Why is Hawai‘i’s Art Scene so Weak?

The Islands are full of talent and creativity. So what gives?

Stephan Jost, director of the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Photo: Linny Morris 


HAWAI‘I LOVES THE ARTS. Culturally rich, naturally beautiful, politically charged, we have all the elements to inspire great art, and a collectors market to match. Yet Hawai‘i’s art scene remains a perennial under-achiever.


CONSIDER THIS: Hawai‘i boasts strong community arts appreciation that begins with youth museum education programs. The Honolulu Museum of Art hosts more than twice as many K–12 student visits annually than the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and beats the L.A. County Museum of Art and New York’s MoMA, too. The State Foundation on Culture and the Arts’ Art Bento at HiSAM and Artists in the Schools projects strive to fill our notorious DOE arts gap via Hawai‘i’s nation-leading community-arts funding. Combined, our museums rank in the top 10 institutions in the country for arts education. They fuel a demand for higher-level courses that turns out to be unmeetable. That promising pipeline slows to a trickle when it comes to University of Hawai‘i Fine Arts graduates—both BFA and MFA.


Peter Arnade, UH Mānoa’s dean of Arts and Humanities, says his college’s largest and most popular department, Art and Art History, has difficulty attracting and keeping students because it has been chronically underfunded by $1 million a year and struggles to earn support for a proposed $60-million arts complex that would recruit top students and faculty. 


And those newly minted MFA and BFA graduates who persevere soon discover that Hawai‘i offers precious few opportunities to build a real, professional career as an artist. 


Nobody we interviewed was able to name a working-age, full-time resident who earns a livable income by selling his or her art—we’re not counting dolphin and wave prints. And forget about being a full-time dancer or musician in Hawai‘i.


To get known, Hawai‘i artists donate their work to auctions where bargain-hunters lowball them. They make sweetheart deals with their friends and family, or half-heartedly apply to provincial juried shows. To pay rent, many Hawai‘i artists hold down service jobs, or settle into being teachers, state workers, freelancers or arts administrators. To stay competitive, Hawai‘i artists strive to purchase new technology, rent studios and afford the time to develop new skills. But it’s almost impossible to do those things when Hawai‘i’s art prices and incomes are 50 to 75 percent less than the national average. Spending more to earn less has practically become the state’s unofficial motto.


When it comes to the business of art, it’s telling that the largest annual art sale in Hawai‘i is the Punahou Carnival. With annual receipts of $400,000 and growing, this high school scholarship-fundraiser gallery beats out the collecting budgets of both major local museums combined. And, while the Punahou sale presents popular paintings, sculpture and design items aplenty, aesthetically speaking, it skews more toward estate sale than museum exhibit.


Hawai‘i artists are largely ignored by curators, critics and collectors in the global marketplace. Artists who reach the pinnacle of Hawai‘i’s art establishment, a solo exhibition at a museum or gallery, still lack widespread recognition and international sales. Even many of the Ala Moana and Kaka‘ako development projects decorate their lobbies and walls with Mainland objects or temporary murals. 


You don’t have to be a professor of the arts to see that Hawai‘i will be both financially and culturally poorer if we don’t start dealing with these discrepancies now, beginning with our talent pool and infrastructure.


Artist John Koga
Photo: Aaron Yoshino 


John Koga, one of Hawai‘i’s most dynamic and connected artists, has seen artists struggle to make ends meet over his 25 years as a staff member both at the State Foundation for Culture and the Arts and the Honolulu Museum of Art. Now working individually on a variety of projects (disclosure: That work includes HONOLULU Fashion Week), he believes that we not only need to bring in and encourage international creatives to engage with our Islands, but also that everything is interconnected. “For me, it needs to be a really, really cohesive effort by all to celebrate what people from Hawai‘i are able to do,” he says. It’s no longer his vision to lead audiences to the well of art and make them drink. Instead, he subscribes to nurturing an oasis of food, fashion and film around the arts that will shape the future of our creative community. We rank fourth in millionaires per capita in the nation, according to a recent study by the Phoenix Global Wealth Monitor, so where is the creative support system comparable to other wealthy communities?


Honolulu Museum of Art Director Stephan Jost
Photo: Linny Morris 

Stephan Jost, director of the multicampus Honolulu Museum of Art, is leading the charge with a restored endowment and an ambitious $16-million expansion plan for the art school. Sen. Brian Taniguchi, chair of the Higher Education and Arts Committee, believes the arts community must reorganize and do more. A senator for 21 years, Taniguchi witnessed an arts decline. “With the (Linda) Lingle administration combined with the recession, the arts took a big dive. My sense right now is we need to rebuild and get back to where we were 10 years ago,” he says. Jost echoes Taniguchi and Dean Arnade’s concerns: “Money follows mission. I don’t believe people make significant investments because you’re in crisis. They make significant investments because you have direction and know where you’re going.”



Where are we going? 

MIAMI, FLORIDA AND AUSTIN, TEXAS may provide roadmaps. Miami is similar to Honolulu in population and geography with its miles of beaches and an identical level of nonprofit arts spending, $155 million, providing 4,000 jobs. Austin, while larger, is getting a comparable bang-for-the-buck for its art spending, with $235 million creating 7,000 jobs. Both cities have condensed urban centers with suburbs abutting green spaces. Both have major arts fairs that attract international attention and spur cultural and economic growth for individual artists, businesses and institutions.


Only a generation ago, Miami was a sweltering beachside retirement community with crumbling art-deco relics. Enterprising developers saw the opportunity to take their snowbird city and whip it into an arts-and-culture hotspot with a rich music, food and surf scene. They polished up the tourism hub and tied that in with a revitalized design district. They welcomed investors, underwriters and collectors with world-class events through Miami Art Week, now a globally recognized suite of fairs with Art Basel and Art Miami at the top of the international art scene’s calendar and attendance.


Today, urban Miami is the same size as urban Honolulu, with roughly 400,000 citizens each; however, it has 18 art museums to Honolulu’s two. 


Miami has 14 art fairs. We host zero. An extraordinary success story: ArtCenter South Florida’s visionary leader bought its building on Lincoln Road for less than $700,000 in 1988. It sold last October for $88 million. That’s a 12,765 percent return for what is now the largest endowed nonprofit arts organization in Miami.


Any smart, small city can see it’s a no-brainer to bring investment capital in the shape of museums, galleries, real estate, corporate sponsors and tax revenues with Miami’s annual $500-million Art Week-style influx. It allowed the city to retrofit itself from artistically neglected to economically and culturally necessary in just 25 years. The event now attracts 150,000-plus visitors, more private planes than the Super Bowl, and Hollywood A-listers dropping millions to throw parties and buy art.


It’s not all Cristal and Gulfstreams. There has been some backlash to Miami Art Week. Its frenzy of fashion, art, style and money has caused some to view the art-fair model with concern. Still, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the Miami event’s billion-dollar domino effect.


Then there’s Austin, Texas. Once a hip but sleepy college town known for its millennial bumper-sticker marketing campaign, “Keep Austin Weird,” Austin now hosts one of the world’s largest media events, South by Southwest. It’s a 10-day music, film and technology festival that attracts more than 50,000 exhibitors bringing more than $300 million to the community. And, just like Art Week Miami, it launches careers.


The goal of SXSW is convergence. That sounds a lot like the catchword “synergy” from a decade ago, but it takes into account the element of chance, of walking, of serendipity. Austin transforms its downtown into a multipart conference where you can amble from a trade show to a concert to a keynote and be first to hear about the next Twitter.


Of course, there’s been pushback against SXSW, too. The for-profit company that runs it gets accused of making millions off volunteer musicians who give away their intellectual property and exhibitors who pay to play. Bloggers complain that it’s gotten too big, it’s gone corporate and it’s lost focus. 


Georja Skinner
Photo: Adam Jung

Georja Skinner serves as director of our state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s Creative Industries division, which oversees a baker’s dozen of sectors including the visual and performing arts. Skinner stresses the urgency of Honolulu learning from Miami and its art fairs, as well as Austin and South by Southwest. She is evangelical in her zeal to develop infrastructure and a homegrown festival that will provide the arena for our once-agricultural community to cross-train for the modern art world.


She notes that, even with the brain drain of talented folks fleeing the Islands’ small pool, there’s still a raw creative core in Hawai‘i. “The power of the creative economy in any state is the fact that you have a high concentration of talent, and we have that in spades,” she says. “What we don’t have is the infrastructure or the access to capital for these people to be able to advance their scope of business.”


Creative Industries is lobbying along with the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority for major six-figure funding to seed a Hawai‘i festival as well as pushing for funding to establish Hawai‘i Creative Collaboration Centers that will help prepare new talent. Skinner describes the HiC3s as functioning like “Kinko’s for artists, where all the tools that you need, the marketing support, business support, legal support” and broadband Internet access will be made available to creative entrepreneurs at a reasonable cost, throughout the Islands.


Supporting under-professionalized local artists can also help attract visitors, which explains how the creative and tourism market leaders can find a joint mission in their efforts. Both agencies concede there is a long way to go and potential great value in working together. Caroline Anderson is tourism brand manager and oversees the arts outreach within the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, which initiated free, interactive, digital tourist maps of both Chinatown and Lahaina’s art, culinary and design-rich neighborhoods. “Technology is and forevermore will play a huge role in the way visitors plan their vacation and experience the destination,” she says. “We’re recognizing that, and now we’re trying to formulate strategies on technology.” However, HTA doesn’t yet conduct the kind of in-depth research to track the 20 percent of tourists who visit galleries and museums or project what kind of impact a festival like Art Week Miami or South by Southwest might mean for our tourism bottom line.


Sen. Taniguchi thinks Chinatown is an ideal hub for further cultural development with an eye to Miami’s and Austin’s successes. He sees the restaurant boom there as a first step. “I’m hoping that the art side of it grows, that maybe spills over to Kalihi, and maybe spills over even to Wai‘alae. Right now, to me, Chinatown is the core. We need to put energy into keeping it strong, to keeping it sustainable.”


Rich Richardson, head of Chinatown’s Arts at Marks Garage, agrees, and notes that the neighborhood exemplifies conscientious development strategies. This creative place-making fosters “signature events for physical communities that are focused on the human infrastructure that drive positive development and growth,” which is the exact model Miami and Austin have used to repurpose warehouses and restaurants into permanent and temporary exhibition and performance spaces.


And compared to Kaka‘ako, Richardson says Chinatown “has an organic, cultural bootstraps creative segment. They like each other’s company. It’s serving as a great incubator.” Even the mayor’s office is in on the plans, too and understands the importance of engineering the future of an urban plan with the new Blaisdell expansion plan. 


Until now, individuals and institutions have been working independently and passionately on their plans. So, bringing everyone to the table is the first challenge to deciding where to go next. Artists and arts leaders don’t meet formally or regularly. In fact, Honolulu does not have an arts and business council as Miami does that can act as go-between for the nonprofit, government and private sectors. The old model consisted of major arts institutions organized and funded by private individuals. Jonathan Johnson, executive director of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, has spent nearly three decades traveling for the organization from Ka‘ū to Kōloa to open the door to collaborating with the public. “The more you involve and engage people and experts from the community, then we can become way more relevant … . It seemed like the right way to do it.” He suggests a simple coffee klatsch to get started. Georja Skinner already has an agenda for a Creative Industries round-table. Marilyn Cristofori is long-time director of the Hawai‘i Arts Alliance, the state’s focal arts advocacy organization. She sees the shift in conversation from Gauguin to Google starting simply with a phrase change. “I use the word ‘creativity’ because ‘art’ belongs to the 19th century in people’s minds. It’s not even conscious; people have just absorbed it. The minute I change my language, there’s a whole different reaction. They want to talk.” 


Our creative future will not be modeled on a Parisian, Impressionist art market. Rather, 21st-century Hawai‘i, ranking in the national top ten for millionaires, art students and community-arts funding, will begin to blossom into a multicultural oasis through visionary investments that will have enduring rewards both locally and globally.



Who’s Buying The Most Art in Hawai‘i?

Average Annual Art Sales

Punahou Carnival art gallery


Honolulu Museum of Art acquisition budget


State Foundation on Culture and the Arts/Hawai‘i state art museum acquisition budget 




Comparing pineapples and oranges: Honolulu vs. Miami and Austin, by the numbers





Art Museums




Art Fairs




Urban Population




Metro Population

1 Million

5.5 Million

1.8 Million

Sources: artforum artguide, u.s. census