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The Cultural Centre of the City of São Paulo

[see smaller english version of this article originally published in the session TENDÊNCIAS/DEBATES of the Newspaper Folha de São Paulo in 14th of de July 2010]

The Centro Cultural São Paulo is a post-modernist landmark in Brazil. The CCSP opened its doors to the public in 1982; being a remarkable piece of architecture not only due to its rich concept and design but above all because of its ambition to become a democratic and participative environment. The architects and teams involved in its creation went beyond projecting ideals, putting in operation a spatio-temporal device activated and modelled through the use and appropriation by the multitude. This intention is made clear through the internal road that organises its socio-cultural dynamic. That is, the road and its metaphor activate the visitor, offering new powers to the passer-by, allowing him/her to become an agent in the processes generated by this environment.

In spite of its original mission of offering free access to culture and information, the Centro Cultural São Paulo remained without a destiny for a long time, anchored to an island formed by two intense urban fluxes: the one from 23 de Maio Avenue and the other from Vergueiro Road – the first originated in the 20th century and the other in the 19th century. However, today it navigates in its own space-time without losing sight of its port of origin and these differentiated fluxes; connected, in synchrony and contextualised in the plural, fluid and rough cosmopolitan dynamic that contains it. Now it possesses letters, maps, plans in order to continue with its journey. The continuity of its management over the last 9 years allowed the revitalisation of its physical and cultural structure. Besides being intensely cared for, not only in its architectural structure but also its maintenance, since 2007, with the establishment of a new operational system (a new organogram), the Centro Cultural is being run under a new logic.

The previous logic was too dependent on European cultural structures, that is, out of synch with contemporaneity, especially with regards to the increasing insertion of Brazilian culture in a globalised culture. Rigid divisions, passive cultural services, segmented artistic activities, guided by a programme based on specialisms and the traditional structure of a cultural centre, created a frozen framework and therefore a lack of perspective. This state of affairs did not favour or motivate the update of its current cultural practices and the technical activities inherent to an unusual cultural centre, which includes - besides the theatres, cinemas and exhibition spaces – four historical collections of local and national importance, as well as the third largest library in Brazil.

The new logic is operated through shared interdependent functions/ processes. An exhibition, a play, an audition, a concert, a talk, a web page, are all the result of group work. In order to achieve this, we have put into practice a new line of thinking which main fields of reference are: curatorial studies, cultural mediation, the unified management of collections, information and communication technologies and production networks. This has been essential for a purposeful cultural management in synchrony and dialogue with the local and global contexts.

It is worth highlighting the curatorship. As an applied research, the curatorship is consolidated in the 60s and 70s as the management of knowledge in the specific field of exhibition and mediation, politically operated in a creative and critical manner, mainly within the visual arts. The product of a zeitgeist which pursued cultural transformation and innovation, this experimental curatorship was revisited, translated, transposed and updated into an expanded field at the Centro Cultural, and today it integrates other areas of cultural production. Centro Cultural’s expanded curatorship includes, besides visual arts, theatre, music, dance, audiovisual, as well as interdisciplinary programmes. In order to act in this expanded field, the curators rely on the complicity and complementarity of other inter-independent departments, such as the department of Cultural and Education Action, which operates a critical-creative mediation with the aim of potentialising dialogical cultural actions with the audience. This new department of the Centro Cultural is critical towards the common sense that carries out education in cultural mediation, and seeks to autonomously constitute another dimension of relationship not only with the existing public but also seeking to reach new users for this mutating artistic and cultural platform. Therefore, its main goal is to potentialise individual and group experience and the sense of belonging in their use of Centro Cultural’s facilities.

In this operational system, Curatorship and Cultural and Education Action are inevitably linked to the collections hosted and managed by Centro Cultural since 1982. With the new metalinguistic operational system (the new organogram), cultural practices have been contextualised. They take into account not only the architectural uniqueness of the building, with its distinct spaces and fluxes, but also its content: the library complex, formed by five different collections - Sérgio Milliet's General Library, Volpi's Art and Culture Library, Henfil's Comics Library, Louis Braille Library and a reading space for families and kids – as well as the historical collections – City Art Collection, Multimedia Archive, Oneyda Alvarenga Record/Music Library and Folk Research Mission. The historical collections are currently under the responsibility of a new technical department, bringing together the conservation, restoration and archiving professionals. The preservation of these collections requires common techniques, technologies and procedures; therefore in order to streamline the arduous, thorough and demanding task of preserving cultural heritage, this department now has not only a modern conservation and restoration lab, with appropriate technical conditions, but also qualified professionals performing trialling, conditioning, cataloguing and listing tasks.

The review of Centro Cultural São Paulo’s mission and objectives – the underlying task for remodelling its operational system – showed that its main contribution to the public sphere of art and culture and its unique selling point since its genesis was to promote free access to culture and information, through its singular architecture, books, performances, exhibitions or through the integration of artistic languages and cultural practices. In order to recover and reinvigorate this democratic spirit of integration and inclusion, the Livre Acesso (Free Access) programme was launched in 2007, contributing to the development of a culture of accessibility. In this sense, Livre Acesso not only invests in accessibility infrastructure but has also a poetic purpose of widening and potentialising sensibility, perception and knowledge. This process was initiated with the relocation of the Louis Braille Library, from its previous hidden location (nearly a ghetto) to the library plaza in the south wing of the building, thus allowing the integration of blindness in the heart of the Centro Cultural, that also means in the heart of Visual Culture.  

Centro Cultural’s possibilities of action are also being considered in the Internet. The website is as popular as the Centro Cultural. Both the building and the website have an approximate average of 2,000 visitors a day, a figure comparable to that of some important cultural institutions worldwide. The popularity of the website is the result of significant investments not only in equipments and networks but also in the qualification of the teams which today form the Information and Communication Department. The website not only promotes Centro Cultural’s cultural activities, but is currently a platform for extending its cultural actions, also operating as a main reference point by allowing the research and recovery of the memory preserved and produced by the institution. It is also worth mentioning that within this field of action, the Centro Cultural was the first public institution in the city to offer free Internet access through a wireless network (from 2007). 

As a clear sign that today the institution has regained its prominent role not only in the local, but also in the global level, at the end of 2009 the Centro Cultural was invited to integrate the Anilla Cultural, a web 2.0 project (high speed broadband Internet) that will initially involve five Ibero-American institutions: besides the CCSP, the Contemporary Culture Centre, in Barcelona, Spain; the Antioquia Museum, in Medellín, Colombia; the Contemporary Art Museum, Santiago do Chile and the Spain Cultural Centre, Córdoba, Argentina. This ongoing project aims at creating a new ‘agora’, a common environment for artistic and cultural experimentation promoted and maintained by these institutions. This invitation also confirms the internationalisation efforts of the Centro Cultural, showing that, as the city of São Paulo, this institution is cosmopolitan, international.

Over the past four years, the Centro Cultural recovered its self-esteem and today it is evident that it is in fact the Cultural Centre of the City of São Paulo. As important as the Centre Pompidou for Paris, or the Tate Modern for London, this institution requires more attention not only from the public power but also from its other partners. Its budget has doubled over the last four years (5.7 million dollars for 2010) and its Friend’s Association has never been so active: these are key factors in the current revitalisation process, but they are not enough. 

A fundamental step now would be to operate under a more autonomous management, by changing the Centro’s status to a ‘Foundation’ or to what is labelled in Brazil as ‘Social Organisation’, similar to the British NDPBs. What happens only once a year during the ‘Virada Cultural’ (an event that since 2005 attracts in average around 3.5 million people in São Paulo's city centre), with the injection of 4.5 million dollars for 24 hours of cultural consumption is a daily reality for this space which was planned during the second half of the 1970s. Do we need any more proof to demonstrate the actuality and, above all, the public utility and pertinence of this contemporary agora which represents permanently and with integrity the city of São Paulo?

Martin Grossmann
General Director 
July 2006 to May 2010


[see smaller english version of this article originally published in the session TENDÊNCIAS/DEBATES of the Newspaper Folha de São Paulo in 14th of de July 2010]