding or on an entity as abstract as the state, but on concrete politicians and their fancies. It is hardly surprising that this is no attractive alternative.

And the concept of the creative entrepreneur trickles down (or sideways) into other parts of society, not least of all into the artistic field in a narrower sense. While it is officially maintained, at least by the city of Vienna, that the CI do not impact classical arts subsidies, the director of “departure” complains that the arts department of the city of Vienna sends everyone to him that they are not willing or able to support. And more and more often, I have the opportunity to listen to artists evaluating their own work in terms of its commercial success – something rather unheard of in Austria where the arts were frequently defined precisely by their need for public support.

Contrary to what I said before about the failure of Austrian CI policy, one could also – and probably more plausibly – claim its tremendous success. After all, it is the main aim of neo-liberal policies to reduce public support in order for the free market to flourish.

And Now?

What does this mean for the main subject of this conference, a critique of cultural industries? In which ways does it make sense to criticize what is currently happening in Austrian CI? If I were still the Marxist of my earlier years, I would introduce here the notion of “wrong consciousness”. Alas, from the perspective of my older, post-Marxist days, this notion does not really seem helpful. Still, I think a general critique of CI as aimed at within this seminar of eminent importance: to show (1) in which ways the hype of the CI is deeply embedded in a certain political and economic paradigm, and (2) which consequences this hype has for the cultural field as well as for society as a whole. At the same time, however, I think we cannot simply ignore the fact that an increasing number of people work in the CI and want to work there. For this reason, I find it equally important to think about new ways of political organisation and of social security adapted to the working and living conditions as well as the wishes of these people. Given the strong and one-dimensional tradition of the Austrian welfare state, this is not an easy task. We do not have much experience with political organisation outside of political parties and traditional trade unions. But maybe, at least in this way, it might be useful that the CI are an international hype – hopefully, not only neo-liberals but also critics of neo-liberalism will be able to successfully copy models from other countries.