Guido Sáenz may be one of the most famous figures in Costa Rican art history, but interviewing him feels more like having a conversation with an old friend. He is instantly open, calm and sincere. His smile is wide, his laugh is innocuous and soft, and his stories are unfiltered, charming and unabridged.
But when he chooses, his words are biting and critical.
Sáenz, who turns 82 in January, has worn many hats: actor, writer, owner of a family brick-making company, two-time culture minister, musician, park designer, professor, director and painter.
“It’s been a very interesting journey,” said Sáenz, who met with The Tico Times this week at Galería Valanti art gallery in eastern San José’s Barrio Escalante. “Opportunities have come along and I’ve taken them. Each one has led me down a different road accompanied by self-discovery and new experience and challenges.”
Sáenz could be called the godfather of cultural offerings in Tiquicia. When he was first appointed as culture vice minister in 1970, the country’s cultural landscape was barren, Sáenz said.
“The only place to go and see a decent art show was the National Museum,” he said. “Besides that, there was nothing else. No venues for theater or art displays or music. There was very little access to the arts.”
But Sáenz, a veteran of the stage who studied music and arts in the U.S., changed all that. He reassembled the national orchestra and started a youth orchestra. He created the Costa Rican Art Museum in La Sabana Park from the shell of an old airport, remodeled the Melico Salazar Theater and created legitimate park life in San José. Sáenz designed Parque de la Paz in southern San José and the west-side La Sabana Park, a forested oasis in the midst of urban sprawl.
Sáenz sat down with The Tico Times to discuss his life’s work, the current state of the Costa Rican arts and the National Stadium in La Sabana Park, which he called a “national disgrace.”
TT: You’ve been vocal from the onset about your opposition to the National Stadium. What are your thoughts about it?
GS: (Laughs.) Well, I don’t spit fire like I used to because what’s done is done. But it’s a crime. Just a crime. (Former President) Oscar Arias could have built that stadium anywhere he wanted. There’s plenty of room for a stadium in other parts of San José that are not designated areas for a public park. But he chose to build it in the biggest public park in the center of town. Now there are going to be 35,000 people trying to get in to see a game in an already crowded part of town. It’s a catastrophe.
Why do you consider it a crime?
It’s a crime because it’s detrimental to the public. La Sabana Park was created as a service to the public. It’s long been known that San José as a city is poorly designed and congested. Creating a park in the center of the city was intended to provide air and nature and life to the city. The park is supposed to be the lungs of the city. It is where the city breathes.
Have you ever been to the park on a Sunday? There are kids playing, families are having picnics, people are fishing, reading, sleeping, studying, swimming. Generations of families, grandparents, their children and their children’s children go to the park every Sunday. It’s family tradition. The park is like a sanctuary from the rest of the city. San José can be loud and busy. The park allows you to get away from it for an afternoon.
Think of it like New York City. Central Park was built to provide the same thing. A place where you can find nature in the middle of a big city. But what if New York decided to build a stadium in Central Park? That’s not the point of the park. The park wasn’t built to be a location for a stadium. It was built to provide citizens of the city a place to go to relax and be in nature. These are all the same reasons we built La Sabana Park. But unlike New York, our government chose to ruin the central park by building a huge stadium in it.
I think the stadium will lead to the eventual ruin of the park.
Do you think the building of a stadium symbolizes a change of national ideals? For example, despite all the promotion of being a “green” nation, the government willingly destroys part of its central park to build a Chinese-funded stadium.
No. Not exactly. I think it symbolizes a government more interested in its own interests than those of the people. Arias wanted to leave his mark on the country. He wanted to be the one to inaugurate something historic so people would remember him as the man who brought them a great stadium. The park wasn’t a concern.
How has Costa Rica changed during your life?
I was born in 1929, so the country has changed plenty. The nation has experienced an era of decadence. We have developed alongside the rest of the world, at a slower pace in many aspects, but Costa Rica has created a niche for itself. We have put our energy into improving important pieces of our society like education and health. We are a very small country, but we have established a strong foundation and commitment to things people need to improve.
What about from an art perspective? How has Costa Rica changed in its cultural and art offerings?
When President José (“Pepe”) Figueres came to talk to me about being culture vice minister in 1970, it was almost impossible to find art or theater or good music in Costa Rica. The only place in the country to see anything worthy of being considered art was the National Theater.
Figueres knew I had studied the arts and, though I had no interest in a political life, he asked me to try to influence the art scene in Costa Rica.
It was very challenging. The musicians in the country were amateurs. They lacked the instruction and technique to perform at a high level. There simply wasn’t enough experience or knowledge for a musician to thrive.
I had to make some hard decisions. If we wanted to improve the caliber of the music in the country, we had to get rid of some of the amateur talent. That required firing many members of the national orchestra, which was hard to do. I had to look them in the eye and tell them they were not good enough to perform in the orchestra.
We also had to recruit international talent. There were good musicians in Europe and the U.S. and South America, and we had to bring them in to educate our musicians. To become a better musician, you must be educated by talented musicians. We also started a youth program to educate our young musicians. Now, you can receive good music education in the country.
There are still several areas where we are weak. Theater and acting in this country are still weak. Very weak. We lack instructors and seasoned theater veterans who can instruct young talent.
What about cinema? Costa Rican cinema seems to have improved in recent years.
Yes, national cinema has really improved in recent years. Some national directors have gone abroad and to the U.S. to learn the craft and are being recognized internationally for their efforts. Whereas we didn’t used to have the knowledge of how to produce film, we are now learning how to do so in a quality manner.
The improvement in cinema has required Costa Ricans to go abroad and learn from experts in the field. That is representative of all the arts in Costa Rica. In order to develop quality in a specific area, (the techniques) must be learned appropriately. Then, once understood, they can be taught (to others). Teaching good practices brings good quality. We’ve learned that in some areas, but in other areas we still struggle.
What do you do with your time now?
I spend most of my days painting. I hadn’t done much painting until about 20 years ago, but I always enjoyed doing so. I paint every day now.
I still write as well. I’m working on some new books and stories. It is essential for me to keep my mind active.
I also spend a lot of time with family and having long conversations with friends. One of the nicest parts of life is having long discussions with friends. Wouldn’t you agree?