State of Art
By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Catherine E. Toth
It's easy to dismiss art as just a luxury. Compared to teacher salaries, pothole repairs and affordable housing, public art may not seem like the kind of necessity taxpayers should support.
But the truth is, those murals at the Honolulu International Airport and sculptures in front of the Waikiki Aquarium are on that list of community needs, along with sewer-system upgrades and crime-reduction units.
Love it or hate it, public art in Hawai'i has a firm place in the community.
In fact, Hawai'i is in the public-art vanguard. It was the first state in the nation to dedicate a percentage of public works budgets to art, making it a model for public-art support and increasing access and awareness of visual arts in the community.
A new exhibition on view at the Hawai'i State Art Museum chronicles the history of the state's Art in Public Places Program, which was founded in 1967 with the passage of the Percent for Art Law, and begs a conversation about the oft-debated topic of public art.
"Especially in Hawai'i, where the 'aina is at the root of our entire cultural heritage, when we build new buildings, which we need to do, we are essentially destroying the landscape," said David de la Torre, director of the Art in Public Places Program. "So the concept is to put something back of beauty that people can be inspired by ... to offset the fact that we've disturbed our beautiful landscape."
According to the Percent for Art Law, 1 percent of the budget for the construction of a new state building or renovation of existing ones — such as schools, airports and state offices — is earmarked for public art.
That money goes into a special fund, which is used to acquire art, commission new art, maintain public art pieces and fund conservation efforts.
To date, there are more than 400 state-commissioned art pieces throughout the Islands.
The city has a similar program.
One percent of its capital improvement fund goes toward the acquisition of artwork or new commissions, too.
Is the money for public art — about $2.6 million annually for the state program alone — worthwhile?
"Art is an integral part of social well-being and of creating a vibrant city," said Michael W.H. Pili Pang, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Culture & the Arts. "It's really important that we have art around us. Put it this way, we can have an updated sewage system and all the potholes fixed and a great transit system — all of that is needed — but on top of that we need social stability, and art brings that to the community. It helps us integrate people, stimulates us to think creativity, inspires us as citizens."
Yet after a recent budget review, the Mayor's Office of Culture and the Arts faces a 17 percent budget cut.
And when you consider that a sculpture by art star Richard Serra can go for $4.5 million, the public-art budget isn't huge. The State Foundation on Culture and the Arts still has to look for additional funds — it just received a $588,900 federal grant for its partnership work.
Public art programs not only give communities access to art, they also provide work for artists.
Carol Bennett, a visual artist from Kaua'i, has completed more than 100 commissioned pieces.
She has large-scale murals in the Hawai'i Convention Center and at the Honolulu International Airport. Last year, the state installed her two Italian glass mosaic-tile murals at the Kaua'i Judiciary Building at a cost of $200,000.
For Bennett, who began her career as a scenic artist for movie and stage sets, billboards and backdrops, landing a state commission is crucial to her financial survival.
"Life in the freelance world is so tenuous," said Bennett, a mother of three whose husband, Wayne Zebzda, is a sculptor. "When I get big commissions, I'm a happy camper ... I know I've got a safety net. I know in the next two years I'll make a certain amount of money, and that frees me."
Aside from supporting her livelihood, public art, Bennett believes, plays a vital role in every community because of its inherent function: to be accessible to the masses.
"It brings thoughtful — and hopefully a hip — quality of art to everyone," Bennett said. "And it's didactic. People find them in places where they're getting their baggage at the airport or going into a judiciary building. ... It makes art part of everyday life."
FOR THE MASSES
Like any government program, the public-arts program has its critics. Some argue that commissions are given to the same artists repeatedly, making it difficult for emerging artists to break into public art. Others criticize the art, calling it too safe, bureaucratic or boring.
Still others feel the money would be better spent on absolute necessities such as education and public safety.
But public art does more than beautify a state office or public library, said Ron Yamakawa, executive director of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, which oversees the state's Art in Public Places Program.
"They're there to promote community pride and to reflect the aspiration of the people who live in that area," he said.
Advocates point to public art's role in promoting cultural tourism and economic activity within the state. The benefits, they argue, are far-reaching.
And for those who ask why the government doesn't spend the money on other, arguably more important, purposes, the answer is: It can't.
That money is part of the budget specifically allotted for the construction or renovation of a government building, Yamakawa said.
"It's not about paying teachers or (funding) human services," he said. "It's like comparing apples and oranges."
One of the biggest misconceptions about the public-art program is that the state commissions the same artists all the time, said Jonathan Johnson, project manager for the program's commissioned works of art.
True, many artists who have done work for the state may get commissioned again. But that's because they've proved themselves, Johnson said.
Actually, nearly half of the most recent commissions have gone to first-time artists; but it's still a difficult field to break into.
"Public artists are a unique sect of artists," Johnson said. "You need a special set of skills to be successful."
Public art pieces need to be durable and easily maintained, yet add dimension, complexity and beauty to a space. That can be tricky.
Commissions often require artists to work in certain media (stone, bronze and ceramic stand up well to Hawai'i's unforgiving climate) and on a large scale.
Some artists, like Ed Carpenter of Portland, Ore., act almost like general contractors.
Carpenter, a featured artist in the state museum show, specializes in large-scale public installations, from architectural sculptures to infrastructure design.
Last year, he installed his giant "Dream Leaves" sculpture on the grounds of the John A. Burns School of Medicine in Kaka'ako.
Carpenter employs teams of specialists — lighting designers, structural engineers — to help design and install his large, highly engineered pieces.
"(Artists) are getting more and more sophisticated," Johnson said.
Ultimately, it takes a different mindset to be a public artist.
"Because the audience is much wider, you're reaching a group of people who may not have the same kind of knowledge about art," said artist Kazu Kau'inana, 58, who's working on a commissioned sculpture for Kapolei High School. "So right there, it does limit the artists who are still in the mindset of producing only fine art, only for themselves. That becomes a stumbling block for some artists."
In addition, public artists have to be able to work within certain paremeters, including location, demographics and cost.
"You're dealing with a lot of input," Kau'inana said. "Modern fine art is a very self-involved endeavor. That's just the opposite of public art. You really have to know who the audience is, the history and culture of the community, its ethnic makeup, the environment. There's a whole lot of criteria that public artists have to satisfy."
MUSEUM WITHOUT WALLS
Aside from commissioned work, there's another component to the public-art program: acquisition. The state program has purchased nearly 5,000 art pieces, which are rotated through schools, libraries and state offices every four to 10 years. About 450 sites across the state house the "relocatable" works.
"(Acquisition) has a very high priority," de la Torre said. "It's one of the primary reasons we exist — to make the built environment accessible to the arts."
The program is so popular, there's a one-year waiting list to get state-owned art into public spaces.
"People are very eager to have us come and install work," de la Torre said. "Oftentimes it's our challenge to service all the requests."
Rotating art pieces in state buildings is unique to Hawai'i's program, de la Torre said. Other states and cities don't have a "museum without walls."
Acquisitions are selected by a panel of art consultants chosen by the state. As with commissioned art, acquired pieces have to meet a certain set of standards. The panel tends to shy away from art that has sexual, violent, religious or political messages.
And deciding where to put these pieces is another process.
For example, if the state art museum gets 18,000 visitors a year and the Honolulu International Airport receives 18 million, it's a no-brainer where an artwork may go for best visibility.
Because that's the whole point.
"If the idea is that we're looking to create a vibrant city, one that people want to live in and come to visit," Pili Pang said, "then art plays a very integral part in that."
Reach Catherine E. Toth at email@example.com.