Author: France Lebon in cooperation with Joris Janssens and Delphine HestersIsabelle De Vriendt
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 (1980 saw the creation of the Flemish and Walloon Regions, with the Brussels-Capital Region being set up in 1989).
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.
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.
During the decade 1999-2009, there was a considerable increase in the budget for culture and a new cultural policy strategy aimed at establishing an “integrated” or mainstreamed policy for Flanders in the fields of the arts, cultural heritage and socio-cultural activities. This approach aimed at a more streamlined system for creation, dissemination, preservation and support structures for culture and replaces individual, sector based policies, by a more comprehensive legal framework. During this period, several new decrees were implemented, such as the Flemish Parliament Act on the Arts, the Flemish Parliament Act on Cultural Heritage and a flanking Participation Flemish Parliament Act, and audience development and audience participation were major points of attention.
A government coalition consisting of Christian-Democrats (CD&V), Socialists (sp.a) and the Flemish Nationalist Party N-VA was elected for the legislation term 2009-2014. The Christian-Democrat Minister of Culture combined this portfolio with Environment and Nature. The coalition agreement of the Flemish government was 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 aimed at installing Flanders in the top-5 of European regions, facing demographic, economic and ecological challenges. With the installment of a yearly ‘Cultuurforum’ (Culture Forum), the Minister aimed at generating ideas to include culture in this project.
In 2014, a new government was installed through a coalition of the NVA, Christian-Democrats and liberals (Open VLD). The current Minister of Culture is of a liberal signature. He combines the Culture portfolio with Media, Youth and Brussels. The current coalition agreement of the Flemish Government strongly emphasises economic growth. As far as arts and culture are concerned, current policy focuses on the ‘excellence’ and ‘impact’ by strengthening larger institutions and on entrepreneurship.
After a decade of growth, the budget for the arts and for culture has been under pressure since 2009. This has hindered the development of new culture policy initiatives. Space for new initiatives is limited. While new Flemish Parliament Acts for heritage and the socio-cultural field are being developed, some policy priorities mentioned in the current minister’s policy letter (focusing on the position of individual artists, on the international culture policy, on audience participation and intercultural dialogue) have yet to be translated into concrete policy impulses. On the federal level, a tax shelter for performing arts has been introduced.
Still, major changes are underway as far as the relationship between the different government levels is concerned. Cultural policy in Flanders has always been about the interplay and the co-operation between different government levels — the Flemish Community level, the provinces and the municipalities — based on the principles of complementarity and subsidiarity. Recently, the relationship between the different government levels has shifted greatly. Also, the relationship between the Flemish and the municipal level has changed significantly. Local cultural policy has been decentralised. In the past, cultural centres and libraries were co-financed by the Flemish government, through the Flemish Parliament Act on Local Cultural Policy. But since 2016, all Flemish funding for local culture goes directly to the municipalities, without earmarking.
As a result of more general ‘internal state reform’ in Flanders, the provinces will soon lose most of their culture competence (2018).
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.
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.
Main features of the current cultural policy model
In the 1990s, a system of long term policy planning was introduced in Flanders. This meant that each Minister presented a five-year plan outlining the activities and long term objectives for the coming period. The specific details of these plans are spelled out in yearly “policy letters”.
The principle of political primacy is dominant in Flanders. This means that the minister is advised by advisory bodies and the administration, but the final decision is in the hands of the minister and the government. The minister can either accept or reject this advice, but must provide significant justification in the case of the latter.
The advisory system is divided into two separate parts: one concerning strategic policy advice and the other concerns specific advice on the allocation of subsidies.
On July 9th 2003, the Flemish Parliament approved a Flemish Parliament Act Concerning Strategic Advisory Councils (see chapter 3.1). A strategic advisory council – made up of independent experts and representatives of civil society – was set up for each policy area. These strategic advisory councils provide advice on policy proposals (based on its own initiative or in response to requests from the government) and legal counsel on planned legislation. The Strategic Advisory Council for the policy domain Culture, Youth, Sports and Media (SARC) was established in 2008. Since 2015, the SARC is an integrated part of the Flemish Administration. Apart from a ‘general’ Council, there are subcouncils for four different sectors: Arts and Heritage, Sports, Media and Socio-Cultural Work.
As far as sectoral policy and the allocation of subsidies are concerned, the basis in the different sectors (arts, heritage, socio-cultural work) is a combination of evaluation by peers and independent experts on the one hand and the administration on the other hand. They advise the Minister on subsidy applications in the context of different sectors of Flemish Parliament Acts (Flemish Parliament Act on the Arts, Heritage Flemish Parliament Act, Socio-Cultural Flemish Parliament Act, Youth Flemish Parliament Act). The final decision on the division of subsidies is the responsibility of the Minister of Culture and the Flemish Government.
There are, however, two exceptions to the principle of political primacy in the Flemish policy model. In 2000, a Literature Fund was set up to implement the government’s literature policy and to grant subsidies. In 2002, the Flemish Audiovisual Fund was established to support and promote audiovisual creations. Both funds work via a management agreement with the Flemish government. These exceptions should not be mistaken for the existence of a comprehensive system of cultural funds which make decisions independent of the government.
Since the legislative period 1999-2004, the government has introduced a series of sectoral “support centres” (“steunpunten”) designed to undertake supporting activities for the cultural sector on the one side, and on the other side to act as intermediary between the cultural sector and government, by informing the sector on cultural policy and by informing the government on tendencies and expectations in the sector. During the last decade, several support centres have merged. The current situation is that there is one support centre for the Arts, for Heritage, for Youth and for Socio-Cultural Work.
Concerning the division of responsibilities between government levels, there is a movement towards more autonomy for local governments, in other words towards decentralisation. Initially (since 2000), this was done by elaborating policy plans and concluding covenants. For heritage, this already resulted in several covenants. In the period 2016-2020, there are 16 covenants with clusters of municipalities and 1 with the Flemish Community Commission in Brussels. (Through these covenants, ‘heritage cells’ are being supported, which take initiatives to stimulate cooperation between, and improve the visibility of, the heritage organisations in different regions.)
The autonomy of the municipalities has recently increased through a process of decentralisation of (local) culture policy. While this decision might have an impact on (support for) the culture sector, the future ‘modus operandi’ of the interplay between the different government levels is currently under development.
French-speaking Community of Belgium
The competence of the French-speaking Community of Belgium extends over the territory of Brussels and Wallonia. As a capital and a major city, Brussels is where by far the majority of cultural associations and institutions are based. For some twenty years now, there has been a proactive focus on decentralising cultural institutions in Wallonia, as well as ensuring that credits are shared fairly between Wallonia and Brussels.
The model emerging from the cultural policies currently being pursued revolves around eight fundamental, relatively transverse pillars:
- supporting artistic creation and dissemination: performing arts (music, theatre, dance, fairground arts), literature, plastic arts, cinema, audio-visual, radio;
- protecting and promoting cultural heritage (apart from the real estate heritage, which falls under the Regions): museums, folklore, ethnology, indigenous languages, cultural archives;
- territorial cultural development: cultural centres, public libraries;
- developing cultural democracy and participation in social and cultural life: youth and continuing education, cultural and associative life, intercultural affairs, amateur artistic practices;
- supporting training for cultural leaders: professionals and volunteers;
- supporting broadcasting: public radio and TV, community TV;
- supporting the press; and
- supporting international activities.
The remit of the various sectors of competence is to develop the quality of their cultural materials while at the same time helping to ensure that creation and cultural action and initiatives grow strong local roots: this is the case with cultural centres, libraries, youth organisations and continuing education organisations, centres of expression and creativity, youth centres, regional drama centres and community TV stations.
The cultural template used by the French-speaking Community of Belgium relies very heavily on the principle of subsidiarity: support for initiatives taken by cultural operators or associations. This support is organised by decrees which define the conditions for access to subsidies, as well as their award and justification.
This template draws regular criticism, although without actually being fundamentally called into question. The main difficulty with the principle of subsidiarity is ‘sprinkling’: a growing number of beneficiaries are getting repeated support, and the quality criteria applied are not sufficiently selective; on top of that, too many operators are now not receiving enough funding to enable them to complete their projects.
However, policies involving the award of subsidies via programme contracts are becoming the norm. Support is planned beyond one year, generally over periods of 4 or 5 years, with specific strings attached. This type of contract responds to two objectives: firstly, transparency, for programme contracts appear on the culture website and flag up the link between the subsidy and the missions and conditions to be met by the cultural operator, and secondly, harmonisation with due regard to the specific features: the same rules are applied to all operators in a given sector, but the notion of a programme contract means that missions can be customised and the operator’s particular features factored in, especially the innovative or original character of its projects. For some years now, the policies on calls for projects have been evolving: they make it easier to flag projects and actions supported in light of the priorities and thrusts defined than is the case with the support granted under the decrees which leave the operators plenty of leeway.
The representative function plays an important role in the application of cultural policies.
There are more than 30 consultative bodies advising the Minister by submitting opinions, proposals or recommendations regarding sectoral policies or project selection.
There is a decree that organises the make-up and operation of the advisory bodies tasked with framing opinions, recommendations or proposals on the policies being pursued in the areas within their competence, either on their own initiative or at the behest of the Government of the French-speaking Community of Belgium.
The members of these advisory bodies are appointed by the FWB Government after public calls for applications. One half of the members sit as either professionals, experts or users and/or representatives of a particular ideology or philosophy, while the other half of the members sit as organisations representing the approved users (organisations representing or acting as an umbrella for a cultural sector or an artistic discipline).
The list of the advisory bodies, their make-up and their progress reports can be viewed via the website www.culture.be/instances d’avis.
The German-speaking Community mainly supports non-profit organisations, clubs and municipalities in the following four ways:
- operational subsidies;
- subsidies of personnel costs;
- financial interventions for projects and cooperation; and
- subsidies for infrastructure projects and equipment.
The promotional policy pursued by the German-speaking Community constitutes the basis for its cultural work and is presently governed by a variety of orders, decrees and circulars. Most of the rules date from the 1980s and 1990s and have hitherto been applied piecemeal to the needs of players in the cultural field. The government’s aim is to scrutinise the rules in thorough detail and redraft them from the ground up.
The government that was installed in 2004 has drawn up a catalogue of concrete measures for implementing its programme. The most important measure in the cultural area is a renewal of the concept of cultural support and the drafting of a set of rules that at one and the same time reduced administrative expenditure to a minimum and are easy for cultural players to implement. The leeway thus opened up in terms of what can be done and its financial ramifications mean that it is possible to pay greater heed to the needs for multi-faceted cultural activities that cover a multitude of different areas and to construct lasting cooperation.
Conscious as it is of the growing importance of audiovisual and electronic media, the provision of media skills and the offering of online media services form the core of the Community’s media policies. Expansion of the media presence of the German-speaking Community and adjustment of the legislation in line with European directives are further goals.
Cultural policy objectives
All the objectives underpinning cultural policy are based on the principles of political democracy and cultural democracy. References to human rights and pluralist democracy are a constant guiding thread running through all the regulatory provisions. Cultural practices, creations and actions which explicitly fit within this approach are given priority. All the actions conducted likewise fit within the framework of the defence and promotion of a European culture that is tolerant, open to the world, intrinsically diverse and respectful of the minorities which contribute to global cultural development.
Belgium and its Communities have always played a very active role within the Council of Europe. Several cultural policy thrusts fit within the parameters set by the Council of Europe.
Cultural policy in the Flemish Community is based on the following values:
- equal rights for all inhabitants;
- quality and diversity in the cultural offer (and taking measures to correct market distortions);
- cultural democracy and cultural participation;
- cultural competences;
- creativity; and
- protection and promotion of cultural heritage.
Core responsibilities of Flemish authorities in the field of professional arts, cultural heritage, socio-cultural youth work and adult work, are:
- developing a strategic conceptual framework;
- providing a set of instruments;
- monitoring; and
- taking measures to increase the quality of the cultural offer and provision of cultural services.
French-speaking Community of Belgium
In 2005, the Culture Minister launched the Culture Forum, a space for discussing cultural policy with all the cultural players in the French-speaking Community of Belgium which has been gestating for a number of years.
The priorities which have come out of the Culture Forum and been implemented are as follows:
- reinforcing public access and participation;
- improving cultural governance;
- guaranteeing funding for cultural policy;
- supporting creative artists;
- reinforcing the various cultural sectors;
- supporting the development of new forms of expression, specifically by means of technological developments; and
- ensuring the harmonious territorial and economic development of culture.
Art and cultural heritage are two main branches in the area of culture. Whilst literature is a part of culture, libraries and the promotion of reading, cinemas, radio and television and press assistance fall within the area of the media.
The German-speaking Community promotes:
- amateur arts;
- increased interest in the theatrical arts, plastic arts and literature;
- continuing education of young talent and aspiring artists with regional charisma;
- cultural cooperation with external partners;
- folklore activities;
- the protection and preservation of cultural heritage (museums, scientific historical publications, restoration work);
- expansion of media service centres;
- implementation of initiatives in the areas of books and film; and
- public-sector and private-sector radio and television broadcasters.
Promotional work is mainly affected by way of subsidies. Further possibilities are holding events (exhibitions, competitions, and readings), effecting or brokering cooperation or the purchase of artwork. A particular stance is taken by the Media Centre of the German-speaking Community, which carries out measures to promote reading, offers media awareness and media courses, maintains a multimedia workshop and produces television programming.