New museum offers a look into state's art vaults
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
Part of it, at least.
This inaugural exhibition, "Enriched by Diversity: The Art of Hawai'i," has 360 works from the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts' Art in Public Places Collection by all accounts, an appropriately broad and diverse representation of modern Hawai'i art.
Yet these 360 pieces represent just a fraction of the more than 5,000 works acquired by the foundation since the passage of the Art in State Buildings Act in 1967.
Works from this massive collection circulate through 466 state offices, schools, libraries, airports, hospitals and other public spaces, under the law that sets aside 1 percent of the construction cost of new state government buildings for the acquisition and commissioning of works of art. The works are rarely viewed together.
"It's a great thing that these works get out into the community this way," said Thomas Klobe, director of the University of Hawai'i Art Gallery and the new museum's lead exhibition and gallery designer. "But what happens is you only see an isolated piece here and there, and you never get to to see these works in a broader context.
"With the museum, the works can now be seen in a conceptual or thematic context that gives the art a stronger meaning," he said.
Klobe, who has long supported the idea of a museum to house the works, was one of six volunteer curators recruited by the foundation to select works for the museum's first exhibition.
The rest of the committee reads like an all-star roster of local art experts: Momi Cazimero, owner and president of Graphic House; George Ellis, director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts; James Jensen, associate director and chief curator of the Contemporary Museum; Greg Northrop, owner of the Fine Arts Associates; and Duane Preble, emeritus professor of art at UH.
Most of the curators had served on foundation acquisition panels before. "One of the things I really appreciated from that process is that everyone comes in with their own tastes, perspectives, even biases," Cazimero said. "There are times when there is unanimity in the selections, but some of the most valuable experiences are when there is an exchange of ideas and opinions. The result is that the pieces collected are diverse but they're all at a high level."
The quality of the works didn't make the curators' job easy.
The six convened at the foundation's downtown office on Jan. 20 and 21, charged with culling just the right pieces for an exhibit expected to remain in place for several years.
"It was pretty intense," said Northrop. "We spent the full weekend there, about nine hours each day. We didn't have any real criteria for examining them. We just wanted the best, most representative pieces that would work together."
The curators examined slides of each of the collection's 5,000 or so pieces, most of them more than once. "It can be difficult with slides," said Cazimero. "You have to force yourself to see it as if it were the original. The process can be wearying."
Curators said the mood inside the room was always friendly and positive, but the group members nonetheless approached their job with a war-room intensity.
Eventually, through long deliberate hours of examination, discussion and voting, the group managed to whittle the number of works considered.
"We voted yes or no on every piece," said Jensen. "If there was a close vote or a tie, we discussed our decisions. We could argue on behalf of a certain artist or a certain work, but in general we agreed on almost all of the selections."
By the time the group broke on Sunday evening, the pool of 5,000 works had been narrowed to 700.
Klobe, the designated designer of the exhibit, had cards made of each of the proposed pieces. These he took, along with a scale model of the museum, and retired to his Kailua home to contemplate the possibilities.
"I laid all the cards out on my lanai and just looked at them," Klobe said. "What happened was I started noticing that there were themes developing that I could work with."
The original plan was for the committee to put together a survey of the collection, with consideration given to media, time period and influence. But Klobe said he saw in the collected works "a statement about who we are."
"I began to see that there's an identity that makes us unique in Hawai'i," he said. "I felt that it was very important that we try to establish and maintain what makes us special. There was a story that needed to be told."
With the blessing of the foundation and his fellow curators, Klobe said he pushed forward with his plan, eventually settling on "Enriched by Diversity" as a unifying theme, with subthemes acknowledging Hawaiian heritage, Asian roots, Hawai'i traditions and values, the inspiration of land and sea, art and social consciousness, and Hawai'i art as a reflection of global art movements.
Klobe spent about two months working out the themes and applying them to the design of the gallery spaces, a process that took into careful consideration how the proposed works would function in relation to each other.
"The only reason you do an exhibition is to make each individual work look as good as it possibly can," said Klobe, an internationally known exhibit designer. "I'm very careful about what the sight lines are, how the movement is through the space so the viewer will get maximum benefit, how the works themselves will look the best they can in relationship to others.
"I selected works that would work well next to each other, that would carry the idea of that particular section," he said. "That's what is most important. It's how it all works in unison with each other. In fact, one of my favorite works isn't in the show."
Once Klobe settled on the 360 works he felt worked best for the first-impression exhibit, he walked his fellow curators through his proposed design.
"There were some discussions and a few people had suggestions or ideas for changing a few things, but the final product is very close to what was proposed," he said.
While the exhibition is expected to remain mostly intact for the foreseeable future, Klobe said he has ideas for other themes that could unify future exhibits using other works from the collection. He, like the other curators, shied away from naming specific artists or works that were debated or excluded this time around.
"Eventually, most everything will be able to cycle through the museum," he said.