When Democracy is at Risk

Reflections upon the Role of Arts Institutions and their Leaders in Brazil and Germany*

“The art remains free” — Die Vielen demonstration in Berlin

*Originally published on Arts Management Quarterly №131 | April 2019

Cultural institutions are by nature resilient organizations. They have to be because times are always difficult for the cultural sector and its dependence on public support. Cultural institutions, therefore, are familiar with dealing with the negative impacts of global economic downturns. They are commonly seen as dispensable when it comes to public funding and fight year after year against cuts in private sponsorship.

Another type of crisis is now demanding the attention of arts institutions and they already feel some of its effects: the crisis of democracy — if not as a political system, certainly as a set of values. Indeed, social democracy is at risk with the rise of right-wing and populism in Europe. And in the United States. And now also in Brazil.

It is no wonder that Cambridge Dictionary’s word of the year for 2017 was ‚populism.’ Defined by the Australian political scientist John Keane in an interview to the Brazilian section of El País, the biggest daily newspaper in Spanish, as “an autoimmune disease of democracy, it destroys the organs of control and marginalizes important sectors of society.”

The cultural sector is not immune to the spread of populism and its effects. Actually, it’s quite the opposite: the arts and its institutions, as a sector, and its agents, as individuals, are often populism’s first target. Are arts institutions and arts managers prepared for facing this new type of crisis?

Brazil: the tale of “moral panic” and its consequences

In October 2018, the former army captain and far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro was elected the 38th President of Brazil. His institutional “war on culture” has already begun and comprises the extinction of the Ministry of Culture, attacks on the Federal Law for Cultural Incentive (Rouanet law), and a review of the Brazilian public for-profit state companies’, e.g. for oil, banks or post, funding of cultural projects.

But this “war on culture” already began before Bolsonaro´s election. Since 2017 we have seen a series of episodes of censorship and controversies involving cultural projects and arts institutions. For example, in September that year, the Santander Cultural Centre in Porto Alegre cancelled the exhibition “Queermuseum: cartographies of diversity in Brazilian Arts” thirty days before its announced ending after becoming the victim of a smear campaign organized by right-wing activists.

All these episodes are deeply related to the rise of populism, its effort to establish an atmosphere of “moral panic,” and to marginalize the arts and artists as “a threat to societal values and interests” (Cohen 2002, xxxv, n. 1). There were reactions by the cultural sector — e.g. through a crowdfunding campaign the Queermuseum exhibition was presented at Parque Lage in Rio de Janeiro. The campaign broke records: it was supported by 1600 people and fundraised more than R $ 1 million to organize the exhibition and a series of debates — but the damage was already done.

“The episodes of 2017, amid the election´s fervour, had as consequence the delegitimization of our cultural institutions as part of our society that now sees public investment in arts as a waste of money,” Marilia Bonas, Coordinator of the Sao Paulo Resistance Memorial in Sao Paulo, told me in an interview for this article. “Organizations´ revenues have also been affected: some private companies stepped back on their sponsorship policies because they don´t want to be related to arts and culture.”

The Sao Paulo Resistance Memorial was created in 2009 by the State Government of São Paulo and creates a common remembrance by collecting individual memories of the political repression and the civil resistance in Brazil from 1940 to 1983. Its building used to be the headquarter of the State Department of Political and Social Order of São Paulo (Deops/ SP), the violent political police during the military dictatorship. Since 2018, the Memorial has suffered virtual and real attacks and threats, which have forced it to review its strategy and communication.

Germany: acting outside and inside its borders

In November 2017, the play „The Gospel according to Jesus, Queen of Heaven,” by Jo Clifford with the transgender actress Renata Carvalho was presented at the Goethe-Institut in Salvador, the third biggest city of Brazil and province capital of the state Bahia, as alternative performance venue after a presentation in a public theatre was cancelled at last minute by a court decision. The decision stated that the play was „extremely offensive to the morality of humanity,” even though the complainers had not seen or read it.

Manfred Stoffl, director of the Goethe-Institut of Salvador since 2015, holds that the Institute has a role in offering institutional support in such situations and alerts arts managers about an invisible risk: „In this scenario, there is a great risk of self-censorship when arts managers and institutions fail to promote or support projects out of fear or precaution. It’s important to stay open to new voices and projects,” he says. The space was threatened by far-right groups in July 2018 for hosting an exhibition about gender and sexuality. In light of this, in 2019 it is co-producing a dance performance called „Fear“ (Angst).

Decades before, the Goethe Institute in Salvador had already had an important role in supporting artistic groups and movements during the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964–1985). It had hosted movie festivals, dance and theater performances, and even the annual assembly of the Unified Black Movement against Racial Discrimination (MNUCDR) in 1978 after the federal police prevented the event from being held in other spaces of the city (Alberti, Pereira 2007). The same happened more recently in other countries. In 2011, at the time of the „Arab Spring,” the Goethe-Institut Cairo set up the „Tahrir Lounge,” a platform for discussions and exchanges among young Egyptians. As a sign of the current times, in 2018 the Goethe Institute included for the first time in its strategic planning the „Promotion of Civil Society” as one of its main goals.

In Germany, the party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) and other organized right-wing movements have been attacking the German theater scene, with complaints against plays, disturbance of performances, and demands of reduction of subsidies. This was one of the drivers for the organization of the “Die Vielen” (The many) movement to support the freedom and diversity of the arts. Launched in November 2018, the „Declaration of Many“ was already signed by more than 400 arts institutions and 2000 individuals, in 14 regional groups.

There is no way out without a way through

In times of crisis of democracy, cultural institutions have the role of protecting (symbolically and physically) cultural heritage and artists, of listening and giving voice to those who need it, of resisting and criticizing the ones in power through curation and programming and, more importantly, they have the role of fighting for their own existence. Of course, cultural institutions are not obliged to do any of these tasks, but they can. And why chose to stand by when we can do something?

In the Brazilian case, where most cultural organizations are governmentally funded, it may be difficult for cultural leaders to confront the political establishment without threatening their own jobs and even their institutions. This situation “might require of us to imagine a different model for marrying political activism and art-making, a model that is non-institutional,” as put by Pablo Helguera, Director of Adult and Academic programs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (Petrovich, White 2018, p. 55). For those who cannot act, to exist is already to resist. But for those who can, they have to take advantage of their possibilities and embrace their role, either as main agents or as partners.

In this regard, the role of cultural leaders is central. Organizations are made by people and their choices. There are limitations imposed by the complex network of forces and stakeholders of every arts institution, but the possibilities are also numerous. As in any other period of crisis, cultural leaders can find opportunities to inject new energy in their work and in their own organizational culture, “abandoning and eschewing a culture of no in favor of a culture of yes,” as stated by the Portland-based artist, curator, and educator Kristan Kennedy (Petrovich, White 2018, p. 63).

There is no way out of the crisis without a way through it. And to go through, cultural organizations, their leaders and teams have to be bold, bus also savvy and strategic. More than never, they have to go back to their mission, vision, and values, to reflect upon themselves, their potentials and limitations and have a clear notion of their best role in these new times.

Questions and reflections: a crisis can always be a chance to change

This current crisis carries a chance for other changes. It can be a unique opportunity for self-criticism and self-improvement among cultural institutions. The external challenges are also a chance to stress the concept of “cultural democracy” and to realize that the defense of democracy must begin inside these institutions. It is time to ask: are our museums, orchestras, and theaters living up to democracy in their work practices, governance models, community engagement policies? If not, it is time to do so.

This self-evaluation sheds light on the importance of audience development and engagement policies. If rebuilding democracy is about rebuilding the capacity to dialogue, cultural institutions will not have much relevance in the future if they don’t know their audiences and are not keen to make real efforts to broaden them. Many people vote for populists because they are lost or disoriented. How can arts institutions help to bring these people back and to reaffirm the importance of democratic values?

Maybe democracies all over the world will sooner or later overcome this “mid-life crisis,” as defined by David Runciman, author of the book “How Democracy Ends” (2017). But until then, cultural institutions will navigate through new types of uncertainty and will have to formulate new answers to questions they already took for granted: What is the purpose of our existence? Why should we be funded by governments, companies, and citizens? Why does society need us? And what changes do we have to do to reaffirm the place of culture in society? How do we transform initiatives into organized strategies to face this moment of crisis? There are no easy answers to difficult questions. And the challenges about to be faced by arts institutions worldwide are far more complex than the old and present ones related to revenue sources and sustainability models.

As a Brazilian arts manager and a world citizen myself, I personally do not fear the end of democracy, or of art and its institutions in the near future. What I fear is something even worse and not yet seen. Using the words of the Brazilian sociologist Celso Rocha de Barros articulated in an interview with the Brazilian magazine Revista Piauí: “There is a whole grey area between democracy and dictatorship within which it is possible to move with advances and setbacks. And maybe democracy does not end, it only means less than it already meant.” If we do not act now as a sector, it is not only the existence of cultural institutions that is at risk but the very meaning of culture as an endeavour towards a common and better future. This time of crisis shows that it is time to use the resilience, creativity, and passion present in the arts organizations to help colour this grey area we find our societies in. ***

Photo: Die Vielen e.V.


Petrovich, D., White, R., (eds.) (2018): As Radical, as Mother, as Salad, as Shelter: What Should Art Institutions Do Now?. Paper Monument.

Runciman, D. (2017): How Democracy Ends. Profile Books.

Gestão cultural com propósito // Arts management with purpose www.qualityforculture.org (PT/EN)

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