Quote Unquote: Meet Honolulu Museum of Art’s First-Ever Hawai‘i-Raised Director

“This is one of the places I thought about most of my days,” says Sean O’Harrow, 49, the newly installed director at the Honolulu Museum of Art (and the first raised in Hawai‘i). As a youngster, his parents would drop him off at the museum. Previously executive director at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, O’Harrow was hired by the University of Iowa’s Museum of Art after leading emergency efforts to house, preserve and exhibit its collections after a devastating flood.

Sean O'HarrowMY PARENTS MET on the first day of the 1968 riots in Paris—both students at the Sorbonne, she was from Vietnam, my father from the U.S. They moved to Hawai‘i when I was 3 months old.


AFTER HARVARD, after my Ph.D. at Cambridge, I decided I should really get a job and learn about money and management. I worked for a bunch of startups during the high-tech boom. Among other things, it taught me how to start from scratch and lead a business to successive levels of development.


THE FLOOD AT IOWA was an existential threat to the museum. To face it meant going from a passive model to an active model. With every building flooded, we brought art out to the community, the museum to the people, and partnered with other institutions.


PEOPLE STARTED SEEING they needed each other. That is a good model for Hawai‘i. Living in an isolated land patch, we’re required to be more self-sufficient. For a lot of politicians, the internet is a cheap solution to a lot of problems—education, art. But people need to experience things firsthand. We’re a multidimensional animal. Not everything can be reduced to a three-inch screen.


WHEN I WAS INTERVIEWING for the position, I stepped outside and got caught up in Art After Dark. I was taken aback by the intensity level, the age of the young people; that’s one of the things that swayed me into coming home after 30 years. 


PEOPLE ASKED, “Are you going to a good museum?” I’ve always thought of this as a model of a great museum. It’s an incredibly accessible building, not scary or imposing. 


When I was 18,  I asked myself: What is the best job in the world? To work at the Honolulu Museum of Art.


ART AND CULTURE are what Hawai‘i is famous for. People know about our dance, food, ceramics. Everyone knows New York City is driven by arts and culture. And Hawai‘i has that opportunity, linking art, food, cultural tourism. You need all these components, a fully functioning ecosystem. It’s a known thing.  


THE MUSEUM NEEDS TO BE a world-famous institution. We must continue to be a relevant organization. It’s our job to stay open. With the university and the libraries, we’re the guardians of a cultural legacy.


I DO KENDO—martial arts with swords. Earlier in the day I ate a chirashi sushi bowl from a hole in the wall. I love Japanese decorative arts. What more do you want in the world?


COMING BACK, I wasn’t sure how vital or connected to the community the museum was. It was wonderful to see the art school, the number of students, how it had expanded out from the basement when I was young.


MY REASON for coming here is, I believe it’s the right thing to do. It’s a great institution. It’s my home state. This museum is world class and should be better known. It has to happen, even though the challenges may be different [from at Iowa].


IN HAWAI‘I as a kid, I read about the bald eagle; in Iowa, I saw one. They’re big. Impressive, in the flesh. That’s the difference between a museum and the internet. That’s why you need a museum, why you need real art, physically in front of you. The internet can’t be a substitute—it’s a facilitator, a means to an end.


HAWAI‘I IS MORE cosmopolitan than when I was growing up, due to the ease of travel and the internet. But people need to understand what a rich resource the museum is. You don’t need to wait to go to New York, or San Francisco. We have it. Our museum is it. The whole package. On the Mainland, museum collections are great, but you can’t see them, or can’t take them all in for very long—your feet either cramp, freeze or burn up. Here you can wander outside after looking at a gallery, sit by a pond or garden, it’s warm, the sky is blue.


AS A LEADER you want always to be anxious about your company’s health.


PLACES LIKE THE MET or the Chicago Art Institute are designed to look like Roman temples. The Honolulu Museum is designed to look like a Roman home—a villa. Open to the air and light. The typical big white cube of the traditional art institution may seem impressive at first, but everything is being seen in 3.4 seconds. That’s the average time visitors spend in front of a painting. You can never understand a painting in 3.4 seconds. It’s like art on a conveyor belt. You need prolonged exposure and repetition. That is the secret; looking at art over and over again is the secret to understanding art. And going back to it as you go through your life. Seeing a painting when you’re in your 20s, then seeing it in your 40s, you will be amazed at the difference in what you’re seeing. It’s like reading a book as a teenager and again as an adult.