Mapping Brazil - Cultural Participation

New in 2015: special report on democratization and access to culture in Brazil – by Daniela Ribas

SESC Pompéia, Carnival 2015 (credits: Pedro Abude)

Brazil is a country of continental proportions, and well-known for its diverse cultural and artistic expressions. However, such diversity has never been supported by specific policies, or policies that would promote what is commonly known as the democratization of culture. According to scholars, the history of cultural policies in Brazil has been marked, in general terms, by nonexistence (1930’s to the 1960’s), authoritarianism (1960’s and 1970’s) and instability (1980’s and 1990’s). (RUBIM, 2007).

The recent past notwithstanding, it can be noted that, since the 1990’s, cultural policies in Brazil have been creating much more sophisticated mechanisms for the promotion of cultural expressions. In the 90’s, the Rouanet Act was basically the only financial backing tool available for culture.  The Act allowed those who submitted cultural projects to raise funds in the private sector through tax incentives, thereby creating a system of cultural sponsorship. This meant that decisions concerning what was culturally relevant to the country were left to the private sector, whose interests lied mainly in cultural marketing. The situation led to distortions, such as the centralization of funds in Rio and São Paulo (where the main consumer markets in the country are located and most financial transactions take place). Another example was the fact that funding ended up being funneled mainly to certain styles and artists who were already famous. Over the years, this model proved to be insufficient to cover the country’s cultural diversity and inefficient when it came to increasing access to culture.

Starting in 2003, during President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration and while Culture Minister Gilberto Gil was in office, specific public policies were set out for the country’s cultural expressions, which reorganized the role played by the State and society in the country’s cultural life. The Plano Nacional de Cultura - PNC (National Plan for Culture) , the Sistema Nacional de Cultura - SNC (National System for Culture) , the Sistema Nacional de Informações e Indicadores Cultural - SNIIC (National Cultural Information and Indicators System) , and the Conferences on Culture , were of note. It must be pointed out that the Rouanet Act tax benefit scheme did not come to an end. The participation of the private sector in the cultural market was complemented by a State-led policy, which was responsible for correcting the distortions caused by the model . Together, both mechanisms have become a systemic and permanent part of State-led cultural policy. Society’s access to cultural productions has been at the core of the many considerable changes that have taken place in cultural policies in Brazil since then and deserves special emphasis in the Plano Nacional de Cultura (The National Plan for Culture).

The Plan, cornerstone of the current Brazilian cultural policy, is made up of 53 goals, broken down into 13 themes. It was based on three complementary dimensions of culture that work as guiding principles: culture as a symbolic expression; culture as potential for economic development; and culture as the right to citizenship. The latter is vital to the promotion of access to culture, since it is the dimension that takes into account the cultural rights set out in the 1988 Constitution . The adoption of these three dimensions of culture had a very positive impact on the country’s whole cultural policy. There was a change in paradigm that made the idea that culture that is fostered by the State should give something to society in return natural, whether it be through free access to events, free cultural products, or other ways to give back to the population.

The “citizenship” dimension is emphasized considerably in at least two of the 13 themes in the Plan: “Dissemination, Enjoyment and Access” (which has 26 goals ); and “Social Participation” (which has 6 goals ).

A brief explanation of the terms used in Brazil to refer to the issue at hand is made necessary here. In the English language, the term “cultural participation” is used to express the participation of individuals in cultural activities (actively, such as when learning how to play an instrument, or passively, such as when visiting an exhibition). In Brazil, however, such participation is expressed by the term “having access to cultural production”.  Access, therefore, refers to both the production of art, as well as its enjoyment. It is issues of such nature that the 26 goals of the “Dissemination, enjoyment and access” theme of the Plan address. It must be pointed out that “Access” has a different meaning to that of “Accessibility”. The latter describes strategies outlined to ensure the disabled (mentally and physically) can have physical access to locations and facilities, as well as full enjoyment of cultural assets.

The term “Social Participation” on the other hand, in Brazil, means society’s participation in the decision-making process of cultural management.  One could also talk about the “Social Control” processes of cultural policies, which are carried out through public consultations, Culture Committees and Conferences. The Plan establishes 6 goals on the subject under the “Social Participation” theme.

These perspectives are part of the Plano Nacional de Cultura and of Brazilian culture in general and give new meaning to the idea of “cultural democratization”. By making the right to culture a part of human rights, and recognizing that individuals are constantly producing culture, the act of “taking” culture to citizens doesn’t make any sense.  As stated by researcher Isaura Botelho, “... we all have culture. It might be very precarious, depending on the level of education of each individual, but it does exist.  What we might call it is the democratization of access to certain cultural assets” . Thus, the use of the expression “Cultural Democratization” in the current context of Brazilian policies would bring to mind the idea of dissemination of highbrow culture, therefore it would be more prudent to think of “Cultural Democracy” – an expression that reflects the concern with the diversity of society’s cultural production and experiences. (BOTELHO, 2007, p. 114).

A side note should be made on an important consequence this policy design had on the promotion of access to culture. As of 2003, the Ministry of Culture has been adopting a public bidding model with calls for submissions to select cultural projects. Since then, this has become the main selection tool for projects to be funded or sponsored by public agencies, companies and institutions. These bidding processes have become a strategic mechanism that allows the Ministry of Culture to use resources against regional inequalities, since they enable actions to be focused on very specific demands. The Ministry of Culture has also started requiring state companies to demand some level of social commitments from projects wishing to be eligible for sponsorship. Commitments are usually defined as “measures that democratize the access to culture”, and comprise a broad range of cultural initiatives. For projects submitted to the Rouanet Act, for instance, applicants must choose at least one of the ten commitments listed under Normative Instruction 1, of 2012 .

This model has suffered some criticism, the main one being the possibility of responsibility being transferred from the social sphere to the cultural sphere, which would mean it has a utilitarian role, as opposed to being an end in and of itself.  Moreover, there was doubt as to whether free admissions or affordable tickets were actually contributing to the democratization of access, as they make it easier for those who already have an established desire for culture to participate. In any case, this strategy became popular and is used in bidding processes by all government levels, as well as companies and institutions. Applicants started getting used to including commitment initiatives in their projects. Currently, social commitments are decisive criteria in the selection of projects wishing to be eligible to financial backing through public bidding processes.

Having concluded these initial notes on current Brazilian cultural policies, of which access to culture is a strategic point, it is now worth highlighting how the State, the private sector and society deal, in practice, with the challenges and strategies involved in the promotion of extensive access to cultural products.

Continue reading Mapping Brazil - Cultural Participation: Public Policies