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?

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.
  

 

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.
 

Lagoria aims to “increase microfundraising using the Obama model” by retooling TCM’s Web site for online solicitations in order to take advantage of computer-driven interactivity with members and online supporters. Using the Internet for marketing, in lieu of printing and postage, will bring costs down and “get the word out there in ways we haven’t in the past” as well. The museum will roll out incentives for the military, students and other underserved constituents, hoping to encourage new visitors to attend exhibitions drawn from its own collection and discover educational programming by local artists.

Even though it is better positioned than TCM, its younger cousin on the hill, the Honolulu Academy of Arts also suffered a massive trauma when it lost nearly $20 million from its endowment last fall. The Academy is likewise canceling shows, adopting green operations and ferreting out inefficiencies. It is trimming its 2009 budget by 30 percent and looking within for solutions.

“One of the great gifts of this cutback is the chance to do an archaeological dig in our storerooms. We’re looking at this as an R&D period,” says Stephen Little, director of the Academy. Museums rarely exhibit more than 20 percent of their collection at any given moment, and the Academy is no exception. It cares for nearly 70,000 works of art from civilizations throughout history and around the world. Forthcoming from the Academy’s under-explored treasure trove are lavish presentations of the entire 46-print suite of Hokusai’s “36 Views of Edo,” restored Old Master paintings and fresh Native Hawaiian scholarship.

"If local people don’t support local art, we can’t go on."—Sandy Pohl, owner of Louis Pohl gallery

The Academy is also researching ways it can turn its collection into exhibits it can export. Traveling shows profit by securing exhibit fees from solvent foreign art funds backed by favorable exchange rates. They also provide good marketing. Notes Little, “It’s important that someone goes to a museum in New York or London and sees that a show was created in Honolulu, from scratch. It’s important for our economy and our future to be seen as somewhat more complex and interesting than the average tourist assumes.”

Like the Academy, the Bishop  Museum is turning to its own extraordinary, world-renowned collections as a resource. Its aim is to design engaging, Web-ready exhibitions on “Hawaiian culture from a Hawaiian perspective for the first time,” says Tim Johns. Moreover, it plans to bring the museum to the Neighbor Islands through the Internet as well as bring the world to the museum. It will continue to import interactive and instructive exhibits that draw patrons, such as the recent exhibit on the prehistoric shark, megalodon.

In the downtown arts scene, Sandy Pohl, owner of Louis Pohl Gallery and longtime aunty of the arts in Chinatown, is preparing for a tough future. “If local people don’t support local art, we can’t go on,” says Pohl. She talks about how different it is now from the 1990s and later when Chinatown began its revival. “We used to be able to pay our rent [through purchases made on] First Friday. That’s how good it was. I really don’t know what the business model of tomorrow is. None of us can do business how we used to—not the galleries, not the restaurants, no one.” As a result, the Arts District Merchants Association is collaborating to create entrepreneurial workshops for artists and new businesses to teach how to take advantage of an economy in flux.

Some arts leaders hope that the state and the Hawaii Tourism Authority will reconsider cutting their support for the arts, education and marketing. If the state feels it can’t justify spending scarce tax dollars on art for art’s sake, then perhaps it can be convinced to support local cultural institutions, as they are tourist destinations.


Harry Wong III, artistic director, Kumu Kahua, hopes the state will do more to promote local arts as a visitor draw.

Photo: Dana Edmunds

Like many of his colleagues, Harry Wong III, artistic director of Kumu Kahua theater, is bracing for the future with lessons from the past. After Sept. 11, tourists stranded on Oahu while their planes were grounded began exploring beyond the beach and headed downtown. Through suddenly increased ticket sales, Kumu Kahua and other performance venues were given a concentrated example of how curious visitors were inclined to support the arts. Wong observes that, in the years since “people who are traveling have changed. They have more money and want something deeper about Hawaii. Along with the beach culture, the Tourism Authority needs to appeal to all kinds of people.” The Contemporary Museum’s director agrees. Lagoria reports that visitors for the arts are a growth industry because research shows that “cultural tourists stay longer and spend more money. It’s only recently that it’s been seen that arts are an asset for tourism.”

“There is an economic ripple effect that leverages every dollar 12 times,” says Cristofori, who argues that the state’s $2.2 million investment for 2007 turned into $28.2 million in activity in the arts sector of the economy.

Still, the line for public funding is long, and arts and culture nonprofits are lining up alongside public schools and state hospitals, which are also taking hits. Arts organizations might want to take a look at a rare bright spot in their sector for example of another course to take—Diamond Head Theatre (DHT), which has built a base of support from within. John Rampage, artistic director of DHT for 14 years and a near 30-year veteran of the organization, credits its success to its “focus on quality and customer relations.” Consistently in the black, DHT is “exceeding expectations” this year because of musically driven spectaculars that are predictably upbeat and flexibly priced. These productions are also integrated into the theater’s other operations, such as DHT’s in-house drama classes, which incubate casts of friends and acquaintances who are familiar to the audience. The combination of crowd-pleasing productions, starring community celebrities, attracts full houses and return visits. “Each one of our performers is our best advertising,” says Rampage.

Not every arts organization can put its biggest fans on stage, but they can turn to their closest supporters for help. Until the economy recovers, our cultural leaders are battening down their hatches to ride out the storm.

Andrew Rose is a Honolulu artist represented by Fine Arts Associates and an instructor at the Honolulu Academy of Arts’ Linekona School.