Big, Bold and Banking on Tomorrow

from The Art Newspaper
September 2013
By Adrian Ellis

Reposted from The Art Newspaper

The South American giant has staked its place in the economic super-league. All it needs to do now is modify its tax laws, clamp down on corruption and oversee two global sports fiestas. No problem?

Brazil’s dramatic economic growth and its transition to a representative democracy have gone hand-in-hand with an expansive and influential cultural life. Brazilians are justifiably proud of their contributions to music, architecture, literature and the visual arts. Antropófagia – the assimilation and transformation of other cultures into something distinctively Brazilian – has been a recurring theme in a culture that produced Oscar Niemeyer’s sensuous take on Modernism, the Tropicália movement’s way with Rock ‘n’ Roll and Hélio Oiticica’s labyrinthine installations. So, in this spirit, is there something distinctively Brazilian about Brazil’s approach to museums and galleries?

Any stab at an answer needs to be put in context. Today Brazil is, along with Russia, India and China (collectively known as Bric), one of the countries deemed most likely to overtake all G7 members by 2027. It is the seventh-largest economy in the world; it has the world’s fifth largest population (201 million); it enjoys a healthy balance of payments surplus built on rich natural resources and buoyed in turn by historically high world commodity prices and a late but dramatic appearance as an oil exporting nation; its historic dependency on the US as a trading partner has been replaced with multiple trading relationships, most significantly with China; and, largely as a consequence, it rode out the 2007 to 2008 global meltdown relatively easily.

Military dictatorship is a receding memory: Brazil is now a stable democracy, led – at least until the October 2014 elections – by President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party, herself imprisoned by the ancien régime in the early 1970s. Economic strength and political legitimacy have, together, made Brazil a player on the world stage, with the World Cup and Olympics bearing down on it as proof. That said, rapid growth has also meant rapid urbanisation, with only 10% of the population left in rural areas, and the emergence of infrastructure-starved megacities like São Paulo (population 20 million, and the largest conurbation in both the Americas and the southern hemispheres) and Rio de Janeiro (population 12 million), with their luxury malls framed by favelas.

A fuller realisation of the country’s economic potential and social and political maturity is crimped by corruption at pretty well every level of government; by organised and disorganised crime; by lawless logging of the Amazon; by a historic lack of investment in basic infrastructure; and by a formidably bureaucratic, multitiered public sector. Although the trend-line is improving, the country is also marked by extreme income inequality and comparatively low educational attainment. Even putting aside issues of basic social justice, this makes for a shortage of skilled workers and expensive bottlenecks in the labour market. Healthily, this litany of woes is recited regularly in a free press.

So the recent chapters of rapid growth have been choked-off by a credit squeeze, cuts in social welfare and increases in energy, utility and transport costs. Inflation is running at a little under 7%. The public protests against fare increases that hit the world’s headlines in June are a manifestation of the pressures that the newly affluent middle and working classes are feeling, as their economy adjusts and cools off a little.

The street demonstrations are also fed by anxieties about skewed national priorities and buyer’s remorse for the successful bids for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, when there is still such a glaring need for more basic infrastructure – transport, schools and hospitals.

There is also a widespread fear that these high-profile events are going to be chaotic and embarrassing. The Pope’s recent visit was received rapturously but it did not inspire confidence in Brazil’s capacity to handle the logistics and crowd control that 2014 will need. The Papal Fiat was, along with the press corps, gridlocked within an hour of landing at Rio’s airport. Eduardo Paes, Rio’s mayor, summed up the dry run for next year thus: “We scored closer to zero than ten.”

This landscape, with its peaks and troughs and conundrums, translates fairly readily into the museum sector. The Art Newspaper’s annual round-up of exhibition attendance in 2011 identified three of the top ten exhibitions internationally at the Rio branch of the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. The following year saw the same bank’s spaces in São Paulo and Rio stage four of the top 20 international exhibitions. These are corporate galleries and the subjects are not usually the stuff of world-topping blockbusters. Meanwhile the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) reports that 92% of Brazilians have never visited a museum or gallery. This interesting conundrum – globally high attendance and globally low levels of participation – is not about bad data: it is about the first of two distinctively Brazilian funding mechanisms that work alongside, and sometimes against, the framework for federal, state and municipal museums: the Rouanet Law.

Rouanet Law

Named after the politician who introduced it in 1991, the Rouanet Law remains on the statute book despite being under const ant low-level threat of repeal or amendment. It allows corporations and individuals to fund cultural activities rather than pay tax, so there is little difference for the putative taxpayer between paying tax anonymously (no exposure) and paying for culture loudly (lots of exposure). For large corporations and wealthy individuals in a notionally high-tax nation, these alternatives to paying tax have formidable advantages. In effect, the government pays the piper but the corporation or individual calls the tune.

Although some of this foregone tax goes into strongly branded corporate sponsorship of public institutions, overseen by a National Committee for Culture Incentives at the Ministry of Culture (with the energy giant Petrobras, the largest company in the southern hemisphere, featuring prominently), it has also been a major impetus behind the phenomenon of networks of corporate galleries hosting high-profile exhibitions, often with free entrance. Oi, a phone company, manages the Oi Futuro Art and Technology centres and its competitors Vivo and Embratel have similar gallery networks. Correios, the national postal service, and banks such as Banco do Brasil (the blockbuster winner), Santander, Itaú and Caixa Econômica have all established one or, more often, a chain of galleries and arts centres as an alternative to paying corporate taxes. For the most part, of course, they are also free of the costly responsibilities associated with the care of large historic collections or with a wider scholarly or educational mission.

The Rouanet law has also served, on a similar basis, to support ambitious and occasionally spectacular private museums such as the extraordinary cultural complex, Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, founded by the mining magnate Bernardo Paz in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, and the Casa Daros which opened this March in Rio, devoted to contemporary Latin American art. It is difficult to say how many of the 70-odd non-commercial galleries and museums under planning and construction identified by the Brazilian Institute of Museums (Ibram) are premised wholly or in part on Rouanet, but it is a significant number.

Many museum professionals are understandably ambivalent about the long-term impact of the law, largely because it amounts to the private governance of public money. The cultural spaces are privately owed, branded, curated and directed, and the strategic thrust is informed by public relations, rather than a more conventional mission. But, realistically, it is unlikely that if the tax break were lower than 100%, tax receipts that accrued would find their way to or through the ministry of culture.

A second important and uniquely Brazilian institution is the SESC (Social Service of Commerce), founded in 1946 as one of a series of enduring welfare measures hammered out between the government and industrialists to thwart the threat of communist infiltration of the workforce in the immediate post-war years. The SESC is a private, not-for-profit entity funded through an earmarked 1.5% payroll tax on employers. This generates significant funds – especially given Brazilian growth rates – for broadly cultural and social initiatives across all the arts, covering capital, revenue and the establishment of cultural enterprises.

While the threat of communism has receded, the mandate remains, extending throughout Brazil. A quarter of the budget goes toward a network of art and recreation centres, with São Paulo’s SESC Pompéia, designed by the late Lina Bo Bardi (the architect of the equally remarkable Museu de Arte de São Paulo), acting as a sort of flagship. SESC today constitutes a formidable force for social inclusion through culture, well and securely funded and with a clear mandate for using cultural engagement as a means for building community. But it is also a privileged monolith.

The broad social agenda of SESC is clearly in stark contrast to the commercial logic of Rouanet. But while their agendas pull in different directions, they both essentially represent the privatisation of large areas of tax-funded cultural provision, and are much more radical in their long term impact than, for example, the “arms-length” type arrangements that exist for non-departmental public bodies in the UK – or that São Paulo has recently adopted for the management of several cultural institutions, liberating these from the confines of national, state and municipal government.

These are extended, very large-scale experiments in cultural planning. These two devices also lie behind much of what catches the headlines – whether high profile grands projets and blockbusters for the Rouanet Law or the innovative community engagement for SESC. But standing a little behind those headlines is the deep network of federal, state and municipal museums that has evolved with the nation, states and cities of Brazil. Only one, Rio’s Museu Nacional, predates independence and then only by a few years. It was founded in 1818 by the Prince Regent Dom João, later King Dom João VI, of Portugal, and funded at a time when Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarve – incidentally, the only time a city outside Europe was the capital of a European empire.

Since independence, another 3,199 museums have been established according to Ibram, the organisation created by the ministry of culture in 2008 as the beefed-up successor to the Department of Museums and Cultural Centres. Its mandate is oversight for both the 28 federal museums and the development and management of a national framework for museum development.

Ibram has modest resources – direct expenditure on culture is less than 1% of the federal budget – but its national plan for the museum sector has a clear focus and is rooted in the country’s strong museological traditions, dating back to the establishment of the Escola de Museologia in the Museu Histórico Nacional in 1932.

The plan’s preoccupations with ethics, access, equity, stewardship and professional development are more universal than Brazilian, but there is one important, if perhaps not unique, emphasis for a country as ethnically, geographically and socially diverse as Brazil. In the words of Angelo Oswaldo, the president of Ibram: “The ultimate goal is to ensure that the right to memory is exercised in a broad and democratic manner throughout the country. A museum’s social function is to contribute to the development of community life, civic consciousness and the idea of belonging to a national identity. That is the relevance of museums in our times: not only to gather collections, documents and works of art, but also to be a dynamic center for cultural action.”

He cites the Museu da Maré, located in Rio’s Favela da Maré, as an exemplar. It tells the story of this slum neighbourhood and was developed with one of Ibram’s tools, the Pontos de Memória (Memory Points), an incentive programme that aims to identify, support and consolidate collective memory initiatives from various social groups throughout Brazil. Another example might be the Museu da Língua Portuguesa that opened in the Luz railway station in São Paulo in 2006, imaginatively using interactive technology to show the relationship between politics, history and language. In the same vein, Rio’s Museu Nacional has developed a series of programmes to reach out to marginalised young people and offer alternatives to a life of crime and addiction to children living in the streets and youths from penitentiaries. These initiatives may seem like prevailing orthodoxy to hard-boiled museum folk but, in the context of Brazil’s extremes, they also feel like moral imperatives.

The desire for museums, and indeed the arts more generally, to serve a wider community has led to what may become a third distinctively Brazilian strategy and one that may have an impact as profound as the Rouanet Law or SESC. This is the Vale-Cultura or cultural stipend. President Rousseff has recently proposed, and congress accepted, the expansion of an initiative of her predecessor, Lula da Silva, introducing a stipend of R50 ($25) a month for everyone earning below five times the minimum wage, to be spent on a wide range of cultural activities from museums to music downloads. Employers (again) will cover 90% of the cost of the stipend but this can be deducted (again) from their income tax. Workers will pay the remaining 10%, and it will be administered through an electronic debit card – a sort of voucher system for culture. Another significant funding stream, with all the same pros and cons as educational vouchers, but at the same time, fascinating, big, bold, Brazilian.

Additional reporting by Niki Cosgrove of AEA Consulting

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