The money that created the collection came from an entirely different part of the world than Polynesia: South Asia. Mark and Carolyn met in Hawai‘i in 1977, married within months and together set off into the world to build their fortune. They wound up founding and growing a hugely successful Oriental carpet business in Pennsylvania, which generated the resources that built the collection. “I owe a lot of thanks,” says Mark, “to the people of India and Pakistan.”
Twenty years ago he began putting together a book on the collection; it is just out. Polynesia: The Mark and Carolyn Blackburn Collection of Polynesian Art offers a detailed look at the collection: It is filled with stunning photography and features essays by the curator of Oceanic ethnology at the Smithsonian, Adrienne Kaeppler, and a layout by acclaimed designer Barbara Pope.
Polynesia is a beautiful creation—in May it won Book of the Year from the Hawai‘i Book Publishers Association, and Pope won HPBA’s Excellence in Design award—but it is not the only way in to the collection. Blackburn constantly lends pieces to museums around the world. Again the Cook club offers an example: It has just returned from a two-year tour through Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In 1998 Blackburn lent the club, along with some twenty other pieces, to Tonga for an exhibit and the inauguration of the country’s first museum, timed to celebrate the 80th birthday of the archipelago’s king.
As you might imagine, having such precious objects coming and going and lying about the house creates its own issues. “It’s a huge responsibility,” Blackburn acknowledges. “In the average home, yeah, there’s some valuables but this … It’s an extremely tough thing for us.” But, he says, he and Carolyn wouldn’t have it any other way. He tells the story of a latenight conversation in New Zealand with friend Maui Pomare. “Maui’s like the king of the Maoris,” he begins. “One night on his amazing sheep ranch in Wellington, around 2 in the morning, I asked, ‘How do Maori people feel about the Blackburns holding these taonga or cultural treasures?’ He looked at me and said, ‘We believe our objects are ambassadors for our people, and somebody like you who treasures the objects so highly and who is willing to share them, we have no problem with.’” Blackburn shakes his head. “Somebody who does not share,” he opines, “that’s somebody materially trading in culture.”
Though money was the medium that assembled the collection, Blackburn rues the commodification of Polynesian art. “Material objects that represent the best of a culture—how do you put a price on those?” he asks. “There is no price.” But, of course, by definition in a market setting there is a price. And the Polynesian art market has changed since Blackburn bought that first hei-tiki forty years ago. Today ancient Polynesian art is the most soughtafter cultural art in the world, Blackburn says. “Even in the smallest sales, people are chasing this stuff.” He could cash in if he wanted to, but he has no interest. “I don’t buy art for investment; I buy it for the feeling and passion it evokes,” he says. He wishes the market would go down so he could collect more.
“When we buy a new piece, it’s an amazing thing because you feel like it came home,” he says. “The collection is so large that it is a being in itself. People are always asking what will happen with it. It will not be broken up. Something will be done with it at the end.”
The Blackburns’ move from Pennsylvania to Hawai‘i is tied to the greatest Polynesian treasure in their lives: not an object at all, but their son Kuhane, whom they adopted in Tahiti nineteen years ago, when he was 3 days old. “It’s only worth the whole collection because we adopted Kuhane,” says Carolyn. “We decided we needed to come back to Hawai‘i to raise him in an area more conducive to a Polynesian child.”
“It’s been a special journey,” says Mark. “I wouldn’t have had my son, met my wife, met the most amazing individuals in my life had I not been, for lack of a better term, a collector.”