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.

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