How St. Pölten became a city of culture

When St. Pölten became the capital of Lower Austria in 1986 it had a number of cultural institutions similar to those in other mid-sized cities in Austria. Many of them had been rebuilt or created after World War II, including the school of music and arts St. Pölten that emerged from the music society, the City Museum, which had opened in 1976, and the St. Pölten Festwochen festival, then the most important cultural event of the year.

City Theatre 1925 © Stadtarchiv St. Pölten
City theatre 1925
 The Stadttheater (City Theatre) has been a constant factor in the city’s cultural life. It was fully renovated in 1968/69, and an extra storey was added to the building. Now known as the Landestheater St. Pölten, or provincial theatre, it was long run as a private theatre for music, drama and dance. In 1975 it was taken over by the city, which also appointed its director. In 2005 it passed into the hands of the province of Lower Austria. It now stages straight theatre with a small ensemble and famous guest stars.

Established in 1946, the St. Pöltner Künstlerbund (artists’ association) became a meeting place for moderate modern artists who presented regular annual exhibitions to the public. This year, the current members of the association will present the 72nd annual show at the City Museum. The Lower Austrian Documentation Centre for Modern Art) was established in 1978 in the Karmeliterhof as a pioneering, supra-regional institution for contemporary art. It remains an important part of the city’s artistic life to this day.

In 1969 the Austrian pewter figure museum opened at Pottenbrunn Castle. After Pottenbrunn was suburbanised in 1972, special exhibitions were held at the castle from 1973 onwards. They were dedicated to major historical topics such as “Austria under Emperor Franz Josef I” (1978) and were very popular with the public. At the time of the referendum on Austria’s accession to the EU in 1994, there was an exhibition entitled “Europa Schrankenlos?!” (roughly: Europe without limits?!), held at two locations and providing an overview of the history and development of Europe in the 20th century. The last major exhibition at Pottenbrunn took place in 1997. Historical exhibitions on much smaller scales are now shown at the Municipal Museum.

Inspired by the spirit of 68, an independent scene emerged in the late 60s and early 70s, rebelling against the dominance of high culture and presenting an avant-garde counterpoint with events such as “Restwochen” (which roughly translates to “Restival”). However, this was only an episode, much like “das Pult”, an avant-garde literary magazine set up by Klaus Sandler, which ran from 1968 to 1985.

When St. Pölten became provincial capital, its cultural climate was largely conservative. Only the city’s public relations department attempted to find new ways to expand the concept of culture by creating a variety of methods for supporting youth culture.

A cultural study commissioned in 1989/90 assessed the cultural situation and investigated potential developments for the future.

A little earlier, shortly after a theatre project in the independent scene had failed, it had become apparent that such an institution could establish itself only with a fixed location. This finding resulted in the state capital’s first supra-regional culture project: it set up the Bühne im Hof music venue/cabaret in collaboration with Kulturplattform St. Pölten, which also went on to establish the Höfefest courtyard festival as a trademark of the city. Offering youth theatre productions, revue theatre, dance and initiatives for cultural exchange, the Bühne im Hof was a success from the very beginning.

Yang Liping Contemporary Dance im Festspielhaus © Ding Yi Jie
Yang Liping Contemporary Dance at Festspielhaus St. Pölten

The same is true of the Festspielhaus St. Pölten (festival theatre), which opened in 1997 and is home to the Lower Austrian Tonkünstlerorchester (orchestra of musical artists). It has an outstanding concert hall with excellent acoustics, and the stage and auditorium to present musical theatre and other productions. For this reason, the Festspielhaus St. Pölten programme long centred around dance, and the house even had its own ballet ensemble, the abcdancecompany, while the city itself was attempting to establish a ballet conservatory with its own ballet ensemble.

So far, its artistic directors have shaped their programmes according to their own preferences, from strongly conservative but financially successful to artistically challenging and avant-garde (the latter has not been as popular with the public as had been hoped). If the Festspielhaus St. Pölten is to continue to compete at a supra-regional level, it will need to hone the programme in order to develop a unique profile. Another important goal is to strengthen and expand the existing links to other cultural institutions in St. Pölten.

Stronger links between the cultural institutions of the city and the state of Lower Austria were long overdue. When St. Pölten became capital of state, there was almost no exchange, so the institutions often worked separately where collaboration would have been more beneficial. This joint bid for the title of European Capital of Culture 2024 is the first time that they are collaborating closely in concerted action on a major culture project. 

In the field of popular culture, the city sent a signal by opening an event centre in southern St. Pölten in 1992: The VAZ St. Pölten (event centre) with its integrated Ware House live club, a hot spot for younger visitors, is an important location not just for conferences, trade fairs and all kinds of events, but also for festivals such as “Beatpatrol” or “Frequency”, which turns St. Pölten into the Central European mecca of club, dance and pop music for a few days every year. These festivals were preceded by the “Hauptstadtfest” (capital festival), an annual event that started after St. Pölten had become state capital, and that, like an annual fair, breathed a cultural spirit into many streets and squares of the city while also presenting major live acts on a stage on Domplatz square.

One essential stimulus for the cultural development was provided by Cinema Paradiso, an arthouse cinema on Rathausplatz square that opened in 2002. A slow starter, the location is now an integral part of the St. Pölten scene.

Youth culture was also supported by the city itself, for example through the Steppenwolf youth centre and the Freiraum event space. These venues provide the young and independent scene of St. Pölten and its environs with vital room for action and experimentation.

Freiraum St.Pölten © Klaus Engelmayer
Freiraum St. Pölten (youth culture centre)

For “serious” music, there are supra-regional concert series such as the “Meisterkonzerte”, the St. Pölten baroque festival, and the “Jazz im Hof” festival. The highly successful municipal music school with its associated ballet school and conservatory is currently trial-running a music and art school in close collaboration with the province of Lower Austria.

As a counterpart to the Lower Austria Museum (formerly Lower Austria State Museum), which opened in 2002 with new history and nature departments, the City Museum opened its gates in 2007 after a “facelift”. As well as permanent exhibitions on archaeology, St. Pölten’s history and Art Nouveau, the museum offers a wide range of special exhibitions and other events.

The diocesan museum in the cathedral area was established in 1888 and can therefore look back at a rich history. It is currently repositioning itself to make the museum more accessible. The diocese of St. Pölten’s own conservatory for church music is an important institution of cultural education that produces excellent church musicians. The cathedral choir has supra-regional renown, as the same goes for “Musica Sacra”, one of the most important festivals of its kind beyond Austria.

A range of societies that have been a permanent part of cultural life for decades – such as the city choir, the music society, the literary society and Perpetuum, an amateur theatre organisation that has been successful for over 30 years – have been joined by a number of avant-garde cultural actors who have stirred up the scene in recent years. The cultural scene of the city is hugely enriched by LAMES association and its partner association Sonnenpark, and by the IMA Institute of Media Archaeology. Local schools and universities, particularly the BORG, the University of Applied Sciences and the New Design University (NDU) have the potential to shape the city’s culture to an even greater degree.

Daniel Wandl at parque del sol 2017 © Thomas Schnabel
Daniel Wandl at parque del sol 2017

All these operators, from “major” culture organisations to the independent scene, form an important part of the city’s cultural capital and are therefore (potential) supporters of St. Pölten’s future development and its bid to become European Capital of Culture 2024.

18 May 2018

Guest authors

Thomas Karl
Head of the Department of Culture and Education of the City of St. Pölten

Thomas Pulle
Head of the City Museum St. Pölten

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