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Leiomano (shark-tooth club)
Vol. 6, No. 2
April/May 2003

 

The Art of Dreams 

By Virginia Wageman & Lynn Cook

 
Frank Sheriff, "Vehicle #7"
Steel, wood & cast bronze, 1987

photo: 
Dana Edmunds

In the early 1960s, Alfred Preis had a vision for the arts in Hawaii. Best- known as the architect of the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Preis was also the first director of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, which he led from 1965 to 1980. He was an avid proponent of art’s importance in society, and when he accepted the task of creating a pioneering state-owned art collection, Preis wanted to pay homage to Hawaii’s great range of talent and cultural diversity.

In 1965, just six years after the arrival of statehood, the Hawaii Legislature created the State Foundation to "promote, perpetuate, preserve, and encourage culture and the arts" as "central to the quality of life of the people of Hawaii." With a building boom in full swing and the construction crane ironically being called the "state bird," there was a consensus that Island art might help humanize the expanding landscape of concrete.

Two years later, Hawaii became the first state in the nation to pass a law mandating that a portion—one percent—of the construction cost for every new state building would be reserved for purchasing public art. Since then, twenty-six other states have enacted similar laws.

 
photo: Dana Edmunds
Armed with the funding base of the so-called "one-percent law," Preis took chances. He advocated the purchase of sometimes controversial works of art to grace government offices and community spaces. It was the people’s art, but the only way the people could usually see it was when they were paying a tax bill or visiting the office of a legislator. Preis dreamed of a public museum that would truly do justice to the state’s growing collection, which today includes some 5,000 pieces by 1,400 artists. In the late 1980s, after touring a twentieth-anniversary exhibition of the state collection, Preis assured longtime SFCA curator Lisa Yoshihara that the state would indeed eventually establish a museum. "It will happen one day," he told her. "Not in my lifetime, but in yours." His dream finally became a reality last November, when the Hawaii State Art Museum (HiSAM for short) opened its doors at long last, eight years after Preis’ death—and with Yoshihara as Gallery Director.

Yoshihara tells a chicken-skin tale of coming across some old files while planning to move into the historic Armed Services YMCA building, which houses the new State Museum. The files contained a document titled "The Hawaii State Capitol Civic Center," dated 1968. With Preis as one of its authors, the planning document foretold the exact location of the museum, suggesting that the YMCA building should be set aside as a cultural center. Yoshihara describes the moment as "magical, like finally heading home" after years of wishing.

It had been a long road. For decades, the State Foundation had sought a home for its collection, but finances and politics always stood in the way. In fact, the old Y building was first offered to the state in the mid-1980s for $5 million, but that was deemed too much for the coffers. In 1987, high-rolling resort developer Chris Hemmeter bought the building for $11 million and put $30 million worth of renovations into it, bringing it back to its original grandeur as his corporate headquarters. Eventually, Hemmeter left the state. In 1990, a Japanese company purchased the site for $80.5 million, and Preis’ vision of an art museum faded into the financial mist.

But then the Japanese investment bubble popped, and in 2000 the building once again became available to the state, this time for $22.5 million. In a move that stirred considerable debate in a time of strapped government finances, then-Governor Ben Cayetano decided to go ahead with the purchase, and the museum at last began to become a reality.

 
Ray Yoshida, "Bustle"
Oil on canvas, 1998

courtesy: Hawaii State Art Museum

What followed was a marathon of planning, funding and finally round-the-clock prep work as crews got ready for HiSAM’s November grand opening. Meanwhile, the SFCA itself became embroiled in controversy, with Executive Director David Farmer eventually being fired by the Foundation’s board amid allegations of impropriety and an atmosphere of bitter factionalism. And with state budgets being cut across the board, some people were calling for the elimination of the SFCA and the "one percent" law altogether.
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