Sunday, January 21, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 21, 2001

Cayetano's elitist art project would gloss his legacy

By Bob Dye

Gov. Ben Cayetano, patron of the arts! Can you believe that’s Ben’s legacy?

Governors often float feckless ideas in their lame duck years. Remember that Gov. John Waihee, a racing buff, wanted to build a speedway.
Gov. Ben Cayetano is asking the Legislature for money to build and operate a state gallery in what is now the Hemmeter Building on Hotel Street.

Advertiser library photo • April 4, 2000

But for Bulldog Ben, who has been snarling and snapping from the top floor of the State Capitol for the past 14 years, suddenly to go smarmy over objets d’art surprises me.

But here he is steamrolling the Legislature for permission to use money dedicated for the purchase of local art to build and operate a state art gallery.

Roughly a quarter the size of a football playing field, the 12,500-square-foot exhibition space will be on the second floor of the old Armed Services YMCA, a jewel of a building recently purchased by the state.

Knowing how stingy Ben is with money, I asked: Is it really his idea to build a place to show off pretty things at the old Y?

The idea was possibly conceived while he and Vicky were museum-hopping in New York and Paris, opined an official spokesperson. Gotta be the wife’s idea, other folks guessed. Old-timers said the notion has been kicking around for a long time.

Whoever thought of it, Ben has embraced an elitist project.

"Many cultural tourists or conventioneers are college-educated, hold advanced degrees and are professionals with higher incomes...," explains a state publication touting Ben’s gallery as a magnet for the aesthete visitor.

Bad politics, that piece!

But like it or not, art museums do have a snobbish appeal. The collection Ben viewed at Musee du Louvre was acquired for aristocratic eyes only. And guess who the royals squeezed the money from to buy those masterpieces?

Voters may see Ben’s gallery, though modest by comparison, as a sign that the long-reigning Democrats have taken on the imperious ways of hereditary rulers.

That isn’t the way it was in the beginning. Back in 1967 Gov. Jack Burns and his Democratic buddies boldly conceived of commissioning local art and taking it to the people. Their enthusiasm was unbounded: The entire state, each and every island of it, would become a "museum without walls."

They imagined a day when the people’s places would be adorned with locally created works of art. No longer would school kids have to be bused to a museum to see great art; it would be on the cafeteria wall and in the school yard, a part of their everyday life.

A willing state Legislature designated 1 percent of the construction costs of new buildings for the purchase of works of art to adorn them, the first such legislature in the nation to do so.

A decade later legislators added 1 percent of the cost of renovations to state capital improvement projects to expand the program to all public facilities.

Art in Public Places became the most egalitarian program of the Burns era, rewarding anyone and everyone who took the time to look.

Over three decades, the state has spent more than $16 million to acquire and maintain 5,189 works of art, which can be viewed at some 450 sites throughout the islands. There are more sites available. One state agency head complained he had to campaign for more than two and a half years to get a few paintings hung.

Last week’s Advertiser art calendar listed exhibits at 31 Honolulu galleries, four on Neighbor Islands, and showings at a half-dozen Oahu restaurants, plus a couple of other places.

Throw in the splendid Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Contemporary Museum and you have more art than you can see on a long holiday. There is no pressing need for additional walls in a public museum.

So why build it?

Jack Burns’ museum without walls is democratic. And it works. To financially diminish that successful program to provide funds for a Cayetano Legacy Project for the cultural elite, resident or visitor, is wrong-headed.

I still can’t believe this grand art gallery was Ben’s idea. It’s just too hoity-toity a notion for a local guy from lower Kalihi.

Bob Dye is a Kailua-based historian and writer.

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