VIENNA (Reuters) – The coronavirus pandemic claimed its first political scalp in Austria as the junior minister for culture quit under pressure from theatre directors and performers over a lack of urgency in reopening cultural venues even as a lockdown has been eased.
Austria flattened its curve of infections with an early lockdown and soon announced emergency funding for companies. But while it started loosening curbs on public life a month ago and shops, bars and some museums have reopened, no such steps have been taken or mooted for theatres and other cultural venues.
The junior minister, Ulrike Lunacek of the left-wing Greens, came under fire as she seemed at times to treat the challenge of safely reopening theatres as an abstract intellectual exercise rather than an urgent requirement to save livelihoods.
“I noticed in the course of this week that the discontent and the disappointment of many in the field of art and culture … was not abating. On the contrary,” Lunacek told a news conference convened at two hours’ notice.
“I have decided to step down from the office of secretary of state. I am making way for another person who will hopefully achieve more in this crisis situation than I could,” she added. Junior ministers in Austria are called secretaries of state.
While modern-day Austria is not a big name in cinema, the historically imperial power is a heavyweight in classical music and German-speaking theatre. It hosts many cultural events such as the Salzburg Festival of opera, theatre and classical music at which German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a frequent visitor.
The conservative-led government has said large events will be banned until at least Aug. 31 to minimise the risk of coronavirus contagion. It is still working on plans for theatre to resume while respecting social distancing rules – a particular challenge for events where bottlenecks can occur in the entrances of often historic buildings.
“This government is a disgrace to the cultural nation of Austria,” the director of the Theater in der Josefstadt, one of the country’s top theatres, told a news conference on Thursday where he outlined plans for the next season from September, though he said they did not know under what circumstances.
“We want to finally have a sense of where things are going from the government,” director Herbert Foettinger said.
Austria’s top satirical television show portrayed Lunacek as clueless and “the worst secretary of state of all time”.
Her departure dealt a blow to the Greens, who are already under fire for their limited role as a counterweight to their coalition partner, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)