Cultural houses as spaces of citizen decision-making
Coordinator of CULT! cultural network Leen Vanderschueren speaks about models of governance in regards to socio-cultural infrastructure in Flanders and Brussels regions.
FOTO: Roselien Beerten
Leen Vanderschueren is a coordinator of CULT!, a cultural network thar gathers 168 socio-cultural centres or cultural houses (ned. cultuurhuizen) located in two (out of three) Belgian regions – Flanders and Brussels. The network was founded in 1975., as the Association of Dutch cultural centres in Belgium. In 1983. it became FeVeCC, the Federation of Flemish acknowledged Cultural Centres. In 2001. the network changed its name to VVC, the Association of Flemish Culture- and community centres. In June of 2020., VVC became cult! cultural network / netwerk cultuurhuizen. The network is focused on advocacy which aims to strengthen the position of member organizations at both regional and national levels, and to build relations with the local communities. For decades, the network was operating in a stable and developed democratic society, and this conversation aimed to understand the state and consequences of the influence made by the neoliberal paradigm in the field of socio-cultural activities. In addition, a significant level of regional autonomy is reflected in the regulatory frame which shapes the field of socio-cultural institutions.
To begin with, could you tell us something about the CULT! network? What would be its main focus, or issues and questions it is concerned with?
Actually, CULT! is a very young network; we changed our name and mission in the midst of the Corona crisis, in June of last year. From the current perspective, I would say that this was the best time to do so, as we urgently needed to transform into an organisation that was more flexible and closer to our members. And who are our members? We have 168 Flemish and Brussels cultural houses, as they have become known since the change of our name. Previously, there was a distinction between cultural centres and community centres, but we chose a more general term "houses", which has a more open connotation, a more open-house idea, that we would like to present in the future. So, we aim to be the spokesperson of these cultural houses and their connection with policymakers on both the Flemish and federal levels. It's difficult timing because we lost our funding from Flanders, so we had to reinvent ourselves with less staff – we only have two full-time employees right now – but with a stronger focus on communication and flexibility.
How do you perceive your network’s role in the context of both the Flemish and Belgian (socio)cultural spheres? Would you say it has changed as a result of the network’s recent transformation from VVC, as it was previously known, to CULT!?
I would say that it has, but this has to do with structural changes as well. As of 2018, subsidies for our cultural houses – cultural and community centres – have stopped coming from Flanders. The funding is channelled through municipalities, which decide on investments in culture themselves and have the authority to redirect the money elsewhere. So, the past few years have been a period of great uncertainty for us as we had to wait to see what would to happen and if it would change everything. We have a very strong network with many cultural houses, but what would happen if all of the municipalities decided they didn't want to invest in culture and cultural houses anymore? It's still too early to say, but things seem pretty stable so far, although it’s hard to assess them properly, as there is no longer any monitoring. Previously, when the houses where directly funded by Flanders, there was a lot of monitoring and we had a clear picture of what was happening with culture budgets. Now, the money is simply given to municipalities, which are free to spend it at their will, so we don't really have a clear picture of how much funding is allocated to culture.
Which types of institutions would you include in the domain of sociocultural activities in your region? Are there any significant differences between these various types of institutions when speaking of the ways in which they function?
From a sociocultural perspective, I would emphasize the importance of community centres. When compared to cultural centres, these are more locally based and focused on language courses, neighbourhood work, caretaking, etc. They have a stronger sociocultural function and are, in general, a lot more bottom-up and focused on working with people, whereas cultural centres are more focused on art. However, it's difficult to draw a clear line between them, as it really depends on the region and the focus of a given municipality.
In addition, it’s possible to speak about the difference between cultural centres and arts centres. The cultural centres were installed in the 1960s and 1970s as centres for local communities that focused on various types of art and sociocultural art forms – theatre, music, dance, performing arts, etc. Arts centres, on the other hand, are more specialized places that have their own specific genres. From the perspective of CULT!, these lines are getting blurrier, and we don't see why a cultural centre couldn't include the production aspect as well. So, we have a lot of cultural houses experimenting with artists in residence, who are really producing art in these spaces. Many cultural houses have also recognized the potential of the social DNA of community centres and have begun to organise citizen juries, in which citizens get together physically and decide what happens with their cultural house. We see a lot of experimentation with how much authority is given to the curator and how much to the public.
We’ll now move on to several questions dealing with the regulatory framework behind the functioning of sociocultural institutions in your region. Which levels of government jurisdiction over cultural matters do you recognize?
The complexity starts with the division into multiple regions; for instance, in Brussels, you have Dutch-speaking cultural centres that are part of our network and French-speaking cultural centres that are part of the Walloon network called ACC. There are partnerships, but since culture is a regional subject, there are also regionally based networks.
In terms of freedom, some of the houses are really part of the municipality, and these are usually the smallest and least independent ones. There are various levels of organisational structures within these cultural houses that are directly related to their independence. Some municipalities really have a firm grip on what happens in their cultural centre and every decision needs to be communicated with the local government. There are, on the other hand, houses that are truly independent, and these are usually the larger ones. In many places, there is a separation of the budget and the content: the municipality is involved in the financial aspect, they secure the resources for what takes place in their community’s cultural centre, but the directors and curators of the cultural centre have the freedom to decide on the programme – whether they want to collaborate with local artists or aim for the international level. They decide where their focus lies and how far they want to involve the community. This is something that smaller houses often cannot afford due to the involvement of the municipality. It really depends on the structure and the communication with the government at the local level. What we see in our network is that the directors of the centres who have better communication with the municipality often have a lot more freedom. These situations can be very delicate, especially on a political level.
What can you tell us about the legal and regulatory framework? When it comes to the law or more specific by-law regulations, in which ways are these matters covered?
Well, since 2018, the decree that applied to local culture – it was actually called the Local Decree – has been repealed. So, to answer a question like this, we must look at other regulations. If there was a problem with cultural involvement, we would have to refer to the Cultural Pact, which is something that is actually quite old but still useful. It implies that in culture, you always need to have a board or advisory body that makes sure that diversity is present in everything a cultural house does. However, this pertains more to a more general Belgian level, and not specifically to the Flemish level.
While it's good that we still have that, we no longer have any foundations – since 2018, there has been no definition of what a cultural centre is. We at CULT! are trying to look at this from a positive angle – since there is no definition, we can make one up ourselves. That's why our organisation is important, as some of the houses are experiencing an identity crisis. Before, there was a clear definition of what a cultural centre or a community centre had to include in terms of infrastructure and programming. This was really interesting in terms of having foundations and something you can identify with, but it had its limitations as well: it meant you couldn’t grow into an arts centre if you wanted to, or develop into a community centre if your neighbourhood was asking for it. While the Local Decree is cancelled, there is another one – albeit very unclear and hesitant – and that is the supralocal decree (i.e., the Decree on Supralocal Cultural Activities). It’s a sort of an intermediate decree on everything that happens in culture between the local level and the Flemish and federal levels. It's very unclear what is meant by this, but for us, it feels quite unstable.
What impact do you think these changes will have on the overall functioning of the sociocultural field?
Clearly, we are disappointed with this evolution. There used to be support points where cultural houses were really named as such, but this is all gone in favour of this new decree, which seeks to put culture in a bigger perspective. I can see some advantages; what they’re trying to do is to connect various sectors such as amateur arts and cultural centres, things you do in your spare time with "real" art, but the downside is that this new decree doesn't focus on the working form itself. It doesn't focus on cultural centres, which leads to a loss of identity; it's as if cultural centres are forgotten in the discussions in the Flemish Parliament and are considered a thing of the past. This is interesting because cultural centres have their audience, people know what they are and what they do, they are close to the neighbourhood and community, but for a lot of politicians on various levels, they are a thing of the past.
In your opinion, how do these regulations – or lack thereof – determine or affect this changing profile of cultural houses?
On a local level, some of them haven't really noticed the change yet, we’ll have to wait and see how this plays out over time. Previously, the centres would be put into categories – you had an "A" category for large centres, then "B", "C" and "GC" (for community centres), and if you had a question, you would get in touch with another centre in the same category, as they would be dealing with similar problems. These connections still exist, in a way, but I think that a lack of recognition at a political level higher than municipalities will eventually lead to something very incoherent. That is the worst-case scenario. In the best-case scenario, these cultural centres will find a way of direct communication with municipalities and will evolve into more open structures with a lot more freedom. Of course, this is a very stereotypical way of putting it, but I think that the job of CULT! is to try and detect these evolutions, communicate with policymakers, and remind them that they must acknowledge us.
Can you tell us something about the sources of funding for sociocultural institutions?
Since the money is no longer coming from the regional government, this means that this money is not getting indexed, so there's no interest on the money and no regulation to make it more fluctuant. So, there is no longer any chance for a small community centre to get more money from Flanders. The municipality itself is the new gatekeeper, and if they think that a given cultural centre has not lived up to their expectations, they can decide to cut funding to a certain extent. Depending on the structure, there is usually a five-year agreement between the cultural centre and the municipality. There are also many houses experimenting with funding sources other than municipalities, but this is done on their own initiative. Depending on the project they’re launching, they partner with certain funding or private organisations they can cooperate with. In Flanders and Belgium, it’s common to find a community or public cafe run by a private investor that is connected to a cultural house. Actually, I wouldn't underestimate the power of such cooperation.
When it comes to our network, we survive solely on membership fees and a bit of savings from a time when the financial situation was better. We spent last year looking for alternatives, but it became clear that we wouldn't be able to find one in Flanders. We don't have the option of structural subsidies because it doesn't fit their political agenda to support us. As you can see, we’re still trying to figure out how to make our work sustainable. From the current perspective, we can rely on our membership fees and savings until 2024, but after that, we’ll need a new solution. It's a very delicate balance to strike because we’re already swamped with work, and if we want to grow and be the support point that these 168 centres deserve, we’ll need at least five more staff members. That, of course, isn’t an option at this point.
Now we'd like to move to the last set of questions, focusing on the various types of actors in both the governance and management aspects of an institutions' functioning. So, from the perspective of CULT!, which types of actors are typically involved in the governance of sociocultural institutions in the network?
Well, you have the classical scheme that entails a director who is basically the boss and is in direct contact with the municipalities and the local board. His staff is primarily made up of programmers who decide on the content that will take place in the cultural centre, for instance, dance, theatre, film, or community-based and family-based activities. The larger houses can have as many as 40 to 70 staff members, but this is changing as well. A lot of houses are experimenting with a more horizontal structure, with a team of artistic and financial directors, or a combination of an artistic director and a programming communication director, etc. On the other hand, you also have smaller centres with only a few staff members who are trying to cover everything in the municipality, ranging from cultural and open space to theatre representation. Some of them are programmers, directors, all at the same time.
Going back to the levels of jurisdiction and the sources of financing, what can you tell us about the situations in which a municipality finances a given cultural centre? Do they insist on having someone from the municipality participate in deciding upon the profile and the direction that the centre is going to take? Or do they still give a significant amount of freedom – not only artistic and programmatic, but also profile-wise – to curators, artists, citizens, etc.?
It's a very good question, but unfortunately, there are nearly as many different forms of cooperation as there are cultural centres. There are some houses where this relationship with the municipality is excellent. If the involvement of the responsible politicians and municipal administration is high, this can be quite interesting. Earlier, I mentioned the negative connotations of politics trying to influence programming, but there are also politicians who are very involved and really want the citizens to be represented. I know of a centre that tries to experiment with working groups where citizens can provide ideas for changing the programming and content of what the centre’s staff is doing on a yearly basis. It's a really integrated and far-going relationship between the municipality, politicians, citizens, and the cultural centre. On the other hand, you have smaller cultural houses where politicians can have a direct impact on what happens there because the staff members are not able to resist the strong demands coming from the politicians. There were some examples where staff members or cultural workers were put in a very awkward or dangerous position, for instance, they could not include people of other origins in their programmes. But, like I said earlier, there is some legislation in place that requires the board to have representation based on the representation of different parties and political stances in the municipality. This, however, also means that if you have one party that is particularly strong in a municipality, you will have a large number of board members from that political milieu.
Is there any particular model of governance that you think is prevalent?
Leen: In general, I would say that we have a governance model that is very similar to local government, because that's where the funding comes from. It's difficult for me not to be biased on this topic because, like I said earlier, we’re still hesitant to make final comments on what happened and what the consequences are. However, while I wouldn’t say it's all rainbows and sunshine, I think it has a lot of potential if there's a strong connection between the two. I think that the job of the Flemish government should be to provide tools, at the very least a support point, for our cultural centres to become stronger, and to approach policymakers with a firm plan for their future. To give them the tools to lobby on a local level rather than relying on a top-down approach. We’d love to do this ourselves, but, unfortunately, we don't have the expertise and we’re not big enough to create this expertise, but I definitely see this as something our organisation should work on.
What can you tell us about the governing bodies of the houses that are part of the CULT! network? Would you say that these are structured in a similar way?
Looking ahead, there are lot of houses that want to experiment with civil groups. Many of them have existed since the 1970s or 1980s, so there are a lot of old structures that are being released step by step, and there's a growing awareness of the need to change in order to reach a more diverse audience. A lot of them are trying to change their boards, transferring more power to citizens and developing more bottom-up rather than top-down cooperation models. There's still a long way to go, because this ancient model I was talking about – the director who is a representative of a cultural centre – still exists. One of the main problems the cultural houses are facing is that their audiences are growing older and more uniform, whereas the goals of the organisation are to become greener, more diverse, sustainable, and open.
What can you tell us about citizen inclusion and role in both governance and daily management of cultural houses? Earlier, you mentioned citizen juries, which sound quite interesting.
In that specific case, the people running the centre see themselves as tools for the citizens; not as a centre where everything comes together, but as a co-op place where the citizens decide on what takes place. So, once a year, there are citizen judges who gather in large groups and make decisions collectively. This has been going on for several years and has proven to be quite effective. When it comes to the advisory level, you have a lot of houses working with advisory groups of citizens. These are similar to boards, with the difference being their decision rights. Advisory groups vary greatly, and sometimes they are given a lot of authority, whereas in other places, they are more like a protocol, meeting once a year in order to evaluate what is going on rather than to give proper input.The most interesting are the ones who are truly bottom-up and really look for specific profiles of citizens who can respond to open calls to work together and mutually decide on what happens there. This a lot more interesting than the strict representational model, in which every organisation in the city dealing with sociocultural activities is represented on the advisory board. That was and continues to be the model applied in many places. The downside is that you don't necessarily have people who are willing to strive towards a future-proof cultural house, but rather people who are involved primarily for their own interests and want this place to meet their needs.
At the very end, any final thoughts on the future of the CULT! network?
I think that, for the time being, our strong point is that we see ourselves as a work in progress, as something that only exists because of our members. We’re very humble about it, and we’ll try to keep this perspective and try to be as open as possible. We’re very interested in the cooperative ideas that you have, and we really want to connect more and keep our members informed about what’s going at the European level. We must evolve into open houses, I think that society needs it, and I think that we can play a role in that.