Honolulu Museum of Art Gets Its First Dedicated Curator for Hawai‘i-Based Art

The Honolulu Museum of Art welcomes Healoha Johnston as curator for the Arts of Hawai‘i collection.

Editor’s Note: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director and a talented Hawaii writer on arts, culture and food.




Traditional Hawaiian works make up an enviable segment of the works held by the Honolulu Museum of Art, yet the museum never had a curator solely dedicated to this collection—until now.


Founded by a missionary daughter, the museum has long benefited from kama‘āina family donations of traditional Hawaiian works collected by generations of descendants. Just one example is the array of gleaming ‘umeke (calabashes). The collection includes extensive holdings of artwork made in Hawai‘i by European and American artists (such as the Volcano School paintings by non-native artists in the 1880s and 1890s), and modern and contemporary works by artists based in Hawai‘i.


The museum’s arts of Hawai‘i collection has always been part of the European and American art department, and most recently, curator of European and American art Theresa Papanikolas mined it for the basis of her rich exhibitions Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawai‘i Pictures and Art Deco Hawai‘i


Last month, Healoha Johnston joined the museum as assistant curator for arts of Hawai‘i. “All of us at the museum are just delighted to have Healoha as part of our curatorial team,” Papanikolas says. “Not only does she bring her immense experience and expertise to the museum, but for the first time we now have a specialist in this area. I think we’re all going to learn a lot from Healoha about Hawai‘i’s singular art history, how it plays within the local community, and how it resonates in its broader context. I can’t wait to see what interesting projects and initiatives she develops.”


 Theresa Papanikolas and HEALOHA JOHNSTON at the arts of Hawai‘i gallery.


Just a month into her new job, Johnston is busy familiarizing herself with the collection and her colleagues. Recently she got a tour of the textiles vault from textiles curator Sara Oka. The women swapped textile stories as they examined Hawaiian quilts wrapped in muslin and bearing tags describing the designs hidden within. Johnston shared her experience of visiting Hulihe‘e Palace and sitting on a bed made of layers of lauhala. When Oka opened a drawer of elegant little purses, some of them looking like they could be from the set of Downton Abbey, Johnston joked, “You know I have a clutch fetish.” It’s always fun to watch curators nerd out over art and artifacts.


Healoha Johnston and textile curator Sara Oka review Chinese textile.


The quilts are particularly interesting for Johnston, whose art history master’s thesis was on the Queen’s Quilt—the patchwork crazy quilt Queen Lili‘uokalani created during her imprisonment at ‘Iolani Palace, where it is displayed. “I investigated the quilt’s symbols and considered their meaning within the context of the politics of the time,” says Johnston. She is also on the verge of completing a second master’s in Pacific Island Studies.


HEALOHA Johnston and Sara Oka review the quilt collection.


The arts of Hawai‘i collection is one that crosses departments, with works residing in the European and American collection (the museum is aware of the colonialist irony in that), the textile collection and the contemporary collection. After her textile vault visit, Johnston said she looks forward to working with Oka, and reflected on how collaboration with other curators is a two-way street. “For example, regarding textiles, my engagement is more on the scholarly side, researching things like symbols, while Sara’s expertise extends to hands-on training, so she knows things such as how something can or cannot be hung or mounted. Being able to rely on other people’s expertise—whether it’s technical skill or institutional knowledge and exhibition history—can make a stronger show.”


Johnston looks forward to reaching out to her curatorial peers in the Islands and throughout the country who work with similar collections. “There is a lot of room to expand existing narratives about the art of Hawai‘i by working with curators at other museums,” she says. “It will take time, but I am really looking forward to cultivating those relationships.”


Johnston, who has deep roots in Kuli‘ou‘ou, brings to the museum a diverse arts background. Her experience includes serving as an assistant curator at the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and running a small photography gallery in San Diego, to curating contemporary photography exhibitions at the San Diego Natural History Museum as an independent curator. For four years she was the gallery assistant to Luis De Jesus (whom she considers her mentor) at his well-regarded contemporary art gallery in Los Angeles, where she did everything from work with international curators to handle publicity and the budget.


She has also applied her research skills and museum studies experience to other areas—most recently she worked as a grant writer for the Hula Preservation Society, where she assisted in the development of museum methodology practice that observes cultural protocol as well as conservation quality methods, and as a policy specialist for NOAA, where she assisted with the writing of Marine National Monument Plans for the Marianas Trench, the Rose Atoll and the Pacific Remote Islands marine national monuments.


Museum director Stephan Jost has wanted to create the new position for some time, “because a massive amount of basic curatorial research needs to be done in this area,” he says. “It is a specialized field that we need an expert in. Most of our curators have been educated on the Mainland or have little formal training in the arts of Hawai‘i. It is really a 20- to 30-year project to frame the history of art in Hawai‘i with all of the cultural complexities and contested issues.”


Johnston looks at the collection from a big-picture view, saying that “because there is such limited knowledge of Hawai‘i’s history in a general sense, the art history knowledge of Hawai‘i is even more nebulous. Nothing evolves in isolation—the circumstances in Hawai‘i today branch from a root of what happened in the past. Being able to explore that historical trajectory allows us to better understand Hawai‘i’s visual culture.”


Lesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.