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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 26, 2001

Master of art, design makes UH gallery a success

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

In the fall of 1978, a clandestine operation took place in the early-morning hours at the University of Hawai'i. Even now the details are sketchy. No written account has ever existed of what's referred to in hushed tones as "the wall caper."

University of Hawai'i Art Gallery director Tom Klobe among Asian antiquities at the John Young Gallery.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

The secret mission was orchestrated by Tom Klobe, who, the year before, had been named director of the then-new University of Hawai'i Art Gallery. The building's exhibit space was essentially a large square, except for two opposing corners which were, to use Klobe's words, "lopped off diagonally."

Both diagonal walls were made of solid concrete, rendering them all but useless for mounting exhibit pieces. Klobe's requests to place something in front of the walls on which to hang art were rebuffed because, according to those in charge, "it would compromise the integrity of the building."

Thus, Klobe — ever motivated by challenge — took matters into his own hands. Under cover of darkness, with the help of two student accomplices, he cleverly installed wood three inches thick over the diagonal corners. The operation required four nights of covert activity. When the finished walls were painted to exactly match the concrete, the deception was complete.

Art has graced the diagonal walls ever since. If the gallery's integrity was compromised, no one seems to have noticed. "The wall caper" underscores what Klobe's admirers describe as his innate creative ability as well as his uncanny resourcefulness.

He seems a natural-born gallery director. As a Minnesota farm boy, he transformed school classrooms, and even his mom's kitchen, into exhibit halls every time a holiday rolled around (Sharon Tasaka, associate director of the UH Art Gallery, says Klobe once told her if he ever ended up in a retirement home he'd "move things around, rearrange furniture and set up a display.").

The fruits of Klobe's inventive experience have received accolades on a grand scale, even though most were achieved with minimal financial support.

"Money, it seems, is less important than are people to an exhibit's success," wrote Edward K. Carpenter for the Print Casebooks: Best in Exhibition Design Awards in 1987, a prestigious competition that selected the world's 25 best exhibits.

"Tom Klobe designed and installed his '2nd International Shoebox Sculpture' exhibit ... for just under $4,000, the lowest cost of any exhibit discussed here, and the Bronx Zoo's 'Jungle World' cost $10 million."

 •  Tom Klobe

Born: Nov. 11, 1940, Minneapolis, Minn.

Quote: "I grew up a farm boy. The last time I ever milked a cow was when I was 18."

Early defining moment: In 1959, the day after Klobe, his younger brother and his parents returned to Minnesota after vacationing in Hawai'i, his dad abruptly sold the 55-acre farm (it had been in the Klobe clan for generations), and the whole family moved to Kailua.

Passion: Travel. Heâs been around the world twice.

Motivation: Challenge, and the enjoyment of working with students

Klobe was the only designer with bragging rights for two of the 25 selected exhibits that year. In all, under Klobe's direction, the UH Art Gallery has received five such best-design awards. On occasion his creations have outshone such formidable competitors as the National Museum of Art.

In 1999, Klobe was made a knight of the Order of Arts and Letters in France for coordinating "Crossings '97: France/Hawaii," which showcased the work of 28 contemporary French artists here and encouraged an exchange that sent Hawai'i works to France.

But it is his knack at perpetually transforming the same 4,200 -square-foot art gallery into something exciting and spectacular that is most impressive to many.

"In my opinion, Tom is the best gallery designer in the world," said Betty Neogy, Klobe's art history professor at UH in the early 1960s. "I mean that. I've been to museums all over the world, and his imagination beats anything I've ever seen.

"I'm always afraid he's going to get snatched up by the Metropolitan Museum of Art."

Not likely, says Klobe, who did his postgraduate study in Islamic art history at UCLA and who teaches medieval and Islamic art history at UH. Klobe's family moved to O'ahu in 1959, and he graduated from UH in 1964. He briefly directed a Mainland art gallery before jumping at the opportunity of returning to UH as a teacher. He considers landing the UH Art Gallery position to be one of the defining moments of his life.

Another moment was his Peace Corps volunteer service in Iran in the 1960s, which came about as a mutual dare between Klobe and another UH student. That student, who was also accepted in the Peace Corps and worked in Africa, is today his wife, Delmarie.

"The experience in the Peace Corps was the most valuable of my life," said Klobe, 60, who speaks Farsi. "I was there to help. But I learned so much from the people, it literally changed my life."

It was during his time in Iran that he learned how to achieve impressive results with minimal resources and against all odds.

Which brings him to what could be the greatest gallery challenge of his career: The opening here in the fall of the third world tour of "Theatre de La Mode," his biggest, costliest and most ambitious exhibit so far, the one that may require him, for the first time ever, to charge admission to the gallery.

"I'm crazy, I know," he said, as he buried his head in his hands. "This is phenomenally expensive. It comes in two 40-foot sea containers, plus, the mannequins have to arrive by air freight and they travel with a courier. I'll try, but I don't know if this will be a free exhibit.

"I don't even know where I'm going to put the crates after we get the whole thing unpacked."

It's the sort of challenge that's too much for Klobe to resist. He knows what he's up against. But he also understands the potential.

"We're expecting incredible crowds," he said. "People flock to 'Theatre de la Mode.' Already, there are Mainland tours booked to come here to see this.

"I WILL pull this off!"

Advertiser art critic Virginia Wageman is on medical leave. Next week, Amaury St. Gilles reviews "Art Kaua'i."