The Federal Act on the Promotion of Culture (Culture Promotion Act/Kulturförderungsgesetz KFG), in force since 2012, outlines the main objectives of cultural policy in Switzerland (Art. 3 KFG and Art. 8 KFG):
- strengthening the cohesion and cultural (and linguistic) diversity in Switzerland
- promoting a richly diverse and qualitatively outstanding range of cultural activities and offerings
- establishing favourable conditions for cultural workers and cultural institutions
- providing and facilitating access to culture
- making Swiss cultural work known abroad
With cultural matters being a “cantonal responsibility” (Art 69 para. 1 BV), Cantons and municipalities develop their own cultural strategies with local and regional priorities, goals and funding instruments (nearly 90% of public cultural expenditure in 2018).
Subsidiary to the cantons, the Confederation supports cultural endeavours of nationwide interest and has parallel competences, for example, in the promotion of filmmaking and film culture as a primary task of the Confederation, as well as in music education.
The Confederation’s cultural policy is set out in the Culture Dispatch (“Kulturbotschaft”, since 2012). The policy for 2021-2024 builds on the three central axes of action from the period 2016-2020: “Cultural Participation”, “Social Cohesion” and “Creation and Innovation”, with a special focus on the challenges and opportunities of digital transformation (from 2021). In order to define the scope of cultural promotion at the federal level, a distinction is made between a broader sociological and a narrower “practical concept of culture”: through the relevant federal legislation and through the cultural policy priorities set in the Culture Dispatch.
Switzerland’s cultural policy system is characterised by four principles, as described by Rico Valär:
- Federalism as an organisational principle for the autonomy of the cantons and municipalities
- Subsidiarity as a distribution principle for the primary cultural policy responsibility of the lower levels of government
- Cultural diversity and multilingualism as identity principles
- Pluralism of funding bodies and instruments as funding principles
Cultural policy in Switzerland, 8.68 million inhabitants (2021), unfolds through the exploration of national identity and cohesion between and across linguistic regions (4 official national languages, including 3 official languages) and through active citizenship participation, anchored in Switzerland’s political system with its various direct democratic instruments. The cultural topography is further shaped by the geographical location with the bordering countries of France, Germany, Italy and Austria. Even if Federalism is not exclusive to Switzerland, the 26 Swiss cantons are worth mentioning as relatively small units with their own well-developed political and legal systems: for example, the canton of Uri with just under 37 000 inhabitants and an area of 1 077 km2. The canton with the largest population is Zurich with around 1.5 million inhabitants and an area of 1 729 km2. The private sector plays a significant role in the Swiss cultural sector when compared to other European countries. In general, the principle of double subsidiarity is applied: The public sector only provides support if the resources of the private sector are inadequate.
Federalism and Subsidiarity
Switzerland is a federal republic and most competences are assigned to the cantons by the general clause of Article 3 of the Constitutional Law (1848). With the “total revision” of the Swiss Federal Constitution in 1999, the promotion of art and culture became an explicit task of the federal government (Art. 69 BV). With purely declaratory value, it refers to the autonomy of the cantons: “Cultural matters are a cantonal responsibility” (Art 69 para. 1 BV).
Switzerland’s policy-making system counts among its ranks three primary political strata: the federal, cantonal, and municipal levels. The Federal Constitution determines each political level of power, their responsibilities, and the scope of their available actions.
Besides these different levels, Switzerland gives direct democratic tools to its citizens, including referendums, people’s assemblies (Landsgemeinde) and people´s initiatives, leading the political system to be quite intricate and active. Examples in the field of culture are the popular votes on the first cultural laws in various cantons in the 1960s or the Cantonal popular initiative “Strengthening active Basel youth culture: tip initiative” in the Canton of Basel-Stadt, which was adopted in 2020 and resulted in an increase of the share for youth culture to 5% of the cantonal cultural budget.
Federalism, in terms of cultural policy-making, means that measures are decided upon and implemented at a local and regional level, by public authorities closest to the people.
Subsidiarity presupposes that the lowest, smallest or least centralised authority takes responsibility if possible, allowing for a range of autonomy. The higher levels of government, for example, cantons, or the federal government, lend primarily financial subsidiary support. It means that public resources for culture are provided from the bottom up: first by the communes, and then subsequently by the cantons and the federal government. This is also reflected in the data for public cultural expenditure: in 2018, the biggest share of 48.9% was spent by the municipalities, 40.3% by the cantons and 10.8% by the federal government (0.5 % of total federal expenditure).
Following a principle of dual subsidiarity, private funding is often a prerequisite for receiving a public grant. In general, the public sector only provides support if the resources of the private sector are inadequate. In practice, as Rolf Keller notes, there is often a reversal of the understanding of subsidiarity, for example when the private sector builds on state-maintained institutions or when cantons help federal initiatives to achieve a breakthrough.
Switzerland’s cultural tapestry is therefore more a patchwork of twenty-six cantonal approaches than a single, national design.
Because of the flexibility of the Swiss model, difficulties are present, such as the duplication or overlapping of efforts. Concentrating cultural policy measures on a common goal is difficult and the elaboration of mid and long-term perspectives is a complicated task. Discussions in policymaking at the national level can take years and at times, result in expensive compromises.
The cultural policy of the Confederation is mainly based on the interaction of four institutions: the Federal Office of Culture (FOC), the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, the Swiss National Library (NL) (organisationally assigned to FOC), and the Swiss National Museum (SNM).
As the leading cultural policy authority, the Federal Office of Culture (FOC) (according to Art. 29 para. 1 KFG) implements the cultural policy of the Confederation and coordinates the activities of the other federal agencies (Zimmermann, S. 591). The Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia is the institution that supports and disseminates Swiss culture and arts between regions as well as abroad. These two instances collaborate with the federal department of foreign affairs (FDFA) to oversee the international scope of Swiss cultural affairs.
The Culture Dispatch, published for every legislative period, has been the main strategic and financial steering instrument for federal cultural policy since 2012.
Cultural diversity and multilingualism
The nation has four official languages (German (62% in 2019), French (22.8%), Italian (8%) and Romansh (0.5%)), which correspond to different linguistic regions (with three Cantons being bilingual, Graubünden is trilingual) and divided into 26 cantons (each having their constitution, acts, parliament, government and courts), as well as around 2 250 communes (the smallest political entity). According to the Federal Statistical Office (FSO), 68% regularly use more than one language (2019) and English is the most widely used non-national language. The survey also shows the myriad cultural backgrounds of Swiss residents: Among the youngest generation (under 15), in addition to the national languages and English, Albanian (6.7%), Portuguese (4.9%), Spanish (4.9%), Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian (3.8%) and Turkish (2.8%) are spoken at home, as well as over 70 other languages. Foreign nationals make up more than 25% of the Swiss population (data from 2019).
Support for culture in Switzerland has developed primarily as a phenomenon of civil society and has developed very slowly and decentrally. At the same time, the public sector was active in promoting culture at the municipal level from an early stage (e.g. the Basel Art Museum, which is considered one of the first public art collections in the world (around 1661)). The federal involvement in culture came later and gradually. It was not until the end of the 1950s that the first provisions on culture, limited to certain subject areas, found their way into the Federal Constitution: in 1958, for example, an article on film (currently Art. 71 of the Federal Constitution) or in 1962, an article on nature and cultural heritage protection (currently Art. 78 of the Federal Constitution).
Before that, an unwritten cultural competence of the Confederation, tacitly derived from the Constitution, was the basis of the Confederation’s cultural activities. Federal support was minimal, apart from the funds provided for the construction of the Swiss Federal Archives (1848), support for the Swiss Archaeological and Historical Monuments Department (1886) or the Swiss National Library (1894). The first national museum in Switzerland was founded by a Federal Parliamentary Act of 1890 (Swiss National Museum in Zurich). The first legal basis in the field of support for artistic creation was the Federal Decree on the Promotion and Improvement of Swiss Art of 1887 (Bundesbeschluss betreffend die Förderung und Hebung der Schweizerischen Kunst 1887). On the basis of this federal decree, the Federal Art Commission (EKK) was founded in 1888.
Another important funding measure was the establishment of the federally funded Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia as a national cultural foundation in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. It was initially established as a working group (from 1949 on as a foundation under public law) to preserve the intellectual independence of culture in Switzerland in the face of the threat posed by National Socialist Germany and its fascist propaganda: an example of exceptional circumstances where the involvement of the Confederation was prompted.
From the 1950s, there were signs that the quality of life in Switzerland was improving. General rates of participation in cultural life increased parallel to rising levels of education, the widespread use of the mass media and a reduction in the number of hours devoted to working life. At the same time, traditional structures, including the family, were breaking down and the sprawl of urbanisation expanded. The arts tried to address these societal developments on various levels, which led to a broader mandate for a definition of culture.
Up until the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, culture was primarily considered a private matter in Switzerland. Exceptions are the federal promotion of the film industry, which was already incorporated in the Federal Constitution in 1958 (Article 27 of 1958, now Article 71), in 1962 the enactment of Article 24 (now Article 78), which encourages the Confederation to protect the environment and the cultural heritage of Switzerland, and in 1959 Article 22 (now Article 61) as the first statutory basis for cultural heritage protection. In the late 1960s, discussion on cultural policy intensified and resulted in the establishment of a legal basis (Pro Helvetia Act of 1965) and the definition of a public mission for Pro Helvetia; the creation of a temporary Federal Commission of Experts for Swiss Cultural Matters (the Clottu Commission, 1969) as a first rapport on an ambitious federal cultural policy; the Conference of Swiss Cities on Cultural Matters (CSCC 1970) and the establishment of the Federal Office of Culture (FOC) in 1975.
In the 1960s, the first cultural laws were drafted and voted on in various cantons. In the canton of Basel-Landschaft, Switzerland’s first cantonal culture promotion law was passed on 26 May 1963 in a popular vote with 69 per cent in favour (followed by Graubünden (1965), Solothurn (1967), Aargau (1968)).
While early Swiss cultural policy focused on self-assurance and the preservation of cultural heritage, the demand for a “culture for all” as a guiding idea also found its way into Switzerland at the end of the 1960s with corresponding debates in the Federal Republic of Germany. A basic cultural democratic approach along the “broad” cultural concept of UNESCO manifested itself in the so-called Clottu Report of 1975 (Eléments pour une politique culturelle suisse), which was commissioned by the Department of Home Affairs.
While the concept of culture “broadened”, culture began to be seen as an important dimension of many other policy sectors. National cohesion, identity, diversity, as well as the growing gaps between urban and rural areas became more important issues in this context.
In 1980, the “Federal Cultural Initiative” reinvigorated the debate on cultural policy in Switzerland. According to the initiative, one per cent of the federal budget should be spent on culture. Both the “Cultural Percentage Initiative” and the moderate counterproposal of the Federal Council of 1986 were rejected narrowly by the Swiss electorate. The Confederation introduced a further cultural initiative in 1991, through which the Federal Council sought to emphasise especially the identity-establishing function of culture both within and beyond Switzerland, on a local, regional, and national level. The initiative of 1991 highlighted culture and its promotion as an element conducive to unifying Switzerland, a country formed of four language groups and several cultural communities. In 1994, this initiative was rejected by a narrow margin.
During the 1980s, there was a growing interest on the part of the cantons and cities to increase their support for cultural and socio-cultural activities. This interest manifested itself in action and the realisation that a more comprehensive structure for cultural policy at the local level was required. Toward the end of the 1980s, the need to evaluate cultural policies appeared on political agendas. One example in this respect was the establishment of the Conference of Cantonal Directors of Culture (CCDC).
During public budget cuts in the early 1990s, responsibilities between the different levels of government concerning culture needed to be more clearly defined in areas such as the support granted to institutions of national interest, equality between different language regions of the country, and foreign policy. These developments were also influenced by the failed ballot initiative of 1992 on Switzerland’s accession to the European Economic Area (EEA), which put the country’s political cohesion to a serious test, as the French-speaking part of the country voted in favour of accession. However, they were outvoted by the German-speaking majority, who voted against it. The Languages Act (2007) can be considered one of the consequences of this period.
There was also renewed interest in pursuing scientific debates about culture and cultural policy as well as continuing public discussions on the establishment of a constitutional basis for cultural competencies. The promotion of culture in Switzerland was not placed on a firm constitutional basis until the revision of the Federal Constitution in 1999. Essentially, responsibility for culture continued to reside with the cantons (Art. 69 para. I BV). The new Constitution confirmed the previous responsibilities of the Confederation for the film industry (Article 71), for national heritage protection and conservation (Article 78), for language and understanding between linguistic communities (Article 70), and foreign affairs (Article 54). According to this constitutional revision, the federal government now had a legal base for the promotion of cultural endeavours of national interest and lending support to the arts, especially in the areas of film and education (Article 69 para. 2).
The legal basis of the revised constitution was passed by the Swiss Parliament as the Federal Act on the Promotion of Culture (Culture Promotion Act) at the end of 2009. This Act cements and implements Article 69 of the Federal Constitution. On this basis, strategic aims were defined for the first time for the most important actors of the Confederation between 2012 and 2015 (a periodic strategy formulated on the federal level; Culture Dispatch).
The Culture Promotion Act places great emphasis on precisely delimiting federal powers in comparison with those of the cantons, communes, and cities, which are primarily responsible for the promotion of culture. Under the Act, the financial steering of the federal government’s promotion of culture is affected by means of a four-year payment framework (the Dispatch on Culture) and stands as a declaration of the cultural policy guidelines of the federal government. The law also defines cooperation between cultural policy-makers and institutions.
 Federal Office of Culture: Botschaft zur Förderung der Kultur in den Jahren 2021–2024, pp. 3141.
 vgl. Valär, Rico Franc, Georg Kreis. “Wie viel Kulturpolitik braucht die Schweiz?”, 2019, pp. 123-136.
 vgl. Keller, Rolf. Kulturpolitik der Schweiz. In: Kompendium Kulturmanagement. Verlag Franz Vahlen, 2011, pp. 125-152.
 Keller, Rolf. “Kulturpolitik der Schweiz.” Kompendium Kulturmanagement. Verlag Franz Vahlen, 2011, pp. 125-152.
 Federal Office of Culture: Botschaft zur Förderung der Kultur in den Jahren 2021–2024 (2020), pp. 3142.
 Federal Statistical Office: Language, religion and culture survey (2019); main language(s) (up to three per person) indicated by respondents; more on the methodological basis here.
 vgl. Zembylas, Tasos. Öffentliche Kulturförderung und Kulturfinanzierung, 2012.
 vgl. André Briel/Oliver Waespi/Daniel Zimmermann: Kulturrecht des Bundes, in: Ehrenzeller, Bernhard. Schweizerisches Bundesverwaltungsrecht, Bildungs-, Kultur-und Sprachenrecht. Vol. 9. Helbing Lichtenhahn Verlag, 2018, pp. 581ff.
 Source: Valär, Rico Franc, Kreis, Georg. “Wie viel Kulturpolitik braucht die Schweiz?”, 2019, pp. 123-136.