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Art to Art: Anatomy of a Merger

Two of Honolulu’s largest art museums are merging. Here’s what it means for local art lovers.

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Photo: Courtesy The Contemporary Museum

They’re engaged! The Honolulu Academy of Arts and The Contemporary Museum (TCM) released a Letter of Intent to merge in July 2010. But they ain’t hitched yet. As of this writing, due diligence is ongoing, and no definitive agreement has been signed although its announcement is reportedly coming soon. Big changes probably won’t be seen until next year.

It’s a good time to ask, “Can this marriage work?” Reflecting the sentiment of many in Hawaii’s artistic community, May Izumi, whose sculpture has been exhibited at both institutions, has mixed feelings. Since “the museums both have such a different feel and personality,” she wonders whether “merging the two is not going to turn out to be some freakish two-headed baby.”

It’s a legitimate concern. From the outside, the two venues have a lot in common. They’re both art museums. They share an architectural aesthetic, commissioned within three years of each other by Anna Rice Cooke, who donated her former home site on Beretania Street to make way for the Academy building, and then lived at the grand, gracious residence in Makiki Heights that eventually became TCM.

And yet their content and cultures are very different. Traditional and contemporary art are often seen as opposites—one beautifully made and timeless, if a tad fusty; the other dynamic and diverse, but often shading off into “WTF??” The people who enjoy each stereotypically tend to be passionate about their own preference and sniff at the other.

“There are the two camps,” acknowledges Lesa Griffith, director of communications at the Academy. “People who are interested in Rembrandt, and people who are interested in Warhol.”


Photo: Courtesy The Academy of Arts

The personality of a collection can rub off on the institution that houses it. The Academy is known as a well-behaved establishment. Since the artists are usually dead, art moves mostly through a series of trained professionals: registrars, preparators and collections managers. At TCM, art is often installed by the artists themselves. Cynthia Low, a former registrar at TCM who now works at the Academy, fondly recalls days at TCM spent gathering guava leaves for an installation by the celebrated natural materials sculptor Patrick Dougherty. “It’s a different experience,” says Low, of working with living artists. You get to see their processes. Sometimes things get messy.

It’s not to say that they can’t come together. But “it’s two different types of institutions, two different types of cultures,” says Allison Wong, TCM’s director, “and it takes time.”

Museum mergers are rare, and notoriously difficult to get right. One of the more notable crash-and-burns occurred between the Jewish Museum San Francisco and Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum, which merged in 2002 to great fanfare and then “divorced” the following year amid accusations of overspending, unexpected layoffs, and widely divergent priorities.


Lynne Johnson is both the Academy’s interim director and its chairman of the board of trustees.
What’s the trick? Coming together—not just in name, but wholeheartedly. Institutional loyalties run deep, and it is tempting to merge on paper but intend to change your ways as little as possible. The Academy’s interim director Lynne Johnson, who is also the chairman of the Academy’s board of trustees, recalls, “When we were first approached to do this combination, my thought was, ‘Well, OK, that’s fine, we’re going to add on a little contemporary art department, but everything else will stay exactly the same,’” Johnson laughs. “And then I called the head of the Peabody Essex [Museum]—he had done the merger there. And he said, ‘You know what, if you’re going to do this, you can’t look at this in a limited way. You have to look at it as a whole reinvigoration of the museum.’ It scared me to death to think about that.”

It’s scary, but it’s possible. A museum merger, done right, can exceed both parties’ wildest expectations. In the early 1990s, the Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute in Massachusetts merged to form the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). With the momentum generated by the merger, the PEM grew its endowment from $23 million to more than $170 million, increased their operating budget sevenfold, renovated their facility and won an international reputation for across-the-board excellence and visitor experience. Today, almost two decades later, the PEM is still known as one of the fastest-growing museums in the nation.

“To be successful, a merger requires the creation of new institutional culture, goals, and values,” e-mails Dan Monroe, who guided the PEM’s merger and remains at its helm. Monroe emphasizes the importance of “making it clear to staff, trustees, and the public that the merger will result in a new museum.”

In other words? As Stephan Jost, who will become the Academy’s new director on May 2, puts it: “The dirty little secret [about this merger] is that it’s going to change the Academy as much as it’s going to change the Contemporary Museum.”

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