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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Curators say the Academy’s new department of contemporary art and more flexible galleries will allow more creative displays, such as these “juxtapositions” drawn from the two museum’s collections.
Jan Philips van Thielen