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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Mark Burak, an Academy trustee, has helped guide the Academy’s side of the merger.

Why merge?

The idea of merging the two institutions has actually been kicking around for about a decade. According to Academy trustee and merger subcommittee member Mark Burak, Thurston Twigg-Smith (TCM’s founder, and the only person who sits on both museums’ boards) “has made several attempts to forward [the idea of a merger] at least to the point of review.”
The limited size of Hawaii’s donor community has always been a challenge for the two institutions. In addition, a merger with a location in town would solve a pressing problem for TCM: its residential zoning, which has hindered growth. In addition to being tricky to find by car and hard to access by bus, TCM operates under a conditional use permit that means it can’t even invite its 1,500-strong membership for a fundraising evening. A prolonged search for an alternative location turned up nothing suitable that was also affordable.

On the Academy’s side, a merger with TCM would fill a gap in contemporary art expertise and holdings. Although contemporary art curation is generally seen as a distinct job description, the Academy’s contemporary art has been the domain of its European and American curator, who also oversees several thousand years’ worth of continent-spanning artwork. The Academy’s contemporary art collection stopped growing significantly in 1991, the year Jay Jensen, then its Curator of Western Art, moved to The Contemporary Museum.
Says Jensen, who is now TCM’s deputy director of exhibitions and collections: “[The Academy’s] focus on contemporary art dropped off after I left, so the collection just sort of remained static. And if a museum collection, especially a major museum, remains static, then it’s just not a good thing. Especially with contemporary art. It’s all about what’s happening now.”

The Academy’s strengths were clearly historical, and many people liked it that way. “At first we had a lot of skepticism about why would we do this, and what’s the point?” says Burak.

Then, in 2008, came the stock market crash. Invested endowments plummeted, and cash-strapped donors began to reduce or eliminate their contributions. The Academy shed 19 positions, or about 20 percent of its workforce, while TCM undertook a round of layoffs that shrunk its staff from 42 positions to 16 today. Operating budgets were slashed, and both museums halted potentially expensive traveling exhibitions. Still, Honolulu Civil Beat reported that in 2008, the Academy’s outflow was $4.4 million more than its inflow, and in 2009, it was $4.1 million more. TCM has no debt, but its plan to construct a new building to house its permanent collection—something deemed critical for the museum’s future growth—suddenly became something “we just weren’t going to be able to finish,” says Wong.

All this was fiscally responsible, and it was not unlike what nonprofits across the country were experiencing, but, says Wong, it was “devastating to see.”

Eighteen months ago, merger talks began in earnest as both institutions searched for solutions. “The economy tanking was something that quickly drove us together, to ask, ‘Could we be more efficient?’” says Nate Smith, a TCM trustee. Both museums soon discovered that, in Dan Monroe’s words, “saving money is not a viable reason for effecting a merger.” Mergers are complicated, and costs can actually rise in the short term. “We’ve been advised from the beginning to look at this long-term,” says Griffith. “Otherwise no one would ever merge.”

That there were plenty of long-range reasons for merging also became clear. Not only could the museums consolidate their donor base, but a single museum with a more complete contemporary collection and increased gallery space would be in a position to attract more gifts and grants.

The Peabody Essex ideal—of a transformed, stable, dynamic institution that grows to much more than the sum of its parts—is a compelling one. Eventually, although both boards were initially “very far apart,” says Burak, “You talk and talk and talk, and iron all those things out and come together with a common set of agreeable objectives.”

One thing everyone can agree on: the real goal, in Johnson’s words, is to merge two museums into “something more exciting for the community than either one of them could have been separately.”  Griffith adds: “Because we have such devotees of contemporary art and devotees of historical art, we want them to rest assured that what they love will remain at the core—but there will be more of it.”

The Basics

Name. After some discussion of a possible change to the Honolulu Art Museum (HAM), it was decided that the new museum would retain the name Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Money. The Contemporary Museum will transfer all its assets to the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Art. The Contemporary Museum’s entire collection will be gifted to the Academy.

Staff. Mergers conjure layoffs, but both staffs have already been pared severely. Says Mark Burak: “The agreement now is everybody comes over and everybody has a shot at the future and the new director evaluates everyone objectively. And assuming we can afford it, everybody has a nice job for the future. That’s our objective.”

Shows. Local artists can rest easy. Both museums’ biennial venues—the Academy’s juried Artists of Hawaii and TCM’s invitational Biennial—are slated to keep going. Jay Jensen and Inger Tully of TCM will take over Artists of Hawaii, and the Biennial will move down to the Beretania location in 2012.


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