Switzerland/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Christoph Weckerle, Hubert Theler, Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe

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.

Chapter published: 12-11-2014