Socio-cultural Activities and their Institutions in Europe


The rationale of a projected international research

(Version 2003)

In every European society there is a need - or rather a cluster of needs - for the following:

  • need for public space where citizens can watch or do culture in their own neighbourhood
  • need for opportunities and facilities for citizens to do non-professional culture (amateur art or related leisure activities and training)
  • need for people dedicated and/or trained for catering for the cultural needs of the citizens (animators, managers etc.)
  • need for the recognition and reflection of the aforementioned needs in local and central cultural policies

The rationale behind the needs listed above, has a number of concomitants that go beyond their face value. The satisfaction of those needs serves other goals, such as:

  • the democratisation of culture, in the sense of providing access to as many citizens as possible
  • the contribution to local, grass roots democracy
  • the increase of the cohesion in the community, which goes together with the struggle against exclusion of groups and individuals.

These goals are often accompanied by objectives of adult education - or in an inverse order, the above goals accompany those of adult education.

The first impression that the observer encounters is that in the majority of the 40+ countries in Europe these needs are not articulated and acknowledged sufficiently, certainly not on the level of national cultural policy.
After some deeper inquiry the observer realises that in fact there is much more to find. There is a considerable amount of action, both spontaneous and institutionalised, in the service of local cultural needs. However, most of these instances of needs and responses are latent, seldom getting the limelight they deserve on the national or international arenas of cultural policies.

How do various societies in Europe respond to these needs? The examiner of the issue at stake will go through a 'no-yes-no' sequence of impressions. Namely:

  • NO: little prominence is felt for the needs, difficulty in identifying, especially "naming" the issue;
  • YES: as one finds the right clues for the search, the number of evidence to the existence of valid answers to these needs increases;
  • NO: however, fruitless search for signs of recognition on policy level, or for significant synthesis of the issue on the international arena.

Obviously, a great part of the observer's difficulties, and indeed, a major obstacle before fuller emancipation of the issue, is of semantical nature. Let us confine ourselves for the time being to the English language. (Not the language spoken in the UK but the one used as a vehicle between people who write and talk about cultural life and policies.)

Suppose, the convenient consensus did not exist about calling a wide range of institutions 'museums'. Different countries would apply various names, even inside a country, according to types of collections, and these, translated into English, would only accidentally coincide. The lively international co-operation of 'museum-people' would be much poorer, would be fragmented, with the various groups being amazed at learning about other groupings with quite different names yet very similar contents. There would be no comfortable comparison of statistical figures between countries. Luckily though, the key word 'museum' glues together the many sub-categories of this vast domain.

Differently from their own cosy and old identification-tag, museum people have been undergoing a more recent example of semantical unification: the word 'heritage' has become the umbrella expression of a great many disciplines in the past decades only.

The objects of our examination suffer from the absence of common names: neither the institutions, nor the activities, not even the professionals possess them. In order to avoid the clumsy repetition of synonims all over the paper, and to avoid the trap of selecting one term from the equals, we resort to the ambiguous virtue of Alexander the Great: the Gordian knot will be cut by inventing an acronym. For the purpose of this paper these organizations are called MILC: Multifunctional Institutions of Local Culture. However, by choosing the institutional aspect, it is not our intention to forget about the underlying activities and social functions of, or about people: professionals working in MILCs.

For the exploration of the situation of MILCs in Europe today, in this preliminary phase the limited tools of desk research were applied. This paper provides a condense report of what the team of the Budapest Observatory found browsing its shelves for printed, and surfing the internet for digital sources.


Lack of complex analyses

The first disappointment is met with during the search of academic literature. A work in English, that explores the matter in its full complexity, with a broad enough geographical and historical scope, is still to be written, or brought to our attention. The paper that comes closest to these requirements is in Spanish and a mere 7000 words long1. However, its authors succeed in revealing that MILCs have four distinct political bases and points of reference: social policies, educational policies, cultural policies and 'political policies', i.e. a full range of objectives, such as decentralisation, citizen participation, inclusion, cross-sectoral activities etc. The primary goal of that paper being to establish a typology (for the examination of MILCs in Spain), it is a useful tool for any related research in the future. All other works that we have come across with so far, (some of them referred to later on), lack this complexity, no matter how valuable and thorough they are in analysing one or other facet of MILCs and the underlying needs and activities.

The four kinds of foundations of MILCs, identified by the Spanish paper, delineate the bases of a typology. To this, we would add, with regard to those MILCs where the main accent is indeed on C: 'culture', that they are situated between two poles: professional arts and entertaining on the one end and amateur or voluntary culture-making on the other.

Multinational sources and manifestations

Before diving into national variances, we shall take a look at how MILCs fare on the existing international market of ideas.

Unesco, Council of Europe and the European Union refuse to define the term, MILCs are almost never mentioned, by any name. They are unindentifiable in their statistical sytems. In one of the latest papers the special task force for cultural statistics dedicated the following few words (out of the total of more than 70 000) to MILCs: "Two important points of discussion remain in the including of the domains of socio-cultural activities and that of general administration. In the present proposals both domains are left out, but in future work one might reconsider this decision." 2

The issue occurs incidentally and marginally only in Council of Europe policy papers, including the reviews on national cultural policies.

On the other hand, both Unesco and the Council of Europe have recognised the existence and the significance of the issue, which is proven by two respective projects.

"Conceptualized during the World Decade on Cultural Development (1988 - 1997), the Culture in the neighbourhood project has been initiated and coordinated by the Swiss National Commission for UNESCO. It originally consisted of annual international European expert meetings in Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Estonia, France and a final meeting in Burkina Faso. Because of its unique and outstanding potential the project has been extended beyond the Decade, growing into an Afro-European interaction project." 3

"Are neighbourhoods out or, on the contrary, are we seeing a revival of proximity, of the local scale, of the urban subsystem we call neighbourhood? What form do these neighbourhoods take? How are they organised? How do the people living there communicate? And what is the role of culture in all of this? ...

The Council of Europe's Culture and neighbourhoods project has attempted to answer these questions and many others through an action-research conducted from 1993 to 1996 in twenty-four neighbourhoods in eleven cities"4.
The process and findings of the project are presented in four booklets5. It is clear from the conceptual analysis that in the mindset of the people behind the project MILCs did not play a central role in neighbourhood culture. Yet it is astonishing that they did not make it to the very edge of their horizon: neither the long list of literature, nor the twenty-page glossary dedicates a separate entry to them. This is weird in the light of the comparative report in Volume 2, where MILCs are frequently mentioned and one finds the following on p.43: "In the majority of the neighbourhoods studied, the prevailing conception of 'cultural infrastrucure' is that of the multi-purpose cultural centre or of other building-based arts venues where people go to produce, exchange and consume 'culture'. Given this definition of cultural infrastructures, many case-studies stress inadequate provision as a problem."


What are the positions of MILCs on the international civil arena?

ENCC is entirely theirs! Each member of the European Network of Cultural Centres is a full-bred urban MILC. (Unfortunately the list of members was lately missing from their site. The geographical distribution of the several dozen members displayed earlier used to be impressive.)

"One of the primary conditions for a better co-operation and an intense cultural exchange is a better knowledge of each other and of the way we operate. Not only national cultural institutes have a mission to fulfil in Europe's future. Also local actors in the cultural field do need a platform where they can meet, talk about their experiences, dream about projects in co-operation with partners all over Europe."6 Well said.

T E H or Trans Europe Halles is "a network of independent cultural centers that promotes the spirit of 'intercultural forms' open to a social and artistic imagination, bearers of a plural Europe, showing solidarity and creativity."7 T E H has 20 members, all from western Europe, mainly settled in rehabilitated industrial buildings.
As opposed to "neighbourhood culture", these "cultural centres" put lesser emphasis on the local community. Their main reference group is defined less by area than by feeling.

Most of the rising urban cultural centres are united by their multiculturalism and innovativeness. No wonder that Hoppa!, an interesting web portal categorises them under "going out"8.

ELIA, the European League of Institutes of the Arts, the umbrella organisation of all sorts of art insitutions, with the main focus is on arts education. One of the past ELIA had the primary objective of "Creating wider awareness of the role higher arts education takes for urban, social and community development in Eastern and Central Europe." Most of the case studies involved MILCs9.

ENCATC, the European Network of Cultural Administration Training Centres is supposed to look after the training of professional and voluntary people for MILCs. The observer that gets aquainted with the activities of the organisation from a distance fails to find indication of specific concern10.

Culturelink, the transnational project was more direct in acknowledging the existense of MILCs. In 1994 they conducted a research which is an important antecedent to the present initiative11. During the Culturelink survey 77 institutions completed a questionnaire of 170 variables. The conceptual introduction remains valid to this day (and comes close to the much praised Spanish paper). One regrets the huge mistake of mixing 56 "real" MILCs with 21 cultural institutions abroad, the foreign cultural outposts. They are certainly cultural centres by name, but no MILCs - their socio-economic, community mission of looking after expat communities is dwarfed by the functions of cultural diplomacy. The published findings do not distinguish by these two distinct sets of institutions: this makes us feel that indeed the whole point was largely missed. Besides, the Culturelink survey focused on Eastern Europe only, although the introduction recognises the role of cultural centres in the west.

One more respectable international initiative has lent itself to looking for MILC in it: the Policies for Culture programme is active in helping to upgrade cultural policy making in south-east Europe, with special emphasis on local policies. In this context the programme provides stimulus to the upgrading of municipal policies in the area, providing exchange of ideas and intellectual assistance. One cannot help bumping into MILCs in the documents of the programme (e.g. on the pages of the PfC Journal), but without ever noting the slightest emphasis on them. An odd case out was a report12 on the state of cultural centres in Zagreb that is a very good synthesis of the dilemmas around MILCs in the east of Europe.


Country by country

The real hunting field for MILCs is the countries. Before individual reconaissance missions are made, the obvious source is the excellent joint project of the Council of Europe and EricArts: Compendium of Cultural Policies in Europe.

First, the usual negative experience: Compendium has no word for MILC, and no special interest either. The structure of the profiles suggests the following as possible 'recent policy issues': provisions for cultural minorities; gender equality; language issues; relation between media and culture; culture industries: development programmes and partnerships; employment policies for the cultural sector; new technologies; arts education; heritage issues; other relevant issues and debates (MILCs fit here at best). No wonder that very few of the 28 country profiles make sporadic mentions of the issue, and with the exception of Belgium in historical context only. In both the Flemish and French communities in Belgium cultural centres and socio-cultural activities are cited as live issues of cultural policy.

Then comes the positive phase, when one observes the tables of the Compendium showing the 'Sector breakdown of public cultural expenditure'. Here, the interested reader finds the following:







€ million


€ million


€ million


€ million


Initiatives, cultural centres









Socio-cultural activities & basic arts education 97.6 million €, approximately 1/3 of municipal cultural expenses, about 12% of all public expenditure.

Expenditure of the regions, 1996 - amateur activities 18 %
Expenditure of départements, 1996 - amateur activities 18 %
Expenditure of municipalities, 1996 - amateur activities 16 %

Cultural expenditure of local authorities, 2000


€ million

% of total

Socio-cultural activities



Public expenditure for culture, 2000 (in million euros)










Interdisciplinary (Socio-cultural, Foreign relations, n.a.Personnel, Foundation and Associations)







1 184


Municipalities spend about 55% of their total cultural budgets on cultural centres.

Public cultural expenditure: sector breakdown, year 2001


State expenditure

Local authority expenditure

(million zlotys)

% of total

(million zlotys)

% of total

Cultural houses, art centres, clubs and art rooms



674, 5


In 2001, local authorities spending priorities were on cultural houses and centres and club rooms (29.7% in 2000).

Local authority expenditure (1986-1997, total)


Billion escudos

% of total

Socio-cultural activities



State/Ministry of Culture expenditure (1985-1995, total)


% of total*

Socio-cultural activities


Public cultural expenditure: central government sector breakdown, 2000


billion SEK

billion euros

% of total

Popular Education/Culture




Public cultural expenditure, cities and townships






million CHF

% of total

million CHF

% of total

million CHF

% of total

Other support







Public cultural expenditure, cantons






million CHF

% of total

million CHF

% of total

million CHF

% of total

Other support







Yes, in spite of certain ambiguous items here and there, this is clear evidence. We are beating the bush about a game that is even weightier than we had supposed. An occurrence that the statistical task force chose not to count.

The long-standing on-going programme of the Council of Europe on reviewing national cultural policies is also an important source for purposes of identifying the role and mission of MILCs in our age. Honestly, the low profile of the issue in most of the national reports as well as in the international experts' comments (and the total absence in a few) was a major stimulus towards initiating the present inquiry into the problem. In most cases it was on-line searching on the Internet that enabled us to make snapshot descriptions about the issue of MILCs in selected countries, partly with the intention of raising curiosity for a fuller panorama.

The screening of Compendium portrayed Belgium as the actual champion of the MILC cause. Closer scrutiny confirms this perception. This is where such centres not only exist but receive high level public acknowledgement. The Flemish Parliament passed a law in 2001 on local cultural policy-making, followed by detailed instructions on behalf of the government13. The instructions contain prescriptions for the municipalities concerning MILCs at an astonishing precision, the observation of which is the condition for central subsidies. These documents imply that MILCs ('gemeenschapscentrum' or community centre in smaller towns, 'cultuurcentrum' in bigger ones) respond to the very set of needs in the first paragraph of this paper. One is of course very intrigued to learn more about this MILC utopia but even in Flemish/Dutch very little is written about it, not to speak of easier accessible languages.

Asking Google about MILCs in the Netherlands, the score is rich: they apparently abound also in Dutch municipalities. The distant observer wonders if those MILCs undertake and fulfil socio-cultural responsibility without government guidance and subsidy, traces of which could not be discerned in any document so far.

In France, André Malraux was the famous partisan of MILCs by advocating maisons de la culture or houses of culture in the 1960s. This movement was an upside down reform, corroborated later by establishing the category of scene nationale or national venue, for institutions entitled to regular government subsidy. Not only MILCs can get this title, which is one of the synonims of MILC as well. (E.g one multifunctional cultural centre is called Scene Nationale d'Orléans.) Also lower level MILCs show rich morphological variety: maison de quartier, foyer rural, foyer de la culture.

One of the main objectives and concerns of French cultural policy have been decentralisation and regionalisation for decades now. Indirectly, therefore, the case for MILCs has been important. Yet, again, they are rarely mentioned in policy papers and declarations, of which there are plenty.

Germany - as is duly portrayed in the Compendium entry - has a dual recent historical legacy. In the GDR "new institutions engaged in cultural activities emerged, such as 'houses of culture'", while in the west "a 'New Cultural Policy' emerged in the 1970s as part of a general democratization process within society, the thrust of which was expanded to encompass everyday activities..." This drive gave a boost to the so-called socio-cultural activities that does not seem to have lost its impetus: "After almost 25 years of work, the history of sociocultural centres is a history of their success."14

The website of Bundesvereinigung Soziokultureller Zentren, the federal association of MILCs, compensates the searcher for the frustrations experienced elsewhere. In addition to the lengthy historical and analytical report referred to in the previous passage, 13 tables and 16 graphs provide extensive information about the actual activites and dimensions of the movement in the country in another article15. One learns, among others, that in 435 registered centres 15.895 people are employed.

The full nature of relationship between Volkshochschulen or popular high schools (the first tag sometimes translated as 'folk', the second as 'colleges' or 'universities') and MILCs: on face value these are plain adult education centres, yet many of them fully meet the criteria of a MILC.

In Sweden 692 community centres (folkets hus in the original, but kulturhuset is used, too) are united in the national federation. Their home page16 pays tribute to the major (but not the only) historic source that led to the birth of MILCs towards the end of the 19th century: the labour movement and trade unions.

MILCs are united also in Norway, at least the major ones: the Norsk KulturhusNettverk17 counts 80 members.

Casa de popolo, casa de cultura - the Italian names MILC implied political loading of mass movements in subsequent periods and of both extremes. There seems to be an increasing interest for their history18, yet the present is less intensively elaborated and disclosed.

In Spain as many as 4731 MILCs have been counted by the paper in our first footnote! 53% of them qualify as "houses of culture", but few are actually called casa de cultura: this survey found 27 different appellations (without variants in other than Spanish, see e.g. centre cívic, centre cultural polivalent, ateneu popular etc. in Catalan).

The United Kingdom has proved to be a difficult case so far for the outside observer. In that country the very notion of national cultural policy is a recent development, also cultural policy and planning as such, at any level, including at the municipal. Further to this, those community centres that qualify as MILCs have traditionally has looser attachment to 'culture and the arts' than in other countries: they formed part of the social and communal infrastructure. Finally, during the 1980s the conservative government curbed support to institutions and initiatives that had any connection to the labour movement. Therefore it needs more perseverence to bring to light the actual form, dimensions and attachments of MILCs.

We have seen that in western democracies there are various circumstances that obscure the picture and render MILCs to quasi underground status. The phenomenon is similar in the east, but for different reasons. There the communist legacy is a hard stigma on MILCs, because, especially in the Stalinist period, they served as institutions for propaganda and mass control. The communist houses of culture extinguished and discredited most of the historical antecedents, like the genuinely democratic proletarian artistic and self-educating associations from before the bolshevik times, which had had buildings and other infrastructure in their possession. Even more devastating was the effect on rural and church initiatives of the kind.

This led to a confused and ambiguous regard of MILCs that survived the collapse of totalitarianism. The effects are little known, largely because it was not comme il faut to emphasise the role of MILCs, as did the previous regime. This was corroborated by the blindness of western experts and consultants, most of whom came from countries were there was no tradition of considering MILCs as part of cultural policy. By the slogan of decentralisation, the devolution of "real" cultural instituion was meant. By the regional regenerating effects of culture, creative industries and other professional sectors have been emphasised.

In Bulgaria, the chitalishte or reading club played an important role during the revival of the nation from Ottoman submission. MILCs have retained this name until today. In spite of the revered past, and although on this occasion the foreign experts also suggested so, chitalishte-s were not highlighted in the national cultural policy paper made for the Council of Europe in 1998. Since then, the issue has received increased attention, and was the subject of a $ 2,5 million international project: "The goal of the project is to strengthen the community role of the Chitalishta as traditional cultural and educational centers and offer working models for their modernization and participation in local community development."19.

In a nearby country, in Albania, too, the national review for the Council of Europe overlooks MILCs. The external expert's report attempts to compensate. Here, the reader finds another clumsy terminological approximation: 'municipal culture'20.

As a sign of stabilisation of MILCs in another country in the region, a law was passed in Romania a few weeks ago21. As another proof to the general terminological uncertainties, the authors of the law applied a rarely used expression for MILC: aşezăminte cultural, which is a generic term for various kinds of MILCs. Unfortunately the law is a declarative one, with little to tell about responsibilities, obligations, rights or sanctions.

In Hungary the terms müvelödés and közmüvelödés were coined in the 19th century from the verb 'cultivate', and they mean something like 'self-cultivation'. Yet there is eternal struggle with translation, and thus with communication with foreign partners. The web site of Hungarian MILCs22 uses 'community education' in English. Differently from the name of the activity or sub-sector, that of the institutions shows a great variety, including village house, community house, cultural centre etc. In Hungarian cultural policy documents közmüvelödés usually figures as a third sub-sector after the arts (including literature and film) and heritage.


An appetizer

The purpose of this cursory survey was to illustrate what we are about, and to convince those who were not sure about the dimensions of the issue.

The next objective has been to raise interest and willingness for the support of a broader and more systematic research in the subject, the outline of which was prepared and has been on our web site for some time (but of course will be tailored to actual needs and means).

The ultimate ambition is to contribute to the emancipation of the needs listed at the outset, as well as of MILCs, the organizations that have been serving these needs all over Europe, institutions that deserve to gain stable inclusion besides other areas of cultural policy making.

Having done and said this, we say good bye to the acronym of MILC: Multifunctional Institution of Local Culture.

September 2003



1 Eduard Miralles i Montserrat Saboya: Aproximaciones a la proximidad. Tipologías y trayectorias de los equipamientos en Europa y en Espana.
2 Eurostat Working Papers, Cultural Statistics in the EU, Final report of the LEG (the leadership group on cultural statistics LEG-Culture)
4 Culture - a way forward, Culture and neighbourhoods : an action-research project in urban Europe by Ursula Rellstab Cultural Policies Research and Development Unit Policy Note No. 3 Council of Europe Publishing
5 Culture and neighbourhoods - Volume 1, Concepts and references, 1995; Volume 2, A comparative report, 1997; Volume 3, Talking about the neighbourhood: views from locals and artists, 1997; Volume 4, Perspectives and keywords, 1998.
11, a fuller version is found in a special issue of the journal Culturelink in 1995.
12 Tihomir Žiljak: Zagreb centres for culture; summary & synthesis. Translated & summarized by Ela Agotić. Policiesforculture Journal, Summer 2003.
13 Besluit van de Vlaamse regering ter uitvoering van het decreet van 13 juli 2001 houdende het stimuleren van een kwalitatief en integraal lokaal cultuurbeleid.
14 Socioculture in a nutshell,
15 Thomas Molck: Soziokulturelle Zentren in Zahlen im Jahr 2000 und in den 90er Jahren; Ergebnisse der Umfrage der Bundesvereinigung.
18 Andrea Baravelli: Le Case del popolo a Fusignano e nella Bassa Romagna. Associazionismo popolare e forme di socialita in un secolo di storia. Longo Editore, Ravenna 1999. Michael Shin: The politicization of place in Italy. Political Geography 20 (2001)
21 LEGE nr.292 din 27 iunie 2003 privind organizarea şi funcţionarea aşezămintelor culturale,