This week, The New York Times’ former Brazilian correspondent, Larry Rohter , published an inspiring profile  on Brazil’s SESC system. SESC  – which stands for Serviço Social de Comércio (Social Service of Commerce) – happens to be Brazil’s leading arts financing entity.
Created in 1946, SESC is a private nonprofit organization whose role – to improve workers’ lives via access to education, culture, health, and recreation – is included in the Brazilian constitution and whose funding is assured by a 1.5 percent payroll tax imposed on Brazilian companies. The really genius thing about this set-up is that the more workers there are, the bigger SESC’s budget is.
As such, over the last few years – which have witnessed unprecedented economic growth rates and record levels of employment (the year 2011 ended with an unemployment rate of 6 percent) – SESC has actually had more money to invest in arts and culture.
Indeed, according to Rohter’s interview with SESC’s director Danilo Miranda, the organization’s biggest – and most deliriously enviable – challenge is coming up with ways of spending a budget that has been ballooning by 10 percent – or $600 million – every year.
SESC is active in all 27 Brazilian states, but its presence is most pronounced in Brazil’s most populous and wealthiest state, São Paulo , home to 41 million out of 200 million Brazilians.
São Paulo currently boasts 18 SESC cultural and recreational centers. Not only are they inextricably linked to the city’s cultural life, but many of them are housed in creatively renovated abandoned buildings or boldly modern constructions that have become architectural landmarks. Without them, Paulistanos would be cultural orphans; over 300,000 people a week turn out to see performances by top international and home-grown names in music, theater, and dance. They can afford to so because SESC events are very reasonably priced – or free.
I first discovered – and was blown away by – SESC upon my first trip to São Paulo back in the ‘90s Within in a week, I attended a terrific play, A Máquina, for R$10 at SESC Belenzinho  and saw the marvelous Bahian singer, Virgínia Rodrigues  (featured above), perform live at SESC Vila Mariana  for R$10. Because SESC centers also have restaurants, cafés, libraries, lounges, and galleries (not to mention sports facilities), I was also able to spend an evening guzzling icy chope (draft beer) at the atmospheric choperia at SESC Pompéia  and take in a film for R$6 at CineSESC , a movie theater that’s not only endowed with a mammoth screen, but also a glassed-in bar below the projection room where you can sip a caipirinha while watching a film.
I always recommend that visitors to São Paulo check out SESC’s offerings. However, another great thing about SESC is that, as part of their mission to improve the lives of Brazilian workers, they operate attractively-designed, efficiently-run, and extremely affordable hotels, sometimes actually as part of cultural centers, in various key tourist sites throughout Brazil (many of which are listed in Moon Brazil ). Destinations range from cities such as Brasília  and Rio de Janeiro  (whose Copacabana address was designed by none other than Oscar Niemeyer ) to the colonial town of Pirenópolis , in Goiás, and the wilds of Mato Grosso’s Pantanal . Although rates are particularly low for SESC members, the slightly higher prices charged to unaffiliated tourists are still a good bargain.