New Academy of Arts director draws applause
By Victoria Gail-White
Special to The Advertiser
|Director Stephen Little brings new energy to the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Little says he wants to switch on all the lights and let the museum's treasures shine.
Gregory Yamamoto The Honolulu Advertiser
And he is a great storyteller: He has that rare talent to transform a historical account into a spellbinding tale. A few hours in his presence goes by all too quickly.
Reared in Indonesia, Cambodia and Burma until the age of 8, Little is very comfortable in that part of the world. His father was a linguist who specialized in Indonesian dialects. "He's a nut," says Little. "But thanks to him I had that experience and lived in Istanbul as well." Little would be the best travel agent in town.
He attended and graduated from Cornell University while his father was teaching Indonesian languages there. He completed his master's degree at the University of California-Los Angeles and his doctoral degree in art history at Yale University. To add to all this education, he also completed five semesters of course work in classical and modern Chinese and Japanese in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He speaks French, Chinese and Japanese.
Little took over the museum Feb. 1. His wife Nadine, and children Justin and Seth already are settled in, along with his amazing collection of books.
But he's no stranger to Hawai'i or to the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Former director George Ellis hired him in 1989 as curator of Asian Art.
"Having worked with him before, I was delighted that Stephen was selected by the board of directors," says Ellis. "He is a competent individual, and extremely bright. I am pleased that he is here. He is picking up the baton, and the next phase is beginning. He's sees very clearly what needs to be done, and I think he'll do a very good job."
Picking up the baton from George Ellis has got to be a bit daunting. Ellis's contribution to the museum during his 21 years as director included extensive expansion and renovation as well as major improvements to the endowment and educational programs.
Fortunately, Ellis set the stage for Little to succeed in many ways. One was establishing a partnership with the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.
"This endowment will allow us to explore Islamic art and culture in ways many museums would not dream of doing," says Little.
Samuel A. Cooke, chairman of the museum's board, headed the committee that hired Little.
"When Little left the academy in 1994 (to accept a position at the Art Institute of Chicago), I asked him if he would come back," says Cooke. " 'Only as a director,' he replied. When we had to replace George Ellis, we went to Stephen Little first. It wasn't a difficult call.
"He's a great find. Museums from all over the world are calling about him. He is proving to be of very high caliber, and we are fortunate to have him. He's off to a fast start."
Little's endorsements have followed him here from Chicago, where he served as the Art Institute of Chicago's Pritzker Curator of Asian Art. Edward W. Horner Jr., executive vice president at the art institute, who grew up in Honolulu, calls Little "an accomplished scholar," and points to the 2001 exhibit curated by Little, 'Taoism and the Arts of China,' as evidence.
"He also has an entrepreneurial spirit," Horner said. "He is open to creative ways of marketing the arts to the public, and he understands and appreciates donor cultivation. He will be a very well-rounded museum director who will make a positive impact on the academy."
Other members of the art community also are pleased that he is on the job.
Greg Northrup, an art dealer and adviser to the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, says Little's national and international connections will be valuable to the museum.
"I feel he is trying to understand some of the hard issues facing contemporary artists in Hawai'i today," said artist Dorothy Faison. "He has a progressive approach."
Little has big plans. "We have these amazing collections, and I would like to see the academy's holdings become better known nationally and internationally, through exhibitions and catalogues of the permanent collection," he said.
He wants to focus on building the museum's endowment, particularly for buying more works and publishing catalogs to accompany exhibits.
"We need to raise money for special projects and exhibitions so that the academy can organize and originate more exhibitions that travel," says Little. "These needn't be large in size, but do need to be conceptually challenging and visually dazzling simultaneously.
"One of the blessings of being a smaller, independent institution is the freedom to take on projects that larger institutions might not think of doing. Sometimes less is more."
"Ancient Chinese Bronzes: Inscriptions and the Birth of the Written Word" was one such exhibit. It was an exchange between the Shanghai Museum and the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Little translated the ancient scrolls that accompanied the exhibit.
"We have these amazing collections, and I would like to see the academy's holdings become better known nationally and internationally, through exhibitions and published catalogues of the permanent collection," he said.
What's in the works
Among the projects he is working on is a show of Impressionist and Modernist paintings from Japanese museums and private collections called, "Japan, Paris, and the Impressionist Era," slated for next spring. The core of this show is a group of European paintings acquired by Japanese collectors between 1900 and 1930.
An exhibition scheduled for fall 2004 is "Fantastic Mountains," a show of Ming- and Qing-dynasty (15th- to 19th-century) landscape paintings. This show will explore the theme of sacred mountains in Chinese culture. It, like its predecessor, "Ancient Chinese Bronzes," is an exchange between the Shanghai Museum and the Honolulu institution.
In 2005, the Academy of Arts is planning to organize the first major exhibition of the Hawaiian print designer John Kelly. In 2007, look for an exhibit dedicated to the life and work of the Russian-American architect Vladimir Ossipoff (1907-1998), who established a unique architectural style in Hawai'i. And in 2008, a major exhibition on the Buddhist art and ritual dances of Bhutan is planned.
Little also wants the museum to organize a broader variety of exhibitions of contemporary art and emphasizes quality over quantity.
"Anywhere you look, there are some incredible strengths which give the academy its character," says Little. "I would really like to take advantage of those strengths. We have a great staff and a loyal community. I see the energy of the museum as a source of aliveness. I have stepped into a wealth of culture, and it is exciting. I want to switch on all the lights and let the treasures shine."
It also is his goal to cool down the Academy Art Center at Linekona with air conditioning. These down-to-earth changes can also be important.
"I jumped from being a curator for 25 years to being a director, which is a little scary," says Little. "But there are two ways to look at any problem: as an insurmountable obstacle, or as a piece of cake."