Talking to ... Susanne Wolfram: The cultural identity of St. Pölten – an outline

Susanne Wolfram is an organiser, dramaturge and cultural educator at the interface between art and society. She teaches at the Institut für Kulturkonzepte and the MUK Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna. She has had a close relationship with St. Pölten since 2005: she headed the education department at Festspielhaus St. Pölten, co-initiated the civil society platform “KulturhauptSTART” and works in Science Communication and Public Engagement at the Research and Knowledge Transfer Division of the St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences. As part of her dissertation, she is studying culture and civil society in St. Pölten.

Ms Wolfram, you are studying the cultural identity of St. Pölten for your dissertation. How did you hit on this topic, and what do you find appealing about it?

My years at the Festspielhaus and my work with St. Pölten initiatives and citizens convinced me that cultural education is an incubator for urban development and a commitment to civil society. When I started writing my dissertation in 2016, I was fired up by a practician’s need to provide theoretical backing for the social relevance of my work. Several questions emerged from this long process of method research. One of them was: how do you characterise the city’s cultural identity, and who shapes it?

Becoming the state capital was a positive turning point for St. Pölten. How would you describe the city’s situation at this early state in its application to become the European Capital of Culture 2024?

I chose the Schloemer era at the Festspielhaus as my starting point, so my assessment only covers the last ten years. The construction of the St. Pölten government district was a huge investment in political and cultural representation. It greatly improved the quality of local culture for the city’s inhabitants. Over time, the population, government district and St. Pölten’s cultural businesses associated with the state government have grown together. All these things take time, and they began to flower under Schloemer.

His outreach to the public and his interest in the landing place of the “UFO” Festspielhaus in 1997 came at the right time. Then, there was Café Publik, for example, an organisation that built bridges by offering the population opportunities for self-fulfilment through tango lessons, youth clubs, etc. Without all these initiatives, other developments such as a citizens’ stage at the Landestheater, a world chorus, or a dedicated woman from St. Pölten as head of the Bühne im Hof cabaret would not have happened so quickly. Now it is time for our next leap in significance.

Obviously cultural life is not limited to major institutions. How do the cultural operators you surveyed view the “independent scene” of culture initiatives in St. Pölten?

This is one of the most important insights I gained from my quality research. There is a reason why St. Pölten is such fertile ground for institutional offerings of cultural education and for the Niederösterreichische Kulturwirtschaft (NÖKU), businesses active in cultural education in Lower Austria: the city has a long-established and colourful culture of self-empowerment. With its social culture, alliances between artists, a highly dedicated music school, and BORG, a sixth-form state college that has attracted attention outside the state of Lower Austria, St. Pölten is a training ground for the arts. Many of today’s operators grew up with Proton, Lames, Koll, the Höfefest festival, Cinema Paradiso and so forth, which were initiated by a few hungry creatives who believed they were badly needed.

You are currently involved in scientific communication at the St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences. What role do you think St. Pölten universities should play in St. Pölten’s cultural life?

Universities can learn from culture businesses how to reach out to the public in order to improve their visibility in the public discourse, and how to form alliances with non-scientific communities. The St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences is one of the strongest technical universities in Austria in terms of research. It deals with a wide range of topics, something that hugely benefits St. Pölten – but St. Pölten needs to take advantage of this expertise. There are still plenty of barriers to overcome. YOUNG CAMPUS is a festival of the future for all young St. Pölten citizens, regardless of their origin or prior knowledge. It is organised by the university to explore the future of the city creatively and inclusively while keeping up with the latest research. 

We spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between mid-sized cities and big cities. How would you rate the relationship between St. Pölten and Vienna in terms of positive and negative influences?

I have seen two attitudes: there is a fear of brain drain, and of the fact that there is no need for certain urban needs to be met by mid-sized cities because they can be found in the big city. On the positive side, it’s a 20-minute train ride to Vienna – Londoners laugh at me when I refer to it as a “commute” – so people who leave St. Pölten to study or work in Vienna continue to be involved in St. Pölten.

The Festspielhaus has undegone quite a transition: Michael Birkmeyer, arriving from the State Opera, addressed his programme entirely to a Viennese audience. Then Joachim Schloemer was obsessed with creating little New York or Berlin here with the citizens of St. Pölten. The current artistic director Brigitte Fürle understands that a small, decelerated scene can provide a reservoir of creative energy for international top artists. St. Pölten does not need to become New York, or Vienna, or Vienna’s exurbs, for that matter. It can become an independent, creative, approachable mid-sized city.

Which approaches would you recommend for the St. Pölten 2030 cultural strategy in light of your research?

Please stay as close as possible to the people of this city; even to those who do not feel invited!

18 May 2018

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