SESC — Serviço Social do Comércio — in São Paulo revolves around a strong cultural and educational thinking. SESC works with resources of private enterprise. This has been difficult to achieve but it now has turned into a very successful cultural centre, open to all public of various ages and social groups.
It is a common joke among Brazilian actors and theatre makers that the SESC is the ministry of culture. But this perception should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed SESC's (Social Service of Commerce) contribution to culture has been incalculable over the years. The SESC is a private institution established to carry out social welfare programs. By means of a mandatory tax collected from commercial and service corporations the SESC has built monumental facilities, containing sports, libraries, internet and meeting areas, hotels, pools, and cultural centres and theatres. Moreover, it promotes regular international exhibitions.
The board decides on the programme. Funding comes from their own resources. Lately it has required a financial contribution from the tenders. The SESC Pompéia unit is by far the most interesting. It is located in an old factory that was renovated by the architect Lina Bo Bardi who turned it into a fabulous space where people from all age groups and social classes get together. The SESC has a good exhibition space.There are several other units of the SESC that incidentally work with contemporary art, sometimes even internationally. SESC Santana, SESC Mariana, SESC Avenida Paulista, SESC Pinheiro, SESC Interlagos, etc.
In the last years, especially though not only in the state of São Paulo, SESC has been hosting some very important digital culture events, including Mídia Tática Brasil, LaMiMe, Videobrasil Mobilefest, Game Cultura and many others, as well as presenting new-media installations in their annual exhibitions and dozens of digital culture workshops throughout the year. It runs a festival over two busy weeks in October in various venues in São Paulo and offers opportunities for visiting and Brazilian artists working in new and established ways, including performance, literature, music, theatre and installations as well as public interactive events with digital media. Its centre in SESC has a very rich infrastructure in all its units - some 17 in the city of São Paulo alone, and despite being far more focused in offering services, it is very important for the formation of a digitally-aware public, as well as enabling small and innovative experiments to take place in its workshops. SESC is planning to turn its unit in Avenida Paulista into a centre for digital culture in the coming years. The challenges relating to this, given the unstable history of dedicated media labs in many other countries, are fascinating, with the location in Paulista a critical point of engagement for artists and the general public. Plans for development of this Lab have not yet been made public, though given the public engagement with which SESC has been associated — including the imaginative remix project currently being developed with Ronaldo Lemos and team at CTS at Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV) in Rio — there would seem to be a major opportunity here to build a space that is a physical representation of the intentions and aspirations of Gil’s laboratory of the future.
SESC has units in all 26 States of the country. Created in 1946, SESC (Serviço Social do Comércio — Social Services of Commerce) are part of what is known as the S System, which comprises professional entity categories in Brazil. The institution is maintained by service and retail companies. It offers its members, primarily the workers and families of those who work in retail, (who number 5 million) a wide range of services including hostels, holiday resorts, theatres, cinemas, schools. Their cultural activities, however, are directed to the population in general.
Shows, plays and other performances promoted by the SESC units are considered by the population to be more accessible, with ticket prices from as low as R$4 to R$30 (1,50 to 11 Euros). SESCs can be found in all the state capitals and many other cities, and its guidelines are defined by a National Board. Each state has its own autonomous regional management, and that autonomy is extended to the units. As regards music, each unit has a manager who runs the local show or supervises invited managers.
The largest project with a national scope (under the coordination of the National SESC Department, and not the units) is Sonora Brasil, which presents a historic panorama of Brazilian music. Every year the National Department invites the units to join, and those that accept receive one or more shows of a series, (São Paulo and Rio, with strong programmes, usually abstain). The project highlights traditional music styles which gets little media attention, from classic to folkloric, but with musicians of renown in their specialities taking part, such as Turíbio Santos. Performers from other countries, discovered in mappings of folklore music, can be invited to participate, for example the Dutch group Aurora Borealis, with Medieval Iberian music.
Strong in musical programming the Rio and São Paulo SESCs promote locally-known series and festivals, such as Prata da Casa at the SESC Pompéia in São Paulo, which gives preference to local performers. The units in these two cities are also those that receive the most international shows, such as the American rock instrumental band Tortoise (SESC Santana) and the American Jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood (SESC Vila Mariana). There are SESCs with strong regional programming in other States, such as Casa Amarela, in Recife, and in Maringá, in Paraná, whose Femucic (Music Festival of the Singing City), is one of the most traditional festivals with the SESC brand, 30 years old.