Brazil’s Unique Culture Group Stays Busy Sharing the Wealth

March 27, 2012 No Comments »
Brazil’s Unique Culture Group Stays Busy Sharing the Wealth

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — All over the world cultural organizations are tightening their budgets and paring back productions. But Danilo Miranda faces a different challenge, one that makes him the envy of his peers. As the director of the leading arts financing entity in Brazil, his budget is growing by 10 percent or more annually, and he must figure out ways to spend that bounty, which amounts to $600 million a year.

Standing at the window of his office here one afternoon late last year, Mr. Miranda pointed to one of his group’s most ambitious initiatives. In the courtyard below, the avant-garde French troupe Théâtre du Soleil, based in Paris and led by Ariane Mnouchkine, was erecting a giant tent where it would begin a tour of Brazil.

Mr. Miranda’s organization, SESC, a Portuguese acronym for Social Service of Commerce, is also strengthening ties with American artists. It sponsors a jazz festival in conjunction with Nublu, the New York record label; has signed an “institutional partnership” with the Spanish-language TeatroStageFest company; and has presented work by David Byrne, the salsa drummer Bobby Sanabria and Robert Wilson. Mr. Wilson, a director whose works include the operas “Einstein on the Beach” and “the CIVIL warS,” is discussing a long-term collaboration with SESC, as is the Globalfest showcase of world music held in New York every January.

“Our fundamental guiding principle is to use culture as a tool for education and transformation, to improve people’s lives, and we’re in a position to fulfill that mission, thank God,” Mr. Miranda said. “Over the last decade our budget has been doubling every six years or so. It’s incredible, no?”

SESC owes its enviable position largely to a financing model that its leaders believe is unique in the world. A private, nonprofit entity whose role is enshrined in the national Constitution, the organization derives its budget from a 1.5 percent payroll tax imposed on and collected by Brazilian companies, so as the workforce in this nation of nearly 200 million people expands, so does the organization’s budget.

In the United States and especially Europe the economic crisis that struck in 2008 has prompted severe cutbacks in government and business financing of cultural undertakings. But the Brazilian economy, now the world’s sixth largest, is surging, having grown 7.5 percent in 2010 and just under 3 percent last year.

The labor force has been growing even faster. Abram Szajman, who in his capacity as the president of the São Paulo state chamber of commerce also oversees SESC’s regional council here, estimated that receipts from the payroll tax increased 10 to 12 percent last year.

“Brazil is growing, and so our needs, and those of our workers, are also growing,” he said. “They want access not just to sports and health facilities but also to art, music and other cultural activities, whether from Brazil or abroad, and that’s part of our charter.”

The group’s big push may not have registered yet with arts consumers outside Brazil. But its emergence as a global force has not gone unnoticed either by artists or the people who pay for their work.

“The Brazilians are rolling in money,” said Jennifer P. Goodale, director of the Trust for Mutual Understanding, which works with Eastern European and Asian countries on cultural exchange programs. “What with the Olympics and all, it’s their turn, their time.”

SESC is not the only entity making an effort to expand its activities and to raise Brazil’s cultural profile internationally. The Brazilian foreign ministry and states and cities have programs to assist musicians’ tours abroad and promote films and other works, and the federal government is looking at ways to strengthen a 20-year-old law that gives tax breaks to corporations that finance arts programs.

“The cultural dynamism, the monetary stability, the process of social inclusion — all of that makes Brazilian culture a very valid pathway for the exercise of soft power, a way to make our society better known and better understood by others,” said Celso Lafer, a former foreign minister who is also an author and a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

SESC is, however, the country’s most active arts organization, operating in all 27 of Brazil’s states, financing not just arts programs but also recreational activities, educational courses and health clinics. In São Paulo, which has 41 million people and is Brazil’s most populous and prosperous state, one quarter of the group’s state budget is spent on “expansion and renovation” of its arts and recreation centers, with another 20 percent going directly to cultural programs, and the remainder divided among other activities, Mr. Miranda said. He receives nearly as much for those cultural programs as the National Endowment for the Arts spends on the entire United States.

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