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Belgium/ 2. General objectives and principles of cultural policy  

2.1 Main features of the current cultural policy model

Flemish Community

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.)

As indicated in chapter 1, 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 d’avis.

German-speaking Community

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.

Chapter published: 16-01-2018

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