Appointed Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Henry G. Cisneros has emerged as the President's most vocal cabinet member on the arts and humanities. He served as Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, from 1981-1989, was elected president of the National League of Cities in 1985, and has served on the boards of numerous philanthropic and civic organizations. Secretary Cisneros earned a master's degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a doctorate in public administration from George Washington University.
He spoke with Jane Slate Siena, Head of Institutional Relations for the Getty Conservation Institute and Managing Editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Jane Slate Siena: Mr. Secretary, thank you for welcoming us into your offices, where you have a marvelous selection of paintings on loan from Washington museums.
Henry G. Cisneros: I felt it was important to have something to remind officials of our purpose, our constituency, and the diversity of communities across America. These paintings, by American artists, are about city scenes and landscapes of American communities.
They also symbolize the integration of culture in urban development. Why is this integration important?
I've long had a commitment to the aesthetics of urban places, beyond form, function, and utilitarian ideas, to enhance the quality of life where we work, recreate, study, and live. The arts help us achieve that. Frequently, music, visual art, theater, and dance reach people and bring them together. We cannot with political declarations do the kind of integrating that happens in a park when young people see other people of a different ethnic group celebrating their artistic heritageor attend a street fair and see art exhibitionsor go to museumsor enjoy performances by visiting artists. They're lifted, inspired, and moved to participate through a sense of contact, a sense of oneness.
You have studied what you have referred to as the "accumulated effects" of culture. How has this affected your perspective?
It's not possible to understand world history without understanding the artistic developments of various eras and cultures. One can go through every period of history and see some analogue between the greatness of that time and the interplay of politics, events, and artistic achievements.
As Mayor of San Antonio, you helped transform that city by capitalizing on its historic and cultural wealth. How were you able to balance a range of societal concerns with the need to save the city's irreplaceable cultural assets?
Frankly, the pressing problems of society and the arts and culture of San Antonio are inseparable. The city's economic development and economic prosperity are closely tied to historic preservation and preserving the city's unique culture. When we invest in the city's human scale, the preservation of historic and architecturally-significant places, we're enhancing the economic value of the place because that's what people come to see. These are things that make San Antonio different from any other mid-size American city that has paved over its historic assets with a grid street system. We preserved the meandering, crooked streets that lead to the San Antonio River, along with a battle site, missions, and other historic assets.
What was your approach to the culturally-diverse heritage of San Antonio?
The duality between the majority Texas culture and the Hispanic culture, which now represents 51 percent of San Antonio, had to be dealt with in ways faithful to both. The traditional leadership of arts organizations and the community-based, indigenous cultural groups faced some tough confrontations. But we were able to work these things out. The dominant institutions learned how much interest there is in folk art, mariachi music, and other manifestations of the local cultures, and have adapted to it. For example, we had a great fight with the Witte Museum and the San Antonio Museum Association when they tried to juxtapose themselves against the folkloric groups. Now one of the most prized collections of the San Antonio Museum of Art is the Rockefeller folk art collection. This wonderfully exciting, colorful, playful collection of Mexican folk art has become a major asset for the community.
What are you seeking to accomplish at HUD?
We have five objectives: to reduce homelessness, to turn around the worst of public housing, to produce more affordable housing and greater access to home ownership, to develop open housing policies by reducing discriminatory practices, and to focus on community life and well-being. In all of these areas, there is a place for quality in design, aesthetic dimensions, and the essence of the urban place. I want to push this agency back to where it began in the 1960s when there was an understanding of preservation, of urban design, of architectural excellence and competitions to achieve it, of the influence of the environment on how people live.
Is public housing the next major venue for publicly funded art?
Human beings are not automatons to be put in minimalist buildings with little attention to the needs of the human spirit. This great experiment in housing has failed. Why? Because you cannot, on a low-bid, efficient-design basis, isolate people and warehouse them like cattle. The human spirit doesn't allow it.
I see public housing as requiring a dramatic remake in our country. It must include attention to the quality of the environment, and that includes public art and the preservation of identifying landmarks. It means murals, architectural treatments, colors, and a lively environment that stimulates children. We must convert sterility and disrespect into meaningful life experiences.
We're discussing an expanded agenda for the arts at a time of reduced resources at the national level. How do we respond to this dilemma?
The first thing is to recognize a new collaboration among the federal agencies that focuses on community. Secondly, we must do a better job in the federal agencies of building cultural and other human considerations into our work. A public housing remake, for example, should include a cultural component. Ultimately, it is critical that we work with foundations in a new era of partnership. Frequently, philanthropic organizations can provide resources that would not be available otherwise, as you are doing at the Getty.
Is a trend emerging to use art and culture as vehicles for community development?
Yes. It's the result of an infrastructure, built up in recent years, of community-based arts institutions. They have a legitimate artistic purpose and have provided a foundation for this movement.
Los Angeles is a prototype for the challenges that many American cities face and that you are addressing. What have you learned from your intense association with this city?
I care deeply about Los Angeles. I was with Mayor Bradley and others after the riots in 1992, and I came to see Los Angeles as an analogue for the crisis that confronts American cities generally. Driving the burning streets of Los Angeles with the sky orange from flames and sirens wailing and a sense that America was coming unraveled, I knew that I would come back into government should the opportunity present itself to address the urban crisis in a new administration. Then, in January 1994, I returned to Los Angeles after the earthquake to help those who were rendered homeless. It was truly gratifying to go to Los Angeles for several weeks, see the community response taking hold, and then return and see that the programs we judged necessary in that emergency were working. When you give to a place, you gain a real affection for it, and so I have a special affection for the miracle that is Los Angeles.
The GCI is conserving a large public mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros located in the historic heart of Los Angeles. We hope our work will serve as a catalyst for conservation of the entire neighborhood. Do you think it's possible for this kind of action to stimulate the attention the area needs?
I have no doubt. These efforts need to begin somewhere, and the preservation of something as important as Siqueiros' workand an explanation of it to a modern generation as an expression of heritageis important. It can stimulate community pride and other efforts to revive the neighborhood. Every complex of artistic activity started with a single act and somebody asking the question "Do you think it will make a difference if we do this one?"
How would you like your tenure in office to be remembered?
As having dealt with the immediate needs to house the homeless, to provide affordable housing to more people, and to improve public housing. But also as having put into place permanent improvements that form a lasting legacy well beyond the utilitarian, the practical, the minimalist, the functionaland that recognize our humanity.