St. Pölten: Capital of Culture between Europe and the region

St. Pölten is bidding to become European Capital of Culture 2024. Everyone in St. Pölten is ready to go and welcome Europe with open arms. How can the city, the surrounding region, and even all of Lower Austria benefit from the bid? 

First, the question is how to define a “culture capital region”. After all, even the municipal area of St. Pölten comprises urban as well as rural structures. Not for nothing was the term “village city” bandied about at the first KulturFORUM event. All of St. Pölten is entering the race, that much is clear, but what do we mean when we refer to its surrounding area? The political district, along with several neighbouring districts? It quickly becomes clear that we cannot base the concept on communal borders or political districts, particularly in light of the many visitors arriving from far-away places. 

The civil society platform KulturhauptSTART made the rather charming suggestion of drawing a 24-kilometre ring around the city of St. Pölten – a reference to the year 2024. In fact, this area could be described (with a wink) as St. Pölten’s hinterland. Of course these 24 kilometres may seem to be a far-fetched number. For Linz 09 or Graz 2003, these limits would have been fairly tight.

But if you view this 24-kilometre circle as a loose landmark that does not impose arbitrary borders on art and culture, it can serve as an approximation for the culture capital region. When you consider the sphere of influence that a mid-sized city like St. Pölten can develop, you can see the effects of this city as a place of work, education, consumption, leisure, sports and culture. For many people who live in a 30-kilometre catchment area around the city and visit it e.g. to run errands, and even for some who live farther away (e.g. students), St. Pölten and the facilities it offers exert a pull and therefore represent an attractive point of interest.

When you look at the culture capital region from within St. Pölten, you see some of the best-known cultural locations in eastern Austria: Melk, which features a baroque abbey of a truly European dimension and the oldest open-air theatre; Schallaburg, the most important exhibition centre in the state of Lower Austria; the Wachau region, which has been granted World Heritage status; Göttweig Abbey and Krems on the other side of the Danube, with a focus on fine arts; Grafenegg, which has quickly established itself as a musical leading light for orchestras from most of Europe and the rest of the world. East of St. Pölten, the Vienna Woods beyond Neulengbach and Eichgraben form a natural border for the St. Pölten catchment area, while the foothills of the Alps beyond Lilienfeld represent a southern border.

This zone, roughly outlined, offers great potential in terms of culture and tourism. Every year, the cultural monuments, exhibition centres and festivals in the region attract a million culture tourists. Businesses in the communities recorded more than 600,000 overnight stays in 2017. And of course the Wachau cultural landscape has UNESCO World Heritage status and therefore attracts an international audience, which should also benefit St. Pölten if its bid for 2024 is successful.

But is it even legitimate to think about the culture tourism effect? Might this not damage the artistic dimension of the capital of culture? 

This question is easy to answer by referring to decisions taken by the European Parliament and Council. Decision No 445/2014/EU and its predecessor, Decision No 1622/2006/EC, provide the basis for executing a union action for the European Capitals of Culture and demonstrate the explicit goal of reaching a wider audience. This refers to the involvement of surrounding areas and to an improved image, which should give a strong impetus to culture tourism. However, the Decision from 2014 also states that the title is reserved for a city, though the surrounding region can be included.

This looks like an opportunity for the entire region around the Capital of Culture and beyond: to demonstrate how the interaction between a mid-sized city and its surroundings adds value for both sides through the tools and mechanisms of art and culture.

This could become a model for similar mid-sized cities in Europe, which may find it inspiring and worth emulating. As for St. Pölten, it could try to build on the experience of previous Capitals of Culture and add new aspects to the highly diverse overall image of Europe through its own specific character (for example, it is the only city to have been named a state capital through a democratic referendum; it also used to be at the edge of Europe in the past and has now moved to the centre of Europe).

But all this requires collaboration with the creatives and artists, who we hope will view the title of Capital of Culture as an inspiration and stage for their work. Instead of providing a precise definition of the region around the Capital of Culture and its borders, the aim should be to unleash the artistic and cultural potential in and around St. Pölten. Creatives can hone their own profiles in an exchange with, and to the benefit of, the city, the region and the state, making it a sparkling jewel in the kaleidoscope of Europe.

The city’s bid for European Capital of Culture 2024 can be the foundation for this development, effectively putting the huge potential of the region around the Capital of Culture on the European map. 

When you consider the scope that a mid-sized city such as St. Pölten can develop, you can’t miss the radiance of this city as a place of work, education, consumption, leisure, sports and culture. And when you look at the culture capital region from within St. Pölten, you see some of the best-known cultural locations in eastern Austria.

18 May 2018

Guest authors

Martin Grüneis
Deputy Head of the Department of Arts and Culture of the Province of Lower Austria

Alexandre Tischer 
Head of Public Relations of the Department of Arts and Culture of the Province of Lower Austria


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