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Why is Hawai‘i’s Art Scene so Weak?

The Islands are full of talent and creativity. So what gives?


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Stephan Jost, director of the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Photo: Linny Morris 


HAWAI‘I LOVES THE ARTS. Culturally rich, naturally beautiful, politically charged, we have all the elements to inspire great art, and a collectors market to match. Yet Hawai‘i’s art scene remains a perennial under-achiever.


CONSIDER THIS: Hawai‘i boasts strong community arts appreciation that begins with youth museum education programs. The Honolulu Museum of Art hosts more than twice as many K–12 student visits annually than the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and beats the L.A. County Museum of Art and New York’s MoMA, too. The State Foundation on Culture and the Arts’ Art Bento at HiSAM and Artists in the Schools projects strive to fill our notorious DOE arts gap via Hawai‘i’s nation-leading community-arts funding. Combined, our museums rank in the top 10 institutions in the country for arts education. They fuel a demand for higher-level courses that turns out to be unmeetable. That promising pipeline slows to a trickle when it comes to University of Hawai‘i Fine Arts graduates—both BFA and MFA.


Peter Arnade, UH Mānoa’s dean of Arts and Humanities, says his college’s largest and most popular department, Art and Art History, has difficulty attracting and keeping students because it has been chronically underfunded by $1 million a year and struggles to earn support for a proposed $60-million arts complex that would recruit top students and faculty. 


And those newly minted MFA and BFA graduates who persevere soon discover that Hawai‘i offers precious few opportunities to build a real, professional career as an artist. 


Nobody we interviewed was able to name a working-age, full-time resident who earns a livable income by selling his or her art—we’re not counting dolphin and wave prints. And forget about being a full-time dancer or musician in Hawai‘i.


To get known, Hawai‘i artists donate their work to auctions where bargain-hunters lowball them. They make sweetheart deals with their friends and family, or half-heartedly apply to provincial juried shows. To pay rent, many Hawai‘i artists hold down service jobs, or settle into being teachers, state workers, freelancers or arts administrators. To stay competitive, Hawai‘i artists strive to purchase new technology, rent studios and afford the time to develop new skills. But it’s almost impossible to do those things when Hawai‘i’s art prices and incomes are 50 to 75 percent less than the national average. Spending more to earn less has practically become the state’s unofficial motto.


When it comes to the business of art, it’s telling that the largest annual art sale in Hawai‘i is the Punahou Carnival. With annual receipts of $400,000 and growing, this high school scholarship-fundraiser gallery beats out the collecting budgets of both major local museums combined. And, while the Punahou sale presents popular paintings, sculpture and design items aplenty, aesthetically speaking, it skews more toward estate sale than museum exhibit.


Hawai‘i artists are largely ignored by curators, critics and collectors in the global marketplace. Artists who reach the pinnacle of Hawai‘i’s art establishment, a solo exhibition at a museum or gallery, still lack widespread recognition and international sales. Even many of the Ala Moana and Kaka‘ako development projects decorate their lobbies and walls with Mainland objects or temporary murals. 


You don’t have to be a professor of the arts to see that Hawai‘i will be both financially and culturally poorer if we don’t start dealing with these discrepancies now, beginning with our talent pool and infrastructure.


Artist John Koga
Photo: Aaron Yoshino 


John Koga, one of Hawai‘i’s most dynamic and connected artists, has seen artists struggle to make ends meet over his 25 years as a staff member both at the State Foundation for Culture and the Arts and the Honolulu Museum of Art. Now working individually on a variety of projects (disclosure: That work includes HONOLULU Fashion Week), he believes that we not only need to bring in and encourage international creatives to engage with our Islands, but also that everything is interconnected. “For me, it needs to be a really, really cohesive effort by all to celebrate what people from Hawai‘i are able to do,” he says. It’s no longer his vision to lead audiences to the well of art and make them drink. Instead, he subscribes to nurturing an oasis of food, fashion and film around the arts that will shape the future of our creative community. We rank fourth in millionaires per capita in the nation, according to a recent study by the Phoenix Global Wealth Monitor, so where is the creative support system comparable to other wealthy communities?


Honolulu Museum of Art Director Stephan Jost
Photo: Linny Morris 

Stephan Jost, director of the multicampus Honolulu Museum of Art, is leading the charge with a restored endowment and an ambitious $16-million expansion plan for the art school. Sen. Brian Taniguchi, chair of the Higher Education and Arts Committee, believes the arts community must reorganize and do more. A senator for 21 years, Taniguchi witnessed an arts decline. “With the (Linda) Lingle administration combined with the recession, the arts took a big dive. My sense right now is we need to rebuild and get back to where we were 10 years ago,” he says. Jost echoes Taniguchi and Dean Arnade’s concerns: “Money follows mission. I don’t believe people make significant investments because you’re in crisis. They make significant investments because you have direction and know where you’re going.”


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