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Cultural Development: Bringing the Arts and Entertainment to the Most Disadvantaged

Two Cases from the North: Huy, treat Belgium and Paris, France

Access to cultural life for the most disadvantaged is an essential element of fighting poverty and social exclusion. Indeed, far from being a luxury or a chosen lifestyle, culture is a vehicle for social integration, participation in community life, broadening of knowledge and enhancement of capabilities. It is a way of stimulating thought, building self-esteem and nurturing the appreciation of human dignity.

The experiences of the town of Huy and the Parisian association “Cultures du Coeur” show how municipalities can play a unique role in ensuring that the most disadvantaged participate in local cultural life (see also the experience of the Hague in the Netherlands).

Obstacles to overcome

Participation in cultural events often costs money, making it unaffordable for those who have just enough to meet their most basic needs. Even in a prosperous country like France, more than one child in two has never been to a theatre, and one child in three has never visited an exhibition or a museum. Paradoxically, every year many cultural events are unfilled and 40% of tickets to performances in France go unsold.

The municipality’s role in access to cultural life

The municipality can involve disadvantaged people in cultural life by doing several things:

  • By entering into agreements with the organisers of cultural events;
  • By requiring that a certain quota of tickets be reserved for the most disadvantaged;
  • By subsidising tickets to theatre performances, cinema, sports events, visits to heritage sites, etc.
  • By establishing active partnerships with non-profit organisations that facilitate access for disadvantaged people to cultural events or that could serve as intermediaries to this end;
  • By organising the distribution of tickets to the poor;
  • By informing and actively encouraging the people eligible to take advantage of these offers.

The “Duo Loisirs” card in Huy (Belgium)

Consisting of a theatre and a cinema, the Cultural Centre in the town of Huy in Belgium offers a wide range of activities throughout the year. Although it has the legal status of a non-profit organisation, the centre depends on the municipality because it is staffed by municipal employees and operates thanks to subsidies from the municipality, the region, various national ministries and private businesses as well as self-generated funds.

For people on low incomes (the unemployed, students, pensioners, etc.), the centre introduced a “culture pass” called “Duo Loisirs” (“Leisure for Two”). The passes are sold at a token price and entitle the holder and a companion free access to various cultural activities. People find it easier to go out to see something if they go with someone else.

For the initiative to be effective, conditions were established to ensure the beneficiaries’ genuine interest: the token purchase price is based on income and tickets must be reserved in advance for the whole season. During the first experimental season in 1996, pass holders took advantage of 80% of the performances they were eligible for and in 1997, before the season even opened, all the subscribers from the previous season enrolled to reserve a new pass.

Information about the pass is distributed in the social welfare centre, literacy associations and hostels. But the best means of communication is word of mouth.

The number of people participating in the scheme is constantly growing. However, it was not easy in the beginning to convince those eligible to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the pass, as some people had to overcome a sense of shame about asking for “assistance”.

“Cultures du Coeur” in France

The association “Cultures du Coeur” (“Cultures of the Heart”) was founded by a group of artists whose aim is to bring disadvantaged people closer to artistic productions. The association contacts producers of plays, directors of cinemas, museums and heritage sites, and organisers of sports events and asks them to make tickets available for free distribution, possibly with municipal assistance, to people with low incomes.

The municipality in Paris contacted all the schools in its area to organise the annual distribution of 5,000 tickets to disadvantaged families. The municipality chose to distribute the tickets to the children, because their interest in going to a show would encourage family outings that otherwise would not have taken place because of the psychological barriers of parents who are not used to this kind of activity and do not see the need for it.

After starting its work in the Paris region, the association then carried out an experiment at the Avignon Festival in July 1998. With the assistance of the various theatre companies performing at the festival, a total of over 25,000 tickets were offered to disadvantaged families. Some recipients were able to attend several performances within the space of a few weeks.

One of the most important things is that the process of negotiation for getting hold of tickets is fairly simple. In many cases, organisers know that a certain percentage of tickets remain would unsold and prefer that actors play to full houses, as long as they have the assurance that the additional members of the audience would otherwise be unable to attend the performance. And given that even performances that are certain to be fully booked out benefit from public subsidies, it is only fair that some seats be reserved for the disadvantaged.

Tickets are distributed to low-income families through school children. The latter are identified on the basis of available data on their families’ financial situations, passed on by the council member in charge of schools or by the school principals. The children are approached by their teachers, who also contact the parents. This offers a way to organise family outings on the initiative of the children and sometimes to re-establish family ties that have often been strained by financial difficulties, or, in the case of immigrant families, by problems of integration.

The association runs on a volunteer basis and with financial support from the relevant ministries and regional authorities, as well as local businesses.

Suggested action

  • The municipality could first make an inventory of all the cultural events scheduled in the area over a certain period, and contact each of the organisers so that they make a certain number of tickets available for the disadvantaged.There are two possible types of situations:
    • For a performance where there will certainly be unfilled seats, the municipality should negotiate free tickets by demonstrating to the organiser the benefit of bringing in a larger audience. It should give the organisers an assurance that the tickets will be distributed only to people who genuinely cannot afford to buy them. It could also stress that it is more rewarding for the actors to play to a full house, so there is something in the arrangement for everyone.
    • For a performance that is certain to be sold out, the municipality will have to demonstrate the longer-term rewards of offering free tickets, such as conquering new audiences, and promoting social justice and a sense of community.
  • Municipalities that have the power to legislate can require that a proportion of tickets be set aside for the most disadvantaged as a condition for holding the event in the municipality. In this case, every organiser must set aside a certain number of seats for the most disadvantaged. This quota can be fixed or variable depending on the day and the time, the number of paid tickets, etc.
  • The municipality can also subsidise event costs by buying tickets directly. In exchange for the subsidies it provides, it can negotiate free tickets, or the redistribution to disadvantaged people of the tickets it purchased.
  • The municipality can also draw inspiration from the type of partnership set up by “Cultures du Cœur” and make contact with local non-profit organisations, either cultural organisations or charities that could act as intermediaries in its policy of assistance for the most disadvantaged. In exchange, the municipality can facilitate their action by making staff or space available or providing the necessary information to ensure that the people targeted by these organisations are genuinely in economic difficulty and eligible to benefit from the scheme.
  • It can also organise the distribution of tickets to the most disadvantaged, by defining criteria and a policy of identification on the basis of instruments at its disposal: e.g. income declarations to the social services, information provided by social workers, teachers or other municipal or para-municipal employees (paid or volunteer workers from charitable organisations that receive municipal subsidies) who are in contact with disadvantaged people. It would also be useful to carry out regular evaluations with the beneficiaries through questionnaires or meetings to improve the ways of contacting these groups and facilitate their integration into the community, which is the only way to ensure the scheme’s success.
  • The municipality should also encourage the eligible people to take advantage of their right to these free or subsidised tickets, through broad publicity about free and subsidised access to cultural activities and by encouraging interest in the cultural events offered. To this end, it could design posters or brochures and distribute them in public places, use schools as a channel for disseminating information to children and the welfare services as a way of reaching adults. A municipal employee could be given responsibility for responding to inquiries about the programme, which would facilitate access for those interested.

For more information, please contact:

Martine Casterman, Centre Culturel de Huy
7a, avenue Delchambre,
8500 Huy, Belgium,
phone : +32.85.23.53.09, fax: 00.32.85.25.04.09

Edgar Dana, Cultures du Coeur
50, rue de Malte,
75011 Paris, France,
phone: +33.1.53.36.28.34, phone: +33.1.43.55.70.46.