Author: Joris Janssens, Delphine Hesters, France Lebon
As in other European countries, the field of cultural policies in Belgium developed following the Second World War and was mainly focussed on promoting universal, democratic values. A framework for culture policies was completed towards the end of the sixties and was centred on objectives of cultural democracy. Instruments of cultural policy were, in most cases, grants allocated to non-governmental organisations and not-for-profit associations.
Cultural policies are governed by the principle of subsidiarity whereby the state does not directly intervene, in principle, in cultural matters other than through general regulation and awarding of grants.
Subsidiarity, a principle enshrined in the international cultural development context, was adopted in Belgium not only out of a reaction against fascist activities running throughout the Second World War, but also to set itself apart from the communist countries (state culture) and from the United States (culture regulated by the market rather than by the state).
Since the 1970s, Belgium has undergone a step-by-step process towards building a federal state made up of territorial regions and linguistic communities. Today, Belgium is a federal country which is divided into 3 regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels) and 3 linguistic communities (Flemish, French and German speaking communities), each with their competence for self-governance. The Regions are responsible for matters relating to territory including the economy, environment, housing and employment. The Communities are responsible for culture, education, some aspects of health and welfare, language usage and inter-community co-operation. The Regions and Communities have competence in the area of international co-operation and are authorised to engage in international agreements and sign treaties.
The history of cultural policies since the 1970s can therefore be looked at by examining the activities of the three independent linguistic communities (Flemish, French and German speaking communities), each with their own independent institutions, traditions and political influences.
Up to the 1980s, the policies of the successive ministers of culture, who were of a Christian-Democrat persuasion, were geared towards the "democratisation of culture". During this time, basic provisions like cultural centres and libraries were provided for throughout the territory of Flanders. Political decisions were taken to subsidise initiatives in the field of adult education and youth work.
During the period 1981-1992, there was an economic crisis in Flanders. With regard to culture, this was reflected in an actual reduction of the overall budget. Cultural institutions were the target of such cuts and were required to generate their own income. This new trend was not wholly based on purely liberal principles of the ruling political parties (and ministers of culture) but rather by a management-oriented trend that also continued under subsequent ministers of the Christian-Democrat political persuasion.
Throughout most of the 1990s, Ministers of Culture (Christian-Democrats) focussed their attention both on the traditional arts and on socio-cultural activities. Legislation was passed in the fields of the performing arts, music and museums which outlined the role of the government as well as criteria for their involvement. Policies were developed for block periods which provided the sector with greater legal security and allowed for longer term planning. This approach reflects the culture management trend.
The government of the period 1999-2004 was a coalition of Liberals, Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Democratic Flemish Nationalists, with a Minister of Culture belonging to the latter group. With the new government came a considerable increase in the budget for culture and a new cultural policy strategy which is aimed at establishing an "integrated" or mainstreamed policy for Flanders in the fields of the arts, cultural heritage and socio-cultural activities. This approach is aimed at a more streamlined system for creativity, dissemination, preservation and support structures for culture and replaces individual, sector based policies, by a more comprehensive legal framework. In addition, Flanders is pursuing co-operation between different levels of government - the government of Flanders, the provinces and the municipalities based on the principles of complementarity and subsidiarity. The new policy also devotes a great deal of attention to increasing rates of cultural participation.
The Minister of Culture in the legislation term 2004-2009 was also responsible for culture from 1999-2002, which resulted in previous decisions being further implemented and developed. Several new decrees were implemented, such as the Arts Decree, the Cultural Heritage Decree and a flanking Participation Decree, and audience development and audience participation were major points of attention.
A new government coalition consisting of Christian-Democrats (CD&V), Socialists (sp.a) and the Flemish Nationalist Party NVA was elected for the legislation term 2009-2014. The current Christian-Democrat Minister of Culture combines this portfolio with Environment and Nature.
The coalition agreement of the current Flemish government is based on the action plan "Vlaanderen in Actie" ("Flanders in Action"), a strategic project developed by the Flemish government in 2006. With this, the Flemish government aims at installing Flanders in the top-5 of European regions, facing demographic, economic and ecological challenges. The plan identifies several "breakthrough actions" - such as stimulating "open" entrepreneurship, Flanders as a learning society, stimulating innovation, promoting Flanders as a central hub in Europe, a green and dynamic urban region and a "caring society" with a decisive government - which also inform the current cultural policy priorities (see chapter 4.1 and http://www.flandersinaction.be).
Inspired by the work of the Council of Europe in the 1970s, the French speaking Community of Belgium laid down the foundations for the creation of a permanent democratic cultural and educational policy. Subsequently, the 1970s and 1980s together were to mark the beginning of a new era in the development of a large number of regulations in the following fields: continuing adult education, public libraries, youth, cultural centres, establishment of community television, support for group expression and creativity, funding of action-theatre, more direct communication with the public on their social expectations and complaints.
In parallel, support to large classic cultural and artistic institutions is maintained, and represents a significant share of the cultural budget.
At the end of the Eighties and throughout the Nineties, there was a trend to promote the autonomous development of specific sectors including heritage, artistic disciplines (music, theatre, dance, and the visual arts), continuing education, youth, audio-visual, literature and the book trade. The result was a strengthening of their respective internal structures, modernised and professional strategies and new relationships on an international level.
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.