Asian-art curator lands dream job at academy
By Victoria Gail White
Special to The Advertiser
By Victoria Gail White
Dreams come true. Shawn Eichman, newly appointed curator of Asian art for the Honolulu Academy of Arts, considers his new position his dream job.
Eichman, a specialist in Japanese and Chinese art, received his master's degree in Asian studies and his doctorate in Chinese literature from the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. He lived in Japan for four years and Taiwan for two while studying. He speaks Japanese and Chinese.
He co-authored a book, "Taoism and the Arts of China" with academy director Stephen Little and has published several magazine articles on the subject.
He has worked at The Art Institute of Chicago, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and has lectured at various museums. He is leaving his position as curator of East Asian art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and moving back to Hawai'i. He will begin at the academy in January.
We spoke to him in Richmond about Hawai'i and his new position.
Q. How do you feel about moving back to Hawai'i after all these years? Your family?
A. I'm very happy and excited about it. I love everything about Hawai'i and have regretted leaving it ever since. I've been watching the Honolulu Academy of Arts a long time and always thought it would be a dream position. I interned at the academy with Stephen Little when he was curator of Asian art. I've been hoping I would someday have the chance to go back again and work with him. It has been hard for my wife, Eileen, to live on the Mainland since we left Hawai'i. We are also bringing our dog.
Q. What are you leaving behind?
A. Working at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has been a good experience. I've been building their Asian collection the last four years, so leaving behind the artwork we've acquired will be hard. Besides that, they are constructing a new wing, with plans to expand its Asian galleries to over twice their current size. I won't get to see that to completion. My grandparents live on the Mainland. It is also less convenient to visit other museums in New York and Washington, D.C. However, on the bright side, Japan and China are a lot closer.
Q. What do you see as your strong points, or the main contribution you see yourself making at the academy?
A. It has been 15 years since I've been to the Academy of Arts, although this whole time I've been watching it from afar. I want to spend a little time and see where it is right now and where it needs to move, and gauge my plan, depending on the specific needs, when I get there. However, the priorities of the community will become my priorities. I think a high degree of flexibility is essential, as you never know what opportunities are going to arise. If you lock into too tight a plan, you might miss an opportunity.
The academy's exhibition program is not all that well- known outside of Hawai'i, and that's a problem. I want to develop a strategy that will benefit the academy, not only in Hawai'i, but the academy in terms of its national and international reputation. I'd also like to give a lot of attention to the permanent collection.
There has been a shift in the museum world, the last couple of decades, away from blockbuster, large-scale exhibits. Many museums are starting to realize the weaknesses of focusing on that and not on the assets they already have. That is very relevant to the academy, especially in terms of its very strong Asian collection. It's time to update a lot of the catalogs and the collection. Researching and studying the permanent collection is a priority for Stephen Little and me. Arranging special exhibitions from the permanent collection and creating high-quality publications will allow the Hawai'i audience to see the exhibits in a new way. It will also give the exhibits better opportunities to travel to the Mainland.
Q. What do you see as your greatest challenge?
A. The position covers all of Asia, and I'm an East Asian art specialist. I have less training in the area of Southeast Asian art, so there will be a learning curve there — the academy has one of the few collections in the country. I want to keep a balance in the programs and will make it my goal to not let any one aspect of the collection dominate.
Also, big changes are happening because of the acquisition of the Richard Lane collection. Several thousand unstudied works of Asian art are gradually being sent to the academy. Stephen Little worked a miracle in acquiring it. The works will all need to be researched and studied. Julia White did a fantastic job establishing the Korean gallery. I would like to see it continue to grow and develop and become more well-known outside of the museum.
Q. What would you like to change?
A. I would like to develop the academy's collection in areas that aren't represented. How you develop the collection depends on the museum's needs and what's available on the market. Stephen Little and I have talked quite a bit about the importance of contemporary East Asian and Chinese art. It is an area of great interest that we'd like to expand in the future.
Q. Is there anything else you are looking forward to?
A. Yes, the Asian-related things at the academy — like the film festivals. Most other museums do not have as rich a focus on Asia. I'd also like to enjoy some of the other work that people are doing. I'm excited about reconnecting with the University of Hawai'i. There are a lot of interesting, great people working there.
Q. I noticed on the Web site for the VMFA that you are involved in a travel-study program. Do you intend to continue leading these kinds of programs for the academy?
A. I am leading a customdesigned trip to Yunnan, China. The "Beyond the Clouds" lecture I am giving here is part of that trip. I'm fascinated with Chinese ethnic minority groups. Yunnan is the most ethnically diverse part of China. I have made all the contacts and yes, I would love to go back and lead a tour for the academy.