Access to culture

The issue of access to culture in today’s Europe*

Improving access to culture has been on the agenda across Europe since the middle of the past century. The main intention was to expand cultural consumption (attendance, use, participation etc.) to groups of society whose financial and educational background would imply less or none. A large variety of methods and instruments were produced to measure access. Some of these investigate the offer: the number, composition of events, seats, prices, performances and so on, as well as their availability. Other measures produce statistics on the use: visits, sales etc. Research studies investigate the social background of the users. A recent useful publication of the Council of Europe reviewed research methods on access to culture (Making culture accessible).

In the past decades most quantitative aspects of culture have grown: broader offer, larger audiences, more visitors etc. The longitudinal comparative analyses on the impact of the democratisation of culture nevertheless usually prove that the increase correlated mostly with the changes in the structure of the society: with the expansion of the middle class, and with the increased cultural consumption of the active population. The cultural habits of those who live in poverty and exclusion, and who in scales of education and income occupy lower positions, do not appear to have fundamentally changed. Inequalities prevail, and often at a disturbing level, as shown in the following table, prepared on the basis of a national survey on cultural habits of Hungarian adults (back in 2004 but surely valid also today).

Division of Cultural Activity

  Segment of population according to cultural habits

Instances of cultural activity per person, per year

Top fifth


2nd fifth


3rd fifth


4th fifth


Bottom fifth



Without going into methodological details, suffice to say that the cultural activity defined in terms of attending events, reading books or “doing culture” closely coincide with the usual indicators of social status, mainly education and income. Another product of the same source presents the case from a different angle:



Even if one discounts the very old or otherwise “objectively” hampered, behind the 43% of cultural poverty one pictures the hundreds of thousands for whom watching commercial television substitutes everything that the groups in the top left fields of the chart do in their leisure time.

The shape of the division in cultural behaviour is probably similar in most countries in Europe. The next diagram based on Eurobarometer data nevertheless implies that the actual percentage numbers are characteristically different in the various EU member countries. (Those who have visited historical monuments – palaces, castles, churches, gardens, etc. – in the past twelve months, left yellow column: never, right column: more than five times.)



 In spite of regional, civilisational, historical and other differences, at least a quarter in every European society belongs to the culturally inactive category. It is a regional characteristic, that while in the west cultural deprivation is particularly grave among urban migrant population, in the new eastern member states cultural exclusion is primarily a rural and post-industrial phenomenon. In some countries the problem is concentrated increasingly and acutely in the Roma communities.

Culture policy debates and discourse focus on what happens in culture (especially in the arts). Also measures are about promoting excellence, boosting creation and broadening offer. These of course affect the issue of improving access, too, sometimes in a dedicated manner. On the whole, however, what exists receives much larger attention than the absence, the segments of society that fail to interact with the “culture” that cultural policies are engaged in.

A number of questions need to be examined and answered if we want to identify the nature of relationship between cultural and social poverty


The diversity of the large “non-accessing” population (even in countries where it is closer to 20% than to 50%) needs to be described along questions like the following.

a. More differentiated responses are needed to know more about the why. (In fact the why not.) What is the hierarchy of obstacles or barriers that prevent individuals from interacting with culture:

·    financial constraints

·    geographical or other physical barrier (including those linked to disability)

·    inadequate appeal of the offer (including language issues)

·   lack of motivation, which can relate to the previous, but may be traced back to entirely different patterns of lifestyle; and/or to the absence of attractive behaviour samples – or indeed the refusal of certain aspects of the established culture.

Researches usually detect these factors via surveys among the population, Eurobarometer's opinion polls being among the best known.

b. Learning about the what else: what people do instead of the culture as conceived by cultural policies. Sophisticated time-budget surveys are useful for such explorations. The findings raise conceptual questions about the pastimes people pursue. If those things do not correspond to the conventional notion of access to culture, which of them…

·    can be considered as informal access to culture, e.g. a more liberal sorting of the nature of content consumed by television, radio, internet etc;

·   belong to a broader anthropological conception of culture, e.g. conversation, certain kinds of joint (community) work or games, sports, including attending sports events;

·    and finally, which eventual other occupations qualify as cultural at closer observation or from a different angle? (E.g. religious practices.)


What does society gain from improved access to culture, from increased cultural activeness? Which are the assumptions and interests that call for broader access to culture? What are the political or social values on which basis the degree and nature of access to culture can be judged? 

a. Whether it is the benevolent (or intolerant) desire of the ruling groups to share with the rest of the society the gratification that culture provides;

b. Whether it is dominated by the self-justification of a sector, building and expanding the cultural market;

c. Whether the quest for increased access is driven by the wish for stronger common values, greater amount of shared experiences and other identity markers in the hope of greater cohesion and feeling of belonging;

d. And most broadly: whether increasing access is part of the general endeavour at modernisation and civilisation, at building a better society, side by side with improving public education, health system etc?

In the context of combating poverty, the last set of questions deserves the greatest attention. Will a country be more competitive economically if fewer members of the society are culturally idle? Can culture contribute to the decrease of poverty?


The main difficulty of these questions – what kind of cultural interventions lead to which changes in society – is that the interpretation of correlation is often misleading. More dependable impact analysis requires longitudinal examinations. Such research is extremely complicated and expensive. Also experiments with control groups, and action research (which was more in fashion in the 1980s). Comparative research and case studies are more affordable methods, and are therefore most frequently applied to find out about the social impact of cultural phenomena.

Recognition that certain effects and relationships cannot be proven with scientific certainty does not prevent us from believing in them. The author of these lines for instance strongly believes that permanent action for the involvement of the deprived and excluded groups of population into broadly defined culture, both as consumers or participants, is key in tackling depression, social anomy, idleness and so on, and the success of such efforts benefits the broader society as well. 

When a consensus is reached (impact is proven by science, or politicians strongly believe in the effects), target indicators or plan figures can and should be defined. For instance the quest of a better society might produce a cultural policy that declares that a society is not “good” enough if it allows more than n% of the adult population to be culturally passive.


Target indicators will help better define and measure policy instruments and other conditions. These – especially cultural policies – are subject to inspection, too, along the following questions:

a. Do issues of cultural inclusion occupy a proper place in the policy documents?

b. Is the treatment of the issue defined in clear targets? (Not necessarily quantitative plan figures though.)

c. Are the policy measures and instruments adequate to the goals?

As regards this set of questions, there are two rather different kinds of context in Europe. In some places, especially in the new member states in east-central Europe, animation of local community culture (in other words socio-culture) is an essential constituent of cultural policies. It has its infrastructural network of cultural centres, usually staffed with professionals in civil service. The system was expropriated and used for “agitation and political” purposes by the communist regimes, but it also has venerable traditions connected to earlier nation building. These systems have in most part survived the regime change and have been adapting to the new conditions. Local cultural centres are by definition key players in the fostering of cultural activity among the disprivileged social groups.

In some western countries (Belgium, Spain, France), socio-cultural activities occupy a similar place in cultural policies. Elsewhere, local community culture belongs to social or regional policy, or – where the folk high school movement has strong tradition – it is closer to adult or lifelong education, thus to the education sector. As a consequence, local community culture is largely absent from the European Union discourse and actions in the cultural domain, out of sight also from Eurostat.

In some countries therefore (in the UK for example) if inclusion occurs among the major goals of cultural policies, related tasks are addressed to the core players of the sector: museums, theatres are prescribed to deal with the issue. While elsewhere (for example in Hungary), cultural inclusion is primarily expected from the dedicated institutions and their professional staff – the socio-cultural network. Keeping in mind that the EU is not allowed to encourage harmonisation of cultural policies, at least in its own actions the two approaches need to be combined. As a first step, the fact that in many member states community cultural animation is an important constituent of the sector, requires acknowledgement and “emancipation” in EU discourse and action.


Contribution of Péter Inkei to the conference The contribution of culture in combating poverty and social exclusion, Brussels, 17-19 October, 2010. Text last corrected in May 2012.

The source of the Hungarian original of the first table and the graph is Kulturálódási és szabadidő eltöltési szokások, életmód csoportok by Zsuzsa Hunyadi (Találkozások a kultúrával 7, Magyar Művelődési Intézet, Budapest 2005).

Source of the second table: European cultural values, Special Eurobarometer reports 278, QA4.7.