Art in a Storm

The troubled economy has spared no one, including Hawaii’s treasured arts and cultural institutions. They’ve been battered by layoffs and cutbacks. Is Hawaii’s art community sinking?


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Georgianna Lagoria, director of The Contemporary Museum. After losing half its staff in last fall’s downturn, TCM looked for new ways to deliver great art to new audiences.

Photo: Dana Edmunds

When it became clear last year that the economy was foundering, every sector in the Islands started feeling the pain, including the arts. Reports of cutbacks by museums and performance groups appeared in headlines, alongside tourism drops, retail hits and home foreclosures.

Larger venues dependent on ticket sales, membership dues, endowments and outside funding were the first to show distress. It began when the Honolulu Symphony nearly closed last May, and saved, for the time being, by an anonymous donation of more than $1 million.

In a financial tsunami of this magnitude, Hawaii’s galleries, troupes and craftsmen also started to drown. “Sometimes, when I call someone, I’m not sure they are still employed. I think there is a deep, deep current of distress in the arts,” says Rich Richardson, director of the Arts at Marks Garage. “All the groups that work here in Marks Garage and in our community of arts-related businesses in Chinatown are cutting staff and hours.”

Arts leaders know that past performance is no guarantee of future results, to borrow a business expression. The downturn is global and making casualties of even major institutions on the Mainland, such as the mismanaged Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the cash-strapped Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum near Boston, Mass. Hawaii’s cultural institutions here implemented a series of mayday procedures to prevent a similar fate.

In September, The Contemporary Museum (TCM) performed emergency surgery on its staff, amputating 25 positions out of 48 in one day. The action saved TCM an instant half-million dollars and possibly even the museum itself. Its small, but respectable, nearly $6 million endowment had lost a third of its value in last year’s downturn. Next, the Honolulu Academy of Arts let go of eight of its 150-member staff in October and warned of double-digit downsizing to come in 2009. Like TCM and museums worldwide, the Academy’s endowment—nearly $60 million—rapidly devalued by about 30 percent.

"We're looking at this as an R&D period."—Stephen Little, director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts

The Bishop Museum laid off 14 of its 221 employees last June. Tim Johns, president, director and CEO, reports that, so far, it has lost $500,000 in state funding, as well as uncalculated income from its facilities rental operation, out of its $14 million budget. The museum’s workforce has voluntarily initiated a pay cut to help complete renovations to Hawaiian Hall.

Johns has been through recessions before. “2001 was a sharper drop off with a quicker recovery,” he recalls. “Eventually we will emerge in 12 to 18 months. You can look at deaccessioning people, assets, programs, research. That’s not something we want to do. You have to set your hand at the tiller and hold fast.”

In recent years, the arts had thrived in the Nuuanu-Chinatown district, where thousands of kamaaina and tourists have flocked to First Fridays, visiting one independent gallery after another. But there have been casualties there, as well. First, rRed Elephant closed, then Kimo’s and Keiki Photography. This month, Nuuanu Gallery, Chinatown’s only gallery dedicated to exhibiting and selling international, museum-quality contemporary art, is shutting down. Mariko Merritt, gallery manager, said that despite its ambitions, “It was basically a black hole.” Of her colleagues’ reactions, she says, “The people in the neighborhood are sad and scared. They don’t want to see another gallery close. It’s like, ‘Oh, no, another one?’”

Care about the Arts?

Come to a public roundtable discussion with some of the arts leaders you’ve met in this article. Bring your questions and suggestions.

Thursday, March 19, 2009
7:00 p.m.

Hawaii Public Radio’s
Atherton Theatre
738 Kaheka Street
Hear audio from this event.

The Neighbor Islands are struggling, too. By the end of 2008, the Maui Arts and Cultural Center had cut 10 percent of its payroll. Director Karen Fischer says, “people are buying lower-priced-tickets later. Even though there may be a sold-out show, we won’t know until the day before or the day of. It’s nerve-racking.” As a result, its staff began taking one unpaid day off a month to help with cash flow. On the Big Island, Volcano Art Center found its cash-strapped audiences bartering food for entrance to events.

Arts education and advocacy at the state level have been feeling the crunch, too. State funds for arts education and programming took a 20 percent hit in Gov. Linda Lingle’s proposed 2009 budget, reduced to a mere $900,000. “Hawaii used to be No. 1 in the nation for support of the arts. Prior to 1994, there was a $5 million arts grants budget. After it went to $1.2 million, there was one of those fights where they were talking about wiping it out altogether,” says Marilyn Cristofori, director of the Hawaii Arts Alliance. At this new nadir, arts leaders have begun to wonder if the programs and the arts as we know them across Hawaii can even survive.


Securing Lifelines

In response to these blows by the recession, many organizations are innovating, getting tougher and more efficient as they focus on their core missions. The Contemporary Museum has cancelled or indefinitely postponed its upcoming imported exhibitions. Such exhibitions are expensive—yet they deliver the international perspective patrons expect of TCM. To meet that need, TCM hopes to bring artists from abroad to the museum to make art here, says director Georgianna Lagoria. Rather than paying to freight in and insure an exhibit, TCM will pay for a plane ticket and give its audience access to the artist directly. 

Even little cuts help. Like many of its peers, TCM is limiting its air-conditioning use, curbing in-office laser printing and striving even harder to recycle materials to keep expenses to a bare minimum while the skeleton crew continues doubling up on tasks.

It’s also embarking on a tech-savvy, Yes-We-Can-style grassroots publicity and development campaign.

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