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Denmark/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Peter Duelund in cooperation with Bjarki Valtysson and Lærke Bohlbro

In Denmark, cultural life and the authorities have had a mutual commitment to one another since the Middle Age. The Reformation of 1536 transferred responsibility for culture from the Church to the Court. Until the June Constitution of 1849 and the advent of democracy, it was almost exclusively the King and the members of his court who, to varying degrees, showed interest in and funded culture.Copenhagen, Nyhavn

Thus art and culture in Denmark already had a solid feudal tradition and a well-established infrastructure, consisting of absolutist secular and ecclesiastical cultural institutions, upon which to build.

The demise of Absolutism in 1849 transferred responsibility for culture from the Court to the state in the new Ministry for Church and Education, called the "Cultus Minestry". The Ministry assumed control of a number of cultural institutions, including the Academy of Fine Arts and the Royal Theatre.

The Cultus Ministry was responsible for cultural affairs from 1849 until 1916. In 1916, responsibility for church affairs was transferred elsewhere, but cultural matters remained part of what was now known as the Ministry of Education up until 1961, when culture was granted its own ministry.

The development of public cultural policies and institutions in Denmark have since then been closely linked to Enlightenment Philosophy and the specific interpretation and implementation of these ideas by intellectuals and in the cultural and political movements that fostered Danish democracy and the welfare state. When Denmark adopted its first democratic constitution in 1849, responsibility for support to the arts and culture gradually shifted from the Royal Court to the newly constituted civil administration.

Cultural policies under the absolute monarchs was elitist, but cosmopolitan compared to the new bourgeois culture that emerged from the increasingly influential merchant and civil servant classes in Copenhagen around the middle of the 18th century. The bourgeoisie, which was predominantly Danish in contrast to the mainly German aristocracy, argued for a national orientation of cultural policy.

Parallel to the national dimension in the dominant bourgeois transformation a liberal movement of intellectuals, the so-called cultural radicalism, emerged in the capital of Copenhagen with focus on enlightenment, freedom of individual citizens and political republicanism.

After 1864, a cultural policy inspired by N.F.S.Grundtvig and his philosophy of one nation, one language, one people, afforded the Danish landowning class, whose political power had increased in step with its economic muscle, the opportunity to revitalise the otherwise practically moribund rural culture. The rural liberal culture they sought to promote was not a counterculture in opposition to bourgeois culture. It was more of a parallel culture, separate from the culture of the bourgeoisie, albeit allegedly with the same objective, i.e. to promote national sentiment.

The rapprochement between the Social Democratic labour movement's class-based perception of culture and the Radical Party's popular education philosophy, during the period of reconciliation in the 1930s, laid the political foundations for the formation of the welfare based cultural policy after WWII and the setting up of the Ministry of Culture in 1961. The price paid was that culture was now perceived and defined, first and foremost, as a national phenomenon.

Although the public cultural policy was a part of the post-war national construction process, the general objectives and means were defined in the universal concepts of enlightenment philosophy. What had not been culturally realised in the traditional bourgeois public sphere since the French Revolution and the revolution of 1848 should now be realised in the framework of the welfare state. Public cultural policy, initiated, financed and organised by the state and municipalities, was meant to guarantee artistic freedom and cultural diversity. Art, culture and publicly organised cultural institutions were thought as means for building up the cultural and aesthetic competence for all citizens and regions of the country, to enable them to take part in the development of a democratic welfare society. 

Allocation of grants, through autonomous arts councils, experts committees, institutions and other "arm's length" bodies, inspired by the Danish tradition of self- governance, were organised to guarantee the independence of arts and culture from economic and political interests.

As suggested by the original name of the first Danish Ministry of culture, The Danish Ministry for Cultural Affairs (Ministeriet for Kulturelle Anliggender) was created in 1961. Its role as a state authority was first and foremost created within a political and administrative framework designed to improve the conditions for the arts and culture, but not to interfere with the content. Neither politicians nor civil servants, but independent peer groups, should grant money to the arts, i.e. through The Danish Art Foundation (Statens Kunstfond) established in 1964. Ideally, the primary role of the cultural ministry was as an architect to build a house of culture with rooms for all. Various principles and strategies were implemented by different governments to realise this overall aim.

In the 1960s, the focus of Danish cultural policies was on the dissemination of professional art. The strategy was called democratisation of culture. The welfare state distributed cultural goods to all Danes, whether they lived in Copenhagen, small provincial towns, or urban districts. All parts of the country and all social groups were to have access to theatre, music, libraries, etc. of a high standard and provided by professionals. They were to have the opportunity to encounter and thereby learn to appreciate "art of good quality". Therefore, state support of the arts should be given to the very best that the Danish artistic community produced. The same applied to the public cultural institutions and activities, whether organised on national, regional or local level.

However, it soon became evident that not all Danes appreciated what some considered as the "incomprehensible fine art of modernism". As a result, a broader concept of culture was introduced into the cultural policies of the 1970s. The new ideal was conceptualised as cultural democracy. The strategy of cultural diversity showed more respect for cultural diversity and the right to pluralism. It guaranteed the right of creativity and self-expression.

Decentralisation was strengthened. Decisions on cultural policy should be taken as close to the citizens as feasible. The state should support amateur as well as professional activities. In a broader sense, it also meant that the state should support diverse cultural groups including minorities.

In the 1980s, the aims of cultural politics took another course. Cultural activities were often considered as tools to serve social purposes in line with the growing economic crises. Culture and the arts were to solve problems of unemployment, reintegration of young people etc.

From the 1990s, the social instrumentalisation of public cultural policies was combined with economic and political goals. Attracting tourists to support economic development and securing highly skilled employees to the creative industries in the globalised knowledge economies, were put forward in the agenda of public cultural policies. Performance contracts with cultural institutions and their management were introduced in the cultural arena to stimulate efficiency in the implementation of the overall aims.

The overall aim still was to support the creative arts, cultural education and research, cultural heritage, media etc. with the mission to promote general education and cultural development of the citizens. In 2003, the Ministry's administration of the different councils for theatre, music and literature etc. were merged into a new common administrative construction called the Danish Arts Agency (Kunststyrelsen). As of 1 January 2012, the Danish Arts Agency has been merged, along with the Heritage Agency of Denmark and the Danish Agency for Libraries and Media, into a new agency called The Danish Agency for Culture. The separate councils for theatre, music etc. were put together in a common body called the Danish Arts Council (Kunstrådet) with the aim to stimulate a common platform for arts policy, like the national arts councils in Norway and Sweden. The goal was to facilitate better coordination among the individual councils and to create new inter-aesthetic approaches.

At the same time, the economic rationale of cultural policy has been still more emphasised as a part of the "experience economy" since the late 1990s. A new orientation in the policy of promoting artistic creativity was introduced by the report entitled Denmark's Creative Potential 2000 (Danmarks kreative potentiale 2000) launched by the Danish Ministry of Culture together with the Ministry of Business and Economic Affairs, with the purpose "to draft a new joint agenda for cultural policy and trade and industrial policy". The follow-up report Denmark in the Culture and Experience Economy - 5 new steps,published in 2003, strengthened this focus on the economic potential of art and culture as artefacts in the global experience economy and the formation of the new creative industries and social classes. This line has been improved by the present government parallel with the overall aim to give priority to professional arts policy, improving the conditions for the most talented artists and to develop new artistic talents.

‘De-concentration’ has been strengthened in recent years. Denmark is in the middle of a fundamental structural transformation of the public sector. The Local Government Reform (kommunalreformen), passed by the Parliament in 2005, has decreased 275 municipalities and 14 counties to 98 municipalities and 5 regions. The reform came into force on 1 January 2007 and will be fully implemented by 2012. According to the reform, the former cultural responsibility of the counties, now abolished, has been transferred to either the state level or the new municipalities. The new municipalities have been given the full political, administrative and financial responsibility to handle cultural institutions and activities with a natural local affiliation including libraries, museums, sport facilities, amateur activities etc. On the other hand the responsibility, financing and regulation of the 42 state institutions aremore clearly defined as a state obligation (see organigram A in chapter 3.1).

Finally cultural policies in Denmark have been rethought in light of globalisation, migration and digitalisation. The cultural discussion today is to a high degree focusing on what constitutes "danishness", Danish cultural heritage and national identity as coherent narratives in a multicultural world. In 2005, the former Danish Minister for Culture, Brian Mikkelsen (2001-2008), compiled a comprehensive Danish Cultural Canon corresponding to the 7 main art forms within the Danish Ministry of Culture's remit. The overall aim of the Danish Cultural Canon was to stimulate and consolidate national identity as a force of social cohesion and cultural assimilation of public dialogue, discussions and activities on identity and nationality (see chapter 4.1).

These guidelines continued to be pursued by Carina Christensen of the Conservative Party, who became Minister for Culture in September 2008. The new Minister placed a higher priority on improving the national aspect of social cohesion in local societies in the provinces of Denmark published in a new strategic plan Culture for All on 2 December 2009.

On 23 February 2010, the government undertook a comprehensive cabinet reshuffle, which saw the former Foreign Minister Per Stig Møller taking over as Minister of Culture. The new government presented the working programme Denmark 2020 – knowledge, economic growth, wealth, and welfare, including a passage on cultural policy priorities (see chapter 4.1).

The transformation of aims and measures in Danish cultural policy 1960-2012 may be summed up in 4 phases characterised by different values and strategies in the production and circulation of art, cultural and symbolic meaning in society: Dissimilation of the arts (1960-1975), stimulating local and amateur activities (1975-1985), social and economic instrumentalisation (1985-2001), economic and national revitalisation (2001-2012).

With the bourgeois-liberal government known as the VKO-government (2001-2011), primordial revitalisation of Danish national identity, deconcentration of the organisational structure and economic responsibility for cultural institutions, increasing private financing by sponsorship and donations, stimulation of the experience economy and securing high quality arts were the dominating values on which the public cultural policy in Denmark was built (see chapter 4.1).

On 3 October 2011, a new government consisting of the Social Democrats, Social Liberals and Socialist People’s Party, with Helle Thorning-Schmidt from the Social Democrats as the Prime Minister took over, with Uffe Elbæk (Social Liberal Party) as Cultural Minister. He is the founder of the internationally acclaimed school for innovative leadership, "Kaospiloterne" and for 20 years he has been a vital part of Danish cultural life through his membership of many committees. On 6 December 2012 Marianna Jelved replaced Uffe Elbæk as Danish Minister for Culture.

The new governmental programme A Denmark That Stands Together (DST), published in October 2011, states that Denmark is a country where respect between people regardless of their background is promoted. A prosperous Denmark is a Denmark where diversity thrives and this requires mutual respect, respect regardless of the difference between us – whether gender, age, faith or ethnicity.

The identity values introduced by the new government, as well as the economic crises, have given rise to debate on paradigms of identity displayed in public cultural policy, the role of arts and public cultural policy in late-modern societies dominated by migration, globalisation and Europeanisation. This is also the case with the distribution of economic resources especially to theatre institutions and the different fields of music (see chapter 4.1).


Chapter published: 12-02-2013

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              Council of Europe/ERICarts, "Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe, 15th edition", 2014 | ISSN 2222-7334