Exhibitions Museums Attendance USA

How long can Brazil’s exhibition boom last?

The country’s growing economy, new middle class and tax incentives for sponsors has resulted in record-breaking attendance figures. But the future of its blockbusters is uncertain

Worth the wait: a Caravaggio exhibition co-organised with Italy was a hit at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo

The rise of a new middle class, unprecedented media attention, a surge in museum building in the wake of an economic boom as well as improved relations between foreign and Brazilian institutions are behind record high attendance figures in Brazil’s museums and cultural centres. Blockbuster exhibitions, made possible by tax incentives for their sponsors, have attracted thousands of visitors in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília.

A staggering 886,000 people flocked to see “Impressionism: Paris and Modernity” for works by Monet, Manet, Renoir and Gauguin at two branches of the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB), in Rio de Janeiro (561,000) and São Paulo (325,000), on loan from Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. (The Rio leg of the Impressionist show closed in January so does not feature in The Art Newspaper’s 2012 survey.) This comes after the record broken by the same institution when it featured a retrospective of MC Escher’s work in 2011, drawing in total 1.2m visitors in all three of the CCBB’s venues (the third is in Brasília).

Aside from these blockbuster shows, general attendance has been on the rise in most institutions. The Museu de Arte de São Paulo, where a touring exhibition of work by Caravaggio and his followers attracted 185,000 paying visitors in its eight-week run last year, has had steady yearly increases of around 15% in the numbers of visitors over the past three years, drawing 845,000 visitors last year. The Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, where entry is free for all exhibitions, has seen the same regular increase. The last edition of the Bienal de São Paulo also drew in half a million viewers.

But what is behind these numbers? One factor is the demographic change in Brazil. Since Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office in 2003 and during the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s current administration, the country’s middle class has prospered and masses of people formerly below the poverty line have climbed the social ladder, affecting around 42.5m citizens in total.

“These attendance figures are definitely a recent phenomenon, which has to do with the improvement of quality of life here”, says José do Nascimento Júnior, the former director of public policy for museums at the culture ministry. “People now tend to consume cultural events from a different perspective. It has both to do with the economy and a stronger perception of what museums do.”

Part of this may have to do with the growing popularity of museums and art exhibitions in the mass media. Fausto Silva, one of Brazil’s most popular television hosts, has displayed images of famous masterpieces in his Sunday broadcast on Globo, the country’s largest network and media conglomerate, making Giacometti and Caravaggio as well-known as soap opera stars. Bandeirantes, the nation’s fourth largest broadcaster, is about to launch a new cable channel dedicated exclusively to the arts. In the meantime, newspapers and magazines have upped their coverage of these events.

Budgets for exhibitions are also swelling. This is perhaps where the Brazilian situation differs from the rest of the world. A law that has been in effect since 1991 allows corporations to divert what they owe in tax to support cultural activities. The Rouanet Law, named after its creator Sérgio Paulo Rouanet, resulted in an investment of around $630m in cultural activities last year. It is a type of sponsorship in which the government ultimately picks up the bill: the company gets its name associated with a cultural activity and organisers are able to finance blockbuster shows with free entry or cheap tickets.

The biggest beneficiaries of this public-private funding were two institutions dealing almost exclusively with the visual arts, Itaú Cultural, Itaú bank’s cultural centre on São Paulo’s Paulista Avenue, and the Bienal de São Paulo, which received $11.3m and $5.5m respectively. “We spent $5.6m on the Impressionist show in Rio and São Paulo, made possible largely by tax incentives”, says Marcos Mantoan, the director of the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in São Paulo. “Sponsors are happy with the return they get on their investment. The good economic climate has definitely helped.”

“All of the major exhibitions in the past year had government support, such as the Caravaggio and Impressionist shows, and all of them had record attendance”, says Henilton Menezes, the secretary for cultural incentives at the ministry of culture. “The costs of these exhibitions are too high for the private sector to finance alone, since they see little possibility of making a profit on them. With [the Rouanet] law we establish a partnership between the government and the private sector, so we demand that the exhibition be free or accessible to all citizens.”

But this is about to change. While it is true that the Rouanet Law allows for the staging of big shows and helps secure expensive loans from abroad, it also tends to finance only those exhibitions that appeal to corporate marketing departments. With this in mind, the ministry of culture plans to amend the measure and place limits on how much a company can allocate to finance cultural activity, demanding real money be given to museums and cultural centres, and not just what it would pay in taxes.

Exhibition organisers are anxious about the changes and also fear that an economic downturn—Brazil’s Gross Domestic Product grew a meagre 0.9% in 2012, lagging far behind emerging economies such as China and India—will put an end to the extravagant shows staged last year. “The government has been more sensitive to the cause of museums, but the new version of the Rouanet Law can put all this at risk”, says Teixeira Coelho, the chief curator at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo.

“We will probably see a reduction of about 20% in funding this year. While companies are more keen to invest in art, the slowdown last year was hard felt, and attitudes are starting to change.”

To read the full 2012 attendance figures survey in Section 2 of the April edition, which includes exhibition rankings, extra features and analysis, subscribers can log in to our digital edition, or new readers can subscribe now for immediate access.

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