Threat of closure brings to light the financial fragility of an important space renowned for Afro-Brazilian culture.
Photo: Neide Almeida/Renata Santos
March for Culture, walk from Masp to the Afro-Brazilian Museum. Press Photo.
Afro Brasil Museum, São Paulo, Work and Slavery Division. Photo: Nelson Kon.
Founded nearly 15 years ago, the Museu Afro Brasil, a renowned reference for research on the African perspective in the formation of Brazilian identity, culture and heritage, and the only one of its kind in Latin America, is facing a real threat of closure due to lack of funding. A decree by the São Paulo state government imposing cuts of almost 23% on funds earmarked for cultural facilities in 2019 has left the group of just over 60 employees fearing the worst.
No one wants to see such an important space for the Afro-Brazilian discussion, in a country with such a strong black presence in its formation, cease to exist, say staff. As soon as they heard the news, they mobilized together with representatives from other cultural institutions to protest and pressure the government to reverse the decision. They also went to the streets to condemn the government’s disregard for culture, as well as to the legislature to discuss, in a public hearing, the consequences that such cuts could have.
The threat of closure brought to light the financial fragility of such an important space. The difficulty arises from the fact that the institution has been operating since 2015 with a limited budget.
Protests and resistance
Theirs were not the only voices. The threat of closure mobilized other sectors of society. Outraged by the news, a group of Brazilian artists recorded a video highlighting the museum’s importance. Institutionally, there was also mobilization. Concerned about the impact of the cuts, the Brazilian Association of Social and Cultural Organizations (Abraosc) met with representatives of the state government. After these demonstrations, the governor of São Paulo, João Doria, posted a video on his social media denying there will be cuts and stating he “values and supports culture”.
The threat of closure brought to light the financial fragility of such an important space. The difficulty arises from the fact that the institution has been operating since 2015 with a limited budget due to a 12% cut imposed at the time, which forced the board to slash the number of employees by 27%. “We have a tight budget with no wiggle room for new cuts. With new restriction, we have no way to survive. We don’t even have a way to pay severance,” said Ana Lúcia Lopes, coordinator of curatorial planning at the museum, before learning that the São Paulo government had reversed their decision, at least in theory. According to Lopes, today there are 62 employees running the museum, which is located in an 11,000-square meter building in Ibirapuera Park, one of Brazil’s largest city’s main tourist attractions. Like other buildings in the park, the structure was designed by renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who died in 2012 at the age of 104.
Vast collection and high number of visitors
The Museu Afro Brasil houses a permanent collection of seven thousand items and documents, welcomes forty thousand student visitors per year and can host up to seven temporary exhibitions simultaneously. The most recent, Museu Afro Brasil, on its 15th Anniversary, Celebrates São Paulo: an Urban Iconography, is part of the schedule of events celebrating the museum’s decade and a half of existence. The exhibition opened shortly after staff warned that the museum risked closure due to insufficient funding.
“In a racist country like ours, if the Museu Afro Brasil closes, it will not be reopened,” predicts Neide Almeida, coordinator of the institution’s education center. Almeida underscores the importance of the museum continuing to operate in good conditions in order to serve the public – something that the reduced budget makes difficult, and that a new cut would make impossible.
In addition to large numbers of students, the Museu Afro Brasil also serves the elderly, the disabled and socially vulnerable people with guided visit programs. In all, it welcomes 180 thousand visitors per year. According to Almeida, because of the limitations imposed in 2015, the demand for these visits is greater than what the team can handle. A source inside the museum says that after announcing it will not make the cuts, the state government is talking to representatives of cultural venues individually, in order to address budgetary issues. Still, the mood inside the Museu Afro Brasil remains tense.
Fábia Prates is a journalist whose work has appeared in major Brazilian media outlets. She currently writes on topics related to culture, behavior and corporate communication.
Translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry.