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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A clutch of curators, left to right: Inger Tully and Jay Jensen of TCM; Theresa Papanikolas, Sara Oka (collection manager of textiles), and Shawn Eichman of the Academy.

What happens next?

Trustees and staff from both institutions have embraced the idea of a “new museum,” using the term freely when they talk about the future. They describe the new museum as a place where you might see contemporary artists installing a massive work on the front lawn, then enter the gates for dynamic, ever-changing exhibits of Asian, European and American, and Contemporary Art—and some that blend all three.

Much of that change comes from the Academy’s curators, who, with TCM’s team, hammered out a plan during their first meeting together that will transform the way European and American, as well as contemporary art, is shown at the institution.

The European and Western wing will get a major revamp to increase exhibit flexibility. “What we want to do is basically gut the space,” says Theresa Papanikolas, the Academy’s European and American curator. European and American art will no longer be segregated, and Hawaiian art will start to make appearances in the downstairs galleries. The idea is to “put our best stuff front and center,” says Shawn Eichman, the Academy’s Curator of Asian Art.

Upstairs, the gallery that currently harbors the entire 20th Century will become the exclusive domain of contemporary art, making way for a combined collection that will, in Allison Wong’s words, help “put Hawaii on the map.”


Allison Wong started at TCM as an intern in 1993 and returned as its director in 2009, when merger talks were already underway.
Staff-wise, the Academy will create a Department of Contemporary Art, headed by TCM curators Jay Jensen and Inger Tully, to go alongside its Asian and European/American departments. Each of the three “campuses” will have a fully flexible gallery space for frequently rotated exhibitions. They can be places, says Eichman, where “the three different collections can come together and do interesting things.”

All the curators agree that a merger will provide the contemporary works with a context they don’t often have, since contemporary and traditional art are often institutionally separate. “Contemporary art didn’t just start in 1940 or 1945,” reminds Jensen. “It’s part of a long history, a continuum.”
It will also shed new light on the rest of the museum’s collection, says Johnson, the Academy’s current director. “Instead of thinking of contemporary art as something that’s now in this new department over here, to be able to say, ‘Well, everything in this museum was at one point, contemporary art.’ It’s a new way of looking at the whole collection.”

None of this will happen overnight; changes will likely happen for years to come. “You can’t just flip a switch and all of a sudden everything’s different,” says Burak. Johnson likens the implementation of the merger at the Academy to a concert season, where there’s always something to look forward to.

But what of the contemporary art museum on the hill? When asked what was important to preserve through the merger, Jensen said, “This spot, frankly,” and it’s easy to see why. Wong speaks of Spalding House, TCM’s main property, as a uniquely welcoming and intimate place, in contrast to the stark museums often associated with contemporary art.

She says its 3.5-acre gardens have allowed TCM to become a “museum without walls,” where outdoor art installations can be shown year-round.

Stephen Jost

In January, after an extensive search by nonprofit headhunting firm Phillips Oppenheim, the Academy announced its new director, Stephan Jost (“Ste-FAN YOHST”—his parents are Swiss), who will take the helm on May 2.

Chairman of the Board of Trustees Lynne Johnson says she asked Phillips Oppenheim for “somebody that knew a lot about art, that knew something about contemporary art, who was an inspiring manager, a good fundraiser, a good strategic planner. It sounds like we wanted somebody who could walk on water. But it doesn’t hurt to ask!” Trustees were also impressed when they found out that Jost and his partner had flown to Hawaii for ten days, “sub rosa,” to check it out before applying—the only candidate to do so.

Jost, 42, has already held two museum directorships, at the Mills College Art Museum in Oakland, and most recently at the Shelburne Museum, Vermont’s major art institution. Both are regional museums that experienced a reinvigoration under Jost’s leadership, increasing donations and greatly expanding public interest. Perhaps most importantly, Jost has a passion for sharing contemporary art with a regional public that is not in its usual audience.

Jost cites a time from his directorship at Mills College, when he led a group of alumni, “elderly women, mostly widows,” to Untitled (Perfect Lovers), a 1991 work that conceptual artist Félix González-Torres had made soon after losing his partner to AIDS. It consisted of two plain clocks, hung side by side on the wall, synchronized and then set going. “In this particular case,” says Jost, “one of the clocks’ batteries had died, and the clock had stopped. So for them, it was about widowhood. If I’d told you there would be thirty elderly women in love with this piece by Félix González-Torres, you’d have said ‘You’re crazy.’ But they loved it!”
Along with TCM’s two other properties (called the Johnson and Petersen Houses), ownership of Spalding House will be transferred to the Academy. The Johnson and Petersen Houses may or may not be sold, but the intention is to keep Spalding House as an annex for the Academy as long as it can sustain itself financially. According to Griffith, the wording of the agreement is “best effort.” Says Wong: “We’ll make it work.”

So this isn’t the end of The Contemporary Museum?

“Oh, no, not at all. Our whole mission is to promote contemporary art and make it available for our Island community,” says Vi Loo, chairman of TCM’s Board of Trustees. “It’s a strengthening of our whole mission”—she fixes me with a direct gaze—”or else we would never have considered it.”

“Change is inevitable,” Allison Wong tells me on a late-afternoon stroll through TCM’s grounds, looking out past gardens filled with art to the distant high rises far below us. “So how can we grow? How can we be sustainable? How can we be here for the next generation?”

Incoming Academy director Stephan Jost speaks of the possibilities of a merged institution with excitement. “People self select,” he says. “If you don’t like contemporary art, you’re not going to go to the contemporary art museum.” But at the Academy, with many more visitors per day, “you’re going to get people there who don’t necessarily like contemporary art—so there’s the possibility that they’re going to fall in love with it.”

 

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