Belgium is a federal country, in which cultural affairs are mainly the subject of policies on the level of the Flemish, French, and German-speaking Communities (see 1.2.3). Cultural affairs refer to areas such as arts, heritage, language, media, youth policy, and sports (see 4.1.1). Tourism and immovable heritage are competences of the Regions (Flemish, Walloon, and Brussels-Capital Region; see 1.2.3). A number of (large) cultural institutions resides with the competences of the Federal State (see 1.2.2).
Principles of political and cultural democracy and references to human rights pervade the history of cultural policies in Belgium and its Communities. Many actions conducted in the framework of these policies are in line with the principles of the Council of Europe on the promotion of cultural diversity and cultural participation, respect of freedom of expression and association, and support of creativity. (Belgium played an active role in the history of the Council.) Another important principle underpinning a large deal of cultural policies in Belgium and its Communities is subsidiarity — or, the principle that the state does not directly intervene in cultural matters, other than by means of general regulations and support measures. Many cultural policy instruments are devised as subsidies for non-governmental organisations and non-profit players.
In this profile, we will focus on the cultural policies of the Flemish Community (which applies to people and organisations living and working in Flanders and Brussels) — more specifically: the policies subsumed under the Flemish policy field of Culture. This spans arts, heritage, socio-cultural work, circus, amateur arts, sign language, and policies that permeate these different fields. If relevant, we will refer to cultural or culture-related affairs that are subsumed under other policy fields of the Flemish Community (such as Youth and Media), or that are competences of the Flemish and Brussels-Capital Region (such as Immovable Heritage, Tourism, Economy, and Foreign Affairs) or the Federal State (such as Federal cultural institutions, Social Security, and Development Cooperation). This profile also deals with general trends in local cultural policy in Flanders and Brussels (see 1.2.4). Specific cases of local cultural policies will only be mentioned in this profile when relevant to a topic. Provincial authorities played a historical role in shaping cultural policy in Flanders, but are now largely divested from cultural competences (see 1.2.4).
In general, cultural policy in the Flemish Community is based on the following values:
- equal rights for all its inhabitants
- quality and diversity of the cultural offer (and taking measures to correct market distortions)
- cultural democracy and cultural participation
- cultural competences
- protection and promotion of cultural heritage
Core responsibilities of the Flemish authorities with regard to the competence of Culture are:
- developing a strategic conceptual framework for cultural policies
- providing a set of policy instruments
- taking measures to increase the quality of the cultural offer and provision of cultural services
- monitoring (the effects of) these policy frameworks and instruments
A look at the historical background elucidates how this complex policy structure and the principles that imbue it came about:
- 1944-1970: After the Second World War, cultural policies in Belgium expanded and were shaped by a drive to democratize culture — inspired by principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In line with international developments, cultural policies developed as an alternative to both the state culture of Communist countries and the market-governed system of the United States. These developments converged with the way Belgian society was historically shaped by philosophical and political divisions (the so-called ‘zuilen’, literally ‘pillars’), leading to the subsidiary government intervention in cultural affairs as described above.
- 1970-1980: The autonomy of the linguistic communities vis-à-vis the Federal State was further institutionalised. Cultural policy was divided over the newly created government levels. In the wake of these reforms, the Culture Pact (see 4.1.2) was passed. Throughout this decade, the ministers of Dutch Culture (as it was called) were Christian-Democrats, whose policies were geared towards democratizing culture (a network of culture centres and libraries was built throughout Flanders). In 1980, the Flemish and Walloon Regions were created (the Brussels-Capital Region followed in 1989), which also took up culture-related competences.
- 1981-1992: In the wake of economic turmoil, overall government expenditure on culture decreased. A new, rather management-oriented style of cultural policies — which included encouraging cultural organisations to generate a private income — was introduced by Liberal ministers of Culture in the Flemish government.
- 1992-1999: Christian-Democrat ministers of Culture continued the line of their liberal predecessors and focussed on the traditional arts and on socio-cultural work. Legislation on performing arts, music, and museums in Flanders and Brussels was passed that provided funding for delineated periods of time and which allowed funded players to devise longer-term planning.
- 1999-2009: Flemish government budgets for Culture increased considerably. Legal frameworks were streamlined and ‘integrated’ policies were created for the professional arts (the Arts Decree, which replaced discipline-specific regulations), cultural heritage (the Cultural Heritage Decree), and socio-cultural work (the Decree Socio-Cultural Work for Adults). The Funds for literature and for audiovisual production were also established in this period, as well as the Participation Decree (see 6.1).
- 2009-2020: Budgets for Culture came under pressure (see 7.1.2) and the number and scope of new policy initiatives on the Flemish level were rather limited compared to the preceding decade. As result of a reform of government levels and their remits in Flanders, local cultural policy was decentralised and provincial authorities were largely divested of their cultural competences. In the wake of these reforms, a new Decree on Supralocal Cultural Activities was established (see 1.2.4).
The previous five years of cultural policies and affairs constitute the main scope of this profile, with excursions to debates and policy initiatives of (roughly) the ten preceding years. This means we will refer to the terms of Bert Anciaux (Leftist-Liberal, in 2004-2009; this was his second term, after 1999-2002, when he was member of the Flemish nationalist Volksunie), Joke Schauvliege (Christian-Democrat, in 2009-2014), Sven Gatz (Liberal, in 2014-2019), and Jan Jambon (of the Flemish nationalist N-VA, 2019-2024).
 This section is an edit of similar sections in previous Compendium profiles on Belgium. For comprehensive overviews and analyses of (the history of) cultural policy in Flanders and Belgium, see: Laermans, Rudi. 2002. Het cultureel regiem : cultuur en beleid in Vlaanderen. Tielt: Lannoo; De Pauw, Wim. 2007. Absoluut modern: cultuur en beleid in Vlaanderen. Brussel: VUB Press; Van der Hoeven, Quirine. 2012. Van Anciaux tot Zijlstra. Cultuurbeleid in Nederland en Vlaanderen. Den Haag: Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau; De Kepper, Miek. 2017. Over Bach, cement en de postbode. 50 jaar lokaal cultuurbeleid. Kalmthout: Pelckmans.