Issue 6.2: 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.

In the end, however, the museum finally did open to a warm reception. "(This is) a very special day for Hawaii," Gov. Cayetano said at the opening. "The people of our state now have a unique place ... where their own art is displayed, taught, practiced, and passed on to the children of Hawaii."

"What we have here is rare," Yoshihara says, expressing her excitement at finally seeing the long-held dream made real. Pointing out that many state-funded museums show traveling exhibitions rather than the state’s own art, she speculates that "our museum may be the only one of its kind in the country. Here, people can make a personal connection with the essence of what Hawaii is, through the eyes of its visual artists."

HiSAM’s inaugural exhibition, "Enriched by Diversity: The Art of Hawaii," features 360 pieces by 284 artists, carefully selected from the SFCA collection by a committee of cultural notables. Yoshihara says

that when she and her staff showed up to gather the works from the scattered state offices in which they were hung, the crew was surprised to find government workers who had originally been somewhat "cool" to the art when it was first put up now coming forward to demand an assurance that it would eventually come "back home" to their walls. It seemed that even the most abstract paintings—the ones that originally provoked open grumbling about the state "spending our money on that?" had won their fans.

It is an aesthetic experience just to cross the museum’s broad lawn and ascend its elegantly tiled stairs to the second-floor galleries. Now called No. 1 Capitol District, the grand site across from Iolani Palace was originally home to the Hawaiian Hotel, built in 1872 by King Kamehameha V. In 1917, the building was converted into the Army and Navy YMCA, and ten years later it was redesigned in Mission-style concrete and stucco by Island architects Walker Emory and Marshall Webb. Then, throughout the years of World War II, the Y developed an even more colorful history as a home base for downtown carousing by thousands of troops on R&R.

Shuzo Uemoto, "Cherry Pink"
photoemulsion print, 1984

art courtesy: Hawaii State
Art Museum

Once you’re upstairs, the exhibit—designed by University of Hawaii art-history professor and gallery director Tom Klobe—unfolds in an inviting series of spaces defined by moveable walls, open areas and intimate viewing corners. Klobe says his vision was to create a user-friendly museum space where "people have an opportunity to see the works of art in a greater context than when they were placed here and there in public buildings."

The curatorial committee, led by Klobe, divided the exhibition into six galleries based on broad themes in the state collection, with names like "Rediscovering Our Hawaiian Heritage"; "Inspired by Land and Sea"; and "Local Reflection, Global Expression." Yoshihara says that as the art was moved into place, the staff workers were clearly moved to see such varied expressions, documenting almost half a century of Island history, finally gathered in one place. "What showed on their faces," she says, "was pride."

In the "Rediscovering Our Hawaiian Heritage" gallery, Yoshihara says, workers commented on images they remembered from their "small kid days"—scenes from places where they played as children, faces that "look like my auntie!" The works in this section, created by Native Hawaiian artists as an expression of cultural renewal, include some of the most powerful pieces in the entire exhibition. The opening image, for example—Herb Kawainui Kane’s famous, catch-your-breath painting, The Discovery of Hawaii—places the viewer aboard a voyaging canoe as it sails toward the unknown island, whose volcanic fires burn bright amid a midnight-blue sea.

Rocky K. Jensen,
"He Ipu Moana"
False kamani wood, 1977

courtesy: Hawaii State
Art Museum

"I create to perpetuate the memory of my people, their knowledge and our spirit," writes Hawaiian woodcarver Rocky Kaiouliokahihikoloehu Jensen in the caption to his carved bowl of native wood and abalone shell. The sentiment is echoed in the works of other Hawaiian artists, like Pam Barton, who lives in the creative enclave of Volcano Village on the Big Island. Her work in the exhibition is a piece of creamy white kapa (barkcloth) beaten so thinly that lacy holes appear, giving it the look of water skipping over pebbles, The piece is titled Wailele a Hina, a reference to a legendary flood that is said to have occurred in the time of the Hawaiian goddess Hina.

Elsewhere, community leader Kaui Chun’s acrylic painting Ka Hiwa, which captures earth and water on canvas, was inspired by the 1993 centennial of the foreign-led coup that overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy. "When my ancestors died," Chun writes in his caption, "the aina (land) absorbed their iwi (bones) and mana (power). My art seeks to capture the spirit of place that flows through us, and us through it."

Although the SFCA’s Art In Public Places collection has sometimes been criticized for displaying too much flat, Western-style painting—pieces that can easily be hung on a wall—the "Enriched by Diversity" exhibition also includes a range of three-dimensional works, including bronze and glass sculptures, fine ceramic vessels and a variety of woven fiber pieces.

One crowd favorite in the "Our Traditions and Values" gallery is George Kahumoku’s E Komo Mai ("welcome"), which invariably raises smiles with its wooden "front steps" littered with life-sized bronze work boots and rubber slippers, resting in true local fashion as if their owner had just stepped inside. The smiles quickly fade, however, as viewers next come upon the graphic photo depictions of an island under siege in David Ulrich’s gelatin silver print 1000 Pound Bombs, Kahoolawe or Franco Salmoiraghi’s toned prints depicting a sacred Kahoolawe site with a military helicopter about to land. Both are stark portrayals of the ravages inflicted on Kahoolawe during the U.S. military’s fifty-year use of the island as a bombing practice range, which was finally brought to a halt by community pressure in 1994.

The "Discovering Our Asian Roots" gallery highlights a multitude of works by Hawaii artists of Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Southeast Asian descent, who have long played a key role in the local art scene. Reflecting the rise of Asian ethnic consciousness that followed World War II, renowned artist/educators such as Bumpei Akaji, Isami Doi, Tadashi Sato and others defined new styles by blending an Eastern aesthetic with Western media and technique.

Meanwhile, museum staff members have taken to calling the "Inspired by Land and Sea" section of the exhibit the "comfort gallery," because it is filled with so many nostalgic images of familiar places. One example is Reuben Tam’s painting Red Anahola, of a parched area in southern Kauai, which makes you thirsty just looking at it.

In the contemporary "Local Reflection, Global Expression" gallery, Roy Venters, an artist always on the edge, fills a wall with shattered glass hearts that seem to pulse with reflected light. Titled Without You 1-9, the piece is an homage to the late Hawaii artist and patron Laila Roster Twigg-Smith, who put her heart (and her own luxurious home) into the creation of The Contemporary Art Museum in the hills above Honolulu.

Among the many notable artists included in the Reflection/Expression section is influential teacher Timothy Ojile, who has lived in Hawaii since 1981. Ojile is represented by an engaging triptych, 3 Night Boxes, a mixed-media composition whose calligraphic quality explores nuances of color and form. Or as one fifth-grader touring the museum put it: "That painting really makes you think."

Along with making Hawaii’s public art more available to the public, HiSAM’s other primary focus is providing education for local youth. The museum hosts a range of school tours and activities catered to different age groups and areas of interest, providing a foldout treasure map that leads students on a hunt for art answers. Throughout, there is an emphasis on the idea that this art belongs to everyone. "Our hope," says SFCA Chairwoman Moana Abadir, "is that children and all the people of Hawaii will take pride and an active role in their museum."

Lisa Yoshihara says she’s sure that Alfred Preis would have been thrilled to see how his vision of a state museum has come true. When she and her staff watch wide-eyed school children touring the galleries, she says, they know they are also seeing the future artists of Hawaii, already imagining their own work hanging in the museum someday. And now it can happen, because of a dream.

HiSAM is open free to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with guided tours available. Call (808) 586-0900, or visit the museum’s website.