Author: Joris Janssens in cooperation with Delphine Hesters and Isabelle De Vriendtand France Lebon
Belgium as a country may have been created in 1830, but it is not reasonable to take the view that cultural life did not begin until then, any more than it is possible to isolate the Belgian federal State, let alone each of its three constituent Communities (French, Flemish and German-speaking), from the rest of the world.
For example, Belgium’s great emblematic cultural institutions (such as the Museums of Fine Arts, Art and History and the Opera) predate the creation of the Belgian State. These institutions proliferated and developed through the 19th and 20th centuries, and remained under the umbrella of the federal State when responsibilities were divided between the federal State and the federated bodies in 1970.
As in most European countries, cultural policies have expanded greatly since the Second World War. They have been shaped by the drive for democratisation of culture focused on fundamental values associated with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: education for all, access to culture for all, freedom of association and of expression. Towards the end of the 1960s, cultural policies began to be supplemented by an approach based upon objectives of cultural democracy.
In Belgium, cultural policy instruments mostly take the form of subsidies to non-governmental associations, generally set up on a non-profit basis. In fact the main cultural policies are governed by what is known as the principle of subsidiarity. This is based on the principle that the State’s role is not to intervene directly in cultural matters, other than by way of general regulations and subsidies. It leaves the initiative for action with the operators and associations.
While this approach does chime with the international context in which culture develops, where it was important to react to the fascism of the wartime years, in order to establish a distance from the Communist countries (with their State culture) and the United States (where culture is governed by the market and not the State), the principle behind it has to do with the way that society is organised in Belgium. This is a country which is profoundly shaped by the ‘pillars’ and their philosophical divisions between Christian and secular interpretations, and its political divisions between socialist and Christian socialist convictions, with the liberal pillar tending to be more diffusely organised on cultural issues.
In the 1970s, cultural autonomy and the autonomy of the linguistic communities making up Belgian society (Flemish, French and German-speaking) vis-à-vis the federal State were decided and placed on an organised institutional footing. Since that time, the history of cultural policies in Belgium has fallen into four separate areas: the three Communities and the federal State. The exception is the movable heritage, which comes under the aegis of the Regions, created in the 1980s.
The Act of 16 July 1973, known as the Cultural Pact, passed when the Communities became autonomous, is intended to protect minorities. It also provides different modes and levels of participation in the implementation of cultural policies, and specifically an obligation to carry out prior consultation of bodies representing the professional elements in the sector and the various political and ideological movements. In concrete terms, the application of this Act means the setting up of consultative Committees and Councils for the majority of the regulations in cultural terms.
French-speaking Community of Belgium
The Ministry of the French-speaking Community of Belgium has pursued the main thrusts in cultural policy followed by the federal State, specifically by the Ministry of National Education and Culture (these being responsibilities already covered by two different ministries, one French and one Flemish): mainly, support for artistic creation, professional artists and the big cultural institutions (the General Directorate of Arts and Letters), but also support for cultural dissemination and activities at the emerging local level (General Directorate of Youth and Leisure).
The 1970s and early 1980s saw the foundations being laid for a policy of cultural democracy and continuing education which drew on the work of the Council of Europe, delivering a string of regulatory mechanisms which provided diverse responses to social expectations and demands: decrees on continuing adult education and on public libraries, the renewal of youth policies, regulations on cultural centres, the birth of community TV stations, and support for expression and creativity and action theatre.
By the end of the 1980s, and all through the 1990s, we had begun to see a form of autonomous development in every sector: heritage, the various artistic disciplines (music, theatre, dance, plastic arts), continuing education, youth, the audio-visual sector, writing and books were all consolidating their internal structures. During this period, the sectors became more professional and more modern, and continued to forge international relations.
Since the 1990s, the question of social cohesion has, to a greater or lesser degree, been crossing all cultural sectors. Culture is regarded as a factor in social cohesion: it has a key role to play in the development of urban neighbourhoods; many experiments have been carried out by artistic institutions and cultural associations to enable all social groups to access culture and participate in it more easily.
Communication and new forms of cultural practices and expressions arising from the spread of new technologies are likewise becoming a major issue in cultural policies.
Since the turn of the century, there has been a concentration on the transverse and interdisciplinary dimensions, specifically by promoting projects involving cooperation between a number of types of cultural operators and cultural cross-overs. Cooperation between the cultural sector, the education sector and the social sector is equally building up around projects promoting social cohesion and local territorial development.
At the same time, the development of the digital culture has also been boosted, leading to new ways of thinking about the interactions between the economy and culture and support mechanisms suited to the cultural industries.
As digital technologies advance, they throw up more cultural issues and challenges, particularly around the question of copyright and intellectual property, but also everything to do with the conservation of heritage and archives.
Another noteworthy factor is the development of a culture of evaluation, in both quantitative and qualitative terms. Evaluation is conceived as a process that is both reciprocal and participatory, involving the public authorities, the consultative bodies and of course the cultural operator. These evaluations feed into various pieces of work and research in terms of development indicators and status reports. The decrees and regulations are likewise subject to a concerted evaluation process.
Finally, in tandem with issues in the non-merchant cultural sectors, we are seeing the development of priorities associated with the economic dimension of culture and the growing importance of the cultural industries, in particular in terms of employment.
 1980 saw the creation of the Flemish and Walloon Regions, with the Brussels-Capital Region being set up in 1989.
In contrast to the autonomy granted to the French and Flemish speaking communities in the 1970s constitutional reform process, the German speaking community was initially granted limited authority, including in the field of culture. During the course of its establishment throughout the 1980s, the German speaking community acquired its own parliament and government, which led to a significant increase in its authority and influence as well as to the establishment of new structures. Today, this linguistic community consists of 70 000 inhabitants and has achieved a political rank which is equivalent to the other two communities.
It was mainly during the 1990s that the legal foundations for culture and sport were laid down or revised, in particular, supporting organisations active in the field of youth, adult education and libraries. Guidelines for infrastructure policy have recently been completed and the government has elaborated new strategies in the field of media policies and legislation covering public and private radio and television.
Future priorities continue to focus on youth, culture, media and adult education. Authorities have agreed to pay closer attention to creativity or artistic quality and increasing cultural professionalism (management) as well as cultural participation by young people. Other goals include the development of a legal framework for scientific surveying and administrative structures to maintain cultural heritage sites and monuments.
In the area of the media, the challenges in the next few years are to further develop the regional audiovisual and television landscape and expand online services.
Chapter published: 02-12-2014