Federal involvement in the development of Swiss cultural policy gained a new, more modern momentum following the transformation of Pro Helvetia (otherwise known as the Arts Council of Switzerland) from a governmental consortium into an independent public foundation in 1949. Until this time, support for culture was derived mainly from the cantons and cities. Federal support for cultural activities was minimal, with the exception of resources provided to build the Swiss Federal Archives (1848), the National Museum (1890), and the Swiss National Library (1894). The constitutional basis for these cultural activities of the Swiss Confederation was the unwritten cultural competency of the Federal Constitution, which arose as a result of the overall context of the Constitution. The Swiss Confederation began promoting culture with the establishment of the Federal Office for the Conservation of Historic Monuments in 1886 and with the Federal Decree on the Promotion and Elevation of Swiss Art of 1887. Today, federal involvement in cultural life has increased. However, the cantons and cities continue to provide the majority of resources to support cultural activities.
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, widespread use of the mass media and a reduction in the amount of hours devoted to working life. At the same time, traditional structures, including the family, were breaking up and the sprawl of urbanisation was expanding. The arts tried to address these societal developments on various levels, which led to a broader mandate and definition of culture.
Until the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, culture was mainly considered a private matter in Switzerland. There was almost no public discussion on it. Exceptions are the federal promotion of the film industry, which was already incorporated in the Federal Constitution in 1958 (Article 27ter of 1958, now Article 71), in 1962 the enactment of Article 24sexies (now Article 78), which encourages the Confederation to protect the environment and the cultural heritage of Switzerland, and in 1959 Article 22bis (now Article 61) as the first statutory basis for the 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); the Conference of Swiss Cities on Cultural Matters (CSCC 1970) and the establishment of the Federal Office of Culture (FOC) in 1975.
While the concept of culture was being broadened, based on the UNESCO concept, culture as an important dimension in many policy sectors was being discussed. National cohesion (identity) and diversity as well as the growing gaps between urban and rural areas became central issues in this context.
In 1980, the “Federal Cultural Initiative” reinvigorated the debate on cultural policy in Switzerland. According to the initiative, one percent of federal expenditure should be spent on culture. Both the “Cultural Percentage Initiative” and the moderate counterproposal of the Federal Council of 1986 were rejected by a narrow margin 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 of several cultural communities. In 1994, this initiative was also 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 in 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).
Public budgets were cut in the early 1990s. Responsibilities between the different levels of government with regard to 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 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, but were outvoted by the German-speaking majority, who voted against. 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 (Article 69 para. I Constitution). The new Constitution confirmed the previous responsibilities of the Confederation for film (Article 71), for national heritage protection and conservation (Article 78), for language and understanding between linguistic communities (Article 70), and for foreign affairs (Article 54). Pursuant to the constitutional revision, the federal government now has legal base for the promotion of cultural endeavours of national interest and for lending support to the arts, especially in the areas of film and education (Article 69 para. 2).
On the legal basis of the revised constitution, Swiss Parliament passed the Federal Act on the Promotion of Culture (Culture Promotion Act) at the end of 2009. This Act renders concrete and implements Article 69 of the Federal Constitution. On this basis, strategic aims have been defined for the first time for the most important actors of the Confederation for the period from 2012 to 2015.
Today, culture is an important element in different policy areas – from the debate on national cohesion (including the discussion of a language and minority policy) to the discussion on whether cultural industries have to be considered as part of a forward-looking cultural policy.
Main features of the current cultural policy model
The two main elements of the Swiss (cultural) policy model are: federalism and subsidiarity.
For Swiss cultural policy, federalism means that measures are decided upon and implemented at a local and regional level, which are considered to be closer to the artists’ and the publics’ voices and their needs. Subsidiarity presupposes that the lowest, smallest or least centralised authority takes responsibility if possible. The respective higher levels, for instance, the cities, cantons, or the federal government, lend subsidiary support, which is primarily financial. This means that public resources for culture are provided first by the cities, and then subsidiarity by the cantons and the federal government. Furthermore, private sponsorship is almost conditional or a requirement in order to receive public grants. The private sector acts as a kind of guarantor, in that public funds will only be provided if matched by private funding.. Switzerland’s cultural tapestry is a patchwork of twenty-six cantonal approaches rather than a single, national design.
Because of the flexibility of the Swiss model, there are some inherent difficulties such as the duplication or overlap of efforts. Concentrating cultural policy measures on a common goal is rather difficult and the elaboration of mid and long-term perspectives is quite a complex task (see chapter 1.2.6). Particularly on the national level, discussions can take years and at times result in expensive compromises.
For this reason, the new 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 new Act, the financial steering of the federal government’s promotion of culture is effected by means of a four-year payment framework (Dispatch on Culture), and reads as a declaration of the cultural policy guidelines of the federal government.
On 25 October 2011, the federal government, cantons, cities, and communes signed a Convention for a National Dialogue on Culture. The Convention marks a first step toward the implementation of the Dispatch on Cultural, and is aimed at establishing closer cooperation between the various levels of the state in the future. It remains to be seen whether the enactment of the new Culture Promotion Act (which came into effect on 1 January 2012) and the associated strategic four-year periods will reduce the friction occurring to date.
Cultural policy objectives
Failing a single, unified national definition of culture, it is difficult to point to cultural policy objectives reflecting the attitudes of the major players in Swiss cultural policy (mainly the cities and cantons) at the same time.
Nevertheless, in the discussion on the new Federal Act on the Promotion of Culture, which was passed at the end of 2009 and enacted in January 2012, several papers outlining cultural policy objectives were developed. Thus, for instance, Article 3 of the new Act mentions the following objectives: “The promotion of culture by the federal government shall have the following aims: a) to strengthen the cohesion and cultural diversity of Switzerland; b) to promote a richly diverse and qualitatively outstanding range of cultural activities and offerings; c) to establish favourable conditions for cultural workers and cultural institutions; d) to provide the population of Switzerland with access to culture and to facilitate such access; e) to make Swiss cultural work known abroad.” Accordingly, Article 8 establishes the following priorities: “The Confederation shall in the first instance support projects that a) provide the population with access to culture, or that facilitate access; and b) make a particular contribution to the safeguarding or development of cultural or linguistic diversity.”
The Swiss Federal Council’s Dispatch on Culture for 2016–2019 identifies the most important aims of the country’s efforts to promote culture:
- to preserve Switzerland’s tangible and intangible cultural assets, that is, archaeological sites, monuments, historic townscapes, and moveable cultural assets; to gather, record, preserve, and disseminate (print, audio, video, and web) information about Switzerland; to safeguard and breathe life into Switzerland’s cultural heritage; to prevent the theft, pillaging, and illegal import and export of cultural assets; to lend specialised support to the professional documentation, archiving, and collection of cultural assets;
- to promote a rich and varied cultural life of a high quality: to foster the free development of professional artistic and cultural production in all sectors; to create favourable conditions for cultural institutions and organisations; to nurture artistic talent; to promote exchange between public, civil-society, and private cultural initiatives;
- to enhance the cultural participation of all population groups: to strengthen cultural and music education and intercultural skills; to enable equal access to culture for all population groups; to promote the cultural activities of laypersons and lay organisations; to foster art education and cultural education;
- to strengthen the social cohesion of a diverse population: to raise greater awareness among the Swiss population for the country’s various cultures; to stimulate exchange between cultural and linguistic communities; to safeguard multilingualism as a hallmark of Switzerland; to protect the linguistic and cultural rights of minorities; to ensure linguistic freedom, and to preserve and promote minority languages; to nurture individual and institutional multilingualism in Switzerland’s national languages;
- to ensure cultural exchange with countries abroad: to cultivate lively and balanced cultural exchange with other countries; to make known Switzerland’s cultural production and cultural heritage abroad; to spread Switzerland’s cultural production through international markets; to preserve Switzerland’s interests, national communication, and image abroad; and
- to contribute to Switzerland’s attractiveness as a location for business and education; to tap and utilise the creative, innovative, and economic potentials of culture; to improve and develop the conditions for the cultural industries; to convey the rich and varied cultural life of Switzerland to tourists and visitors (e.g., the diversity of museums and collections).
Similar formulations of these aims can be found in the various cantonal acts on culture. Importantly, these aims are not ranked in hierarchical order, but are assigned equal status. Both national cultural policy and the cultural policy of the Swiss Confederation must orient themselves towards these aims. Depending on changes in cultural policy and its conditions, individual aims can be strengthened or emphasised.