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Presentation on SESC

June 13, 2011

Whenever I stand before a foreign audience explaining what the SESC is, I usually start by praising the entertainment and social services organization I have directed for the past 27 years as “one of a kind”. The SESC is an initiative of the Brazilian business community that in the 1940s, started to offer, in partnership with the government, an educational and cultural alternative to a Brazil that was rapidly urbanizing and industrializing. At the time, the country was receiving an immigrant influx from Europe, and experiencing an urban population growth due to a mounting exodus from the countryside to the cities. Thus, the founding of the SESC happened at a time when Brazil was experiencing considerable urban development and the appearance of a new type of workforce. In these circumstances, a document titled “Letter for Social Peace” (Carta da paz social) proposed that companies in the commerce and services sector pay a compulsory contribution, which today is equivalent to 1.5 percent of their payroll, to a fund. The great innovation of this system is that businesses created a structure supported by their own resources to be controlled by the government by law—today it is part of the national Constitution—so that they may independently provide their employees and society in general with access to important and necessary activities in the fields of culture, the arts, education, leisure, sports, health, etc. The founding principle is that what is collected from the different companies does not fund a foundation promoting the brand of one company or another, as is common in Brazil and elsewhere, but an enduring institution, called SESC, the Social Service of Commerce, that goes beyond mere marketing to support:

  • Social well-being
  • Artistic production
  • Personal autonomy, growth, and interaction
  • Solidarity
  • Actions that involve technical interaction and cooperation

In short, it supports the educational and transformative character of culture, upholding a formula that combines quality, professionalism, a certain degree of novelty, audacity, and a great appreciation for diversity.

One of the first questions posed by those who know SESC is: what is its income in the state of São Paulo, which has the largest population in the country, (41 million inhabitants) and the largest network of social-cultural centers in the country (33 facilities). The SESC-SP’s annual revenue is 1 billion reais, roughly equivalent to 630 million US dollars. They are used to support the maintenance of the infrastructure, which consists of 33 centers in operation and 12 in various stages of development and construction. In addition, this budget supports the organization’s activities, that in 2010 included over 5,000 workshops, 6,800 theater presentations, 850 dance presentations, 780 art shows, 4,200 concerts, 3,500 movie screenings, 9 million health consultations, 620 congresses, seminars and lectures, sports activities attended by 74,000 people, 28 million meals served, and over 15 million visitors to our cultural centers and alternative spaces. We have 62 swimming pools, 32 gyms, 29 theaters with 8,217 seats, 62 movement studios, 109 dental offices, 54 cafeterias, 45 indoors sports fields, 44 outdoors fields, and 42 exhibition spaces. Additionally, we operate a vacation facility in the São Paulo shore, a cable TV channel broadcast over the whole country, a publishing company, and a record label. 81 percent of the people who attend SESC earn up to 1,635 reais (equivalent to 1,022 US dollars per month). 1.7 million of those registered work in the commerce and services sector, and can consequently matriculate free of charge, but many more attendees take part in our activities open to the general public. The success has been to join all the criteria mentioned before (social preoccupation, novelty, daring, etc.) with a policy of low-cost admission and a programming that spans from hip hop to classical music, from experimental theater to contemporary dance, from explanations of cuisines from different regions of the world to courses on recycling and environmental education, from physical activity and sports as a right to art exhibitions, always free of charge. The diversity is explicit, and our audience spans the social spectrum.

It is only natural that the engine of SESC’s activities reveals a broad sequence that corresponds to the multiplicity of our society, as a result of studies on leisure and debates on the preservation of material and immaterial patrimony. We were the first institution to work with the elderly, who trust SESC with their desire to continue their social interaction. We also have a program for public school children who participate in a project that values culture as an informal form of education. We promote educational and cultural tourism, which we call “social,” as well as a program against hunger that includes a strict food safety policy and strives to educate various social agents (donors, membership organizations, food providers) on the concepts of social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Supported by a large number of restaurants, the “Mesa Brasil” program was started 17 years ago and inspired the federal government’s Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) program, implemented by the Lula administration in 2003 as a top policy priority designed to address the disparity in food consumption that results from Brazil’s uneven income distribution.

Well before anyone spoke of a global convergence of social and economic values as has been the case in Brazil in the past 12 years, and well before we could see a significant change in people’s behavior and an increase in cultural consumption, the SESC had, from its inception, a preoccupation for personal choices and the management of leisure time. Social well-being is the guiding expression that accompanies, and often anticipates, people’s needs regarding their relationship with the city and the symbiotic relationships that develop in it.

The SESC’s units venture into emblematic (and sometimes problematic) urban spaces and transform knowledge into a valuable commodity without making it expensive. There is, indeed, a transmutation of the urban space caused by the SESC’s democratic units. In the 1960s, Brazil’s urban population outgrew the rural. Not coincidentally, it was during this time that the SESC abandoned an assistance-focused objective that frequently supported the structure of the city as a space of transformation, aiding new residents of the city in adapting to Brazil’s industrialization, and instead shifted its socio-cultural logos to working on leisure time, on sports for everyone, and on various artistic disciplines as the leading force in individual identity. Be it individual or collective, the focus of the SESC’s leisure offerings is human development. It is thus of fundamental importance that each center’s cultural geography be utilized, and that their architecture be welcoming so that the individual may reflect on his or her choices and have even the possibility of doing nothing once inside.

The various SESCs scattered through the cities are not “cultural oases,” as there is no express intention to be in discrepancy with the city. Rather, the idea is that, in these spaces, those who already live within the frantic urban rhythm can enjoy the right to culture. These architectures, made to shelter citizens, also agglutinate cultural and sports programming prepared without preconceptions; the centers offer possibilities to all artistic disciplines and all intellectual positions. Instead of shunning one tendency or another, the SESC gathers the contradictions of the present to stimulate an active and critical participation, fostering a better understanding between man and his environment. Far from an utilitarian or consumerist perspective of cultural goods, we have true concern for personal freedom, with the citizenry’s own reflection, self-knowledge, and with the satisfaction experienced by someone who feels that he deserves a privileged environment and who makes of alterity the way to discover him- or herself. Unfortunately, in Brazil, the public space was for a long time avoided by the population because it was considered nobody’s space rather than everyone’s space (in large part due to a lack of a public safety policy), so the many spaces available to simply “be” at the SESC are also a way to address this lack in the public infrastructure. With throbbing creativity, the SESC centers become inventive clusters scattered throughout the urban fabric, but that interact with the city and its natural diversity.

The network is the largest private employer and provider of services in the cultural sector in Latin America, with 5,000 full-time employees, 2,000 contractors working in security and maintenance, and thousands of regular independent providers. The tendency is for the SESC itself—as the engine of this creative economy and supporter of intangible values—to be seen as a stage and laboratory, so that the value it adds to the productive chain may stimulate the creation of stable jobs and change the paradigms that weave new strategies of economic growth.

It is necessary to develop culture’s catalyzing role, even more so at a time when information technology and communications almost force us to enjoy everything quickly. The arts and leisure should be above this preoccupation with real time, this fast and superficial way of dealing with the now. Even after behavioral modifications, it is still not understood that life cannot be made deeper by discarding consciousness and the memory of places, personal contact, and important events. Spending more time with others, with creativity, and diving into enjoyable activities only make sense when they are truly lived.

Specifically in the field of theatre, the SESC maintains a Center for Theatrical Research guided by Antunes Filho, who, in my opinion, is one of the best theatre directors in Brazil. Antunes was at SESC even before I became director in 1982, and his role is that of a priest of the performing arts, because what he does is re-link the people in the streets with the arts. As the only artist employed full-time at the institution, his references are countless, and, without being pretentious, he approaches classic and universal themes, and presents plain settings that have revolutionized the Brazilian theatrical scene. His production is of about one international-quality piece per year. At least 20 major adaptations and about 10 smaller pieces were created in the Center, which also offers classes in lighting and costume design, dramaturgy, scenography and sound design.

In 2010 we started Mirada, an Ibero American Theatre Festival that will happen biennially in Santos in partnership with the Festival de Cádiz and that, in the next edition, in 2012, will also include New York’s TeatroStageFest. In 10 days, Mirada offered 31 plays, 63 shows, sold 12,000 reduced-price tickets, and reached 52,000 people overall, including attendees to the shows at various in- and outdoors locations throughout the city. 44 percent of Brazilian presence and 56 percent Ibero-American presence. The event featured five roundtable discussions on Ibero-American dramaturgy, Argentinean contemporary theatre, and Brazilian theatrical creation and production, as well as exhibits, book presentations, and the creation of an exchange network. Susana Tubert was our guest, and she will certainly return with Margaret Ayers in 2012.

There are many more theatrical presentations in all 32 centers. As I mentioned before, there were 6,800 in the network as a whole, proof that the artistic manifestation that exposes the courageous interpretation of actor and text is part of one of our cultural action priorities.

The SESC is an institution that is always thinking about how to improve cultural policies, engaging popular traditions as well as contemporary artistic representations. Its programming permanently questions reality. Those who are in charge of it become researchers on what it is that the everyday can give us so that we may lose the conformism with the world’s repetition. To repeat life is to dilute sensations. That which needs to mature in society, and that is the role of an organization that respects the right to culture, is the perpetual self-renovation. Cultural diplomacy, for example, is an artifice that accelerates the glance on oneself and the other. It is natural—whether or not one agrees—that the world’s politics and economies are based on an irreversible process that includes open capital, stock markets, currency exchanges, contested political processes, and attacks against authoritarian regimes. As economy and politics unite over the course of history, they naturally incorporate the cultural symbols of various societies. The role of contemporary creation not only dilutes or intensifies the symbols, but it also sees what lies outside, mixes with them, and this intellectual dialectic has great potential for the dynamization of interpersonal relations.

Thus, in addition to numbers, quantity and economic indicators that handsomely decorate the reports of any serious institution, there is an emotional factor that permeates the whole concept of the SESC: the numbers and the growth of the network are dependent on the above-average level of satisfaction of the people who attend. These cultural clusters in São Paulo bring an element of serendipity (a concept that only exists in English) to the collective encounters they foster, endowing the happenings with a feeling of spontaneous emotional discovery. To be pleasantly surprised at the moment when one is enjoying free time can be the fuse that ignites a new aesthetic, sporting, or cultural restlessness, a new hobby, a sagacity to marvel in the face of many other things.

The method I have been developing over the past 27 years at the helm of the SESC-SP has as much of empiricism as it has of theory. Books taught me to treat the subject as a witness to his or her own interests, to recognize diversity, to manage action in a flexible way, to understand the aesthetic tendencies and the metaphors that guide each historical period, and many other things. Praxis showed me that the cultural product is the ethical patrimony of society and that the contact with this instrument must generate an affective, sensorial relationship and an emphatic experience. If the Greek word method means the path taken to achieve a goal, my method grows ever more utopian, precisely to be able to go further. It also consists in believing in the ever-increasing empathy that results from responsible planning, and in the transformative and educational power for a mellifluous world, where people respect and recognize each other.

There are reachable utopias.

I am an incorrigible optimist.

Thank you very much.

Danilo Santos de Miranda, Regional Director, SESC - São Paulo

Translated by Sebastián Zubieta.