Academy's treasures shine in Western Art galleries
By Victoria Gail-White
Special to The Advertiser
By Victoria Gail-White
In keeping with the spirit of the New Year, the Honolulu Academy of Arts recently opened the newly renovated Western Art galleries. If you haven't visited the museum lately, get ready for a revelation. The changes are major.
Instead of entering a room of European paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries at the right of the foyer, as we have done for decades, the doors open to "Ancient Cultures of the Western World" — a soft-blue room with a collection of pottery, sculpture and mosaics from the fifth to sixth century B.C. The galleries have been reconfigured to flow in chronological order, beginning with the museum's earliest western works.
The more than $15 million renovation and expansion project began in 1998, and this latest phase included adding air conditioning, enhanced security, built-in climate-controlled cases, new floors and lighting and a colorful paint job.
Now visitors essentially can track the growth of human creative expression and clearly see the connections among cultures that have enriched our lives. We can't help but be awed by the ingenuity, beauty and perpetuation of the human spirit.
If you're resistant to change, you might want to give yourself time to adjust. But take heart, because the rewards are great. It's like a whole new museum. There's more of the collection to see and it's exquisitely installed.
Jennifer Saville, the academy's curator of Western Art, played a major role in the galleries' makeover. Here's what she had to say during a walk-through of the revamped spaces.
Q. What is most surprising to you about the renovations?
A. People asking, "Is this a new acquisition?" or "Has this always been here?" Well, yes, it has — but this is what happens when you move artwork around, install proper lighting, hang things properly, upgrade exhibition equipment, update the signage and labels, paint the walls and install air conditioning. One is really looking at the artwork now and it is presented at its best. It was an incredible experience to examine the collection, to think about reinstallation, interpretation and tapping into the expertise of so many people who made incredible contributions — such as the contract manager, the architect for design work and the mount maker.
Q. Who selected the different colors on the walls?
A. University of Hawai'i art professor Tom Klobe and I worked together. We thought about different colors, different shades and how appropriate they were for the era when the artwork was made. For instance, the blue for the 18th-century British area would have been used at that time. We went through the storage facility and took paint chips and compared them with the artwork. The colors had to work with all the artwork of that era and act as a successful foil when viewing the work. We found colors, I think, that are spectacular and work really well with the artwork. Tom was also looking at the transition of color as you move from gallery to gallery. Movement from the newly renovated galleries, 1 through 6, to gallery 7, renovated a few years ago, had to be taken into consideration.
Q. What do you think is the most striking change to the displays?
A. The biggest change is in the contents of the galleries. We now have a gallery devoted to classical antiquities. Pieces that were on view outside, say in the Mediterranean Court, are inside now. Plus, a whole range of material that has been in storage for decades is now out on view. We have brought out more textiles and decorative arts. There are also a few recent acquisitions on view: one Italian and two Dutch paintings as well as a Claude Monet painted in 1887 titled, "Port-Goulphar, Belle-ële" — on special loan from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
Q. Did you select the new pieces yourself?
A. No, we had two curatorial consultants come out and help us assess what we have. They pinpointed the best works in the collection and also works that remain a mystery but are still pretty terrific, like these sixth to fifth century B.C. terra cotta sea dragon "Rain Gutters" from Sicily.
Q. Was it thrilling to touch all these amazing works of art as you installed them?
A. It's a little scary because you know they are fragile. One slip of the hand or foot and your worst nightmare becomes a reality. It was hard to get to sleep at night. We had several weeks to install and a lot of people working on the project. Some things can't be done until other things are accomplished, so there is a phasing that goes on. And of course, there are endless details. Labels are the bane of a curator's life with the typos and last-minute editing. The labels are printed on paper colored to match the room colors.
Q. Which gallery has benefited most?
A. Everybody has thoughts on which gallery they like best. I don't have a favorite, but I think the Northern Renaissance gallery has benefited the most. It's a sage green color. In the tapestry you can make out a comb and it comes to life in the display case. This 15th-century French fruitwood comb is so delicately carved. The backside, which you can't see, says "to serve you."
THE WESTERN ART GALLERIES
HONOLULU ACADEMY OF ARTS
The museum is free for non-members on First Wednesday, Jan. 4 and on Bank of Hawaii Free Sunday, Jan. 22.