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If you count the active artists in Honolulu’s art community, most of them have been affiliated in some way with the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
As the department chair, Gaye Chan has seen most of them go through the school’s halls and then the motions afterward: they’ll make a lot of art at school, graduate, and maybe get into a few shows locally, but no shows will pay.
To get money, some will grab a job at the Honolulu Museum of Art, either in the cafés, or installing art, or teaching at the art school for a few semesters, while others eventually settle for a job as a bank teller, or barista, or whatever pays them a living wage while taking their time away from producing art.
“Artists need to be able to sustain their life, if we continue to be artists,” Chan said. “So many give it up because we make stuff and don’t sell it.”
That’s why she’s teamed up with a trio of philanthropists to form a new gallery to financially support this student body and its alumni: GalleryHNL.
Yes: the art department often promotes its students in dependably intellectual shows throughout the year at its main gallery (the BFA exhibition, called “Unabridged,” opens on Sunday, April 26, and you should go). But Chan says that they get little attention from institutions and collectors.
“People based here who support art are all hooked up with the (Honolulu Museum of Art). These people are supposed to be big art supporters, yet they do not come to any of our shows. I cannot drag them here,” she told me. “Somehow, we’re not on their radar.”
So it was surprising for Mark Blackburn, a local philanthropist who lives amongst his world-class collection of Polynesian art and artifacts in his home on Black Point and thinks highly of his knowledge of the quality of local art, to accidentally stumble upon the merit of work produced at UH.
While on an impromptu tour hosted by Chan, Blackburn saw studio art and works in progress, and “was so blown away by this gem we have in Honolulu of these amazing artists, both MFA students and faculty who are totally unrecognized,” he said.
“Because of my involvement in the art world and major museums, I know a lot of people in the art world on the world stage … I said, ‘This is the best-kept secret in Honolulu.’ The public has no idea that it exists.”
Excited, Blackburn’s mental wheels immediately started spinning.
“I wanted to do something about this. I didn’t want to see artists, who should be professional artists, carrying bags at the Moana Surfrider,” he said. “Some of these are so outstanding, they could be in Art Basel.”
Blackburn’s idea, in order to get the artists into the national and international marketplace, while simultaneously showcasing them to a Hawaii audience, was to set up a gallery that represents, promotes, and arranges commissions for a strictly-curated roster of artists, all of whom must have some connection to the UH art department.
Their list, which will grow in the coming months and years, starts with four, each in a different stage of their career.
Mary Babcock, a fiber and performance artist, is probably the most formed of the group, professionally. She’s an associate professor and current chair of graduates and fiber area at UH; Jonathan Swanz, a glass artist, finished his MFA at UH in 2013 and lectures in glass and ceramics at the school; Tom Walker is a painter currently finishing his MFA at UH this semester; and ceramicist Theresa Heinrich is earning her BFA at UH this year.
The shows will focus on launching new artists, and GalleryHNL will continue to represent the entire group.
“We aim to sell the artwork,” Chan said. “We’re shameless about it, because artists need to be able to sustain their life.”
Fifty percent of each sale will go to the artist, 10 percent goes to the art department’s scholarship fund and to pay for immediate needs and programming, and the rest will go back to the philanthropists.
Each of the artists was selected and vetted by Blackburn, his wife, Carolyn – who together own and operate Manu Antiques on South King Street – Chan, and Sanford Hasegawa, a close friend of the Blackburns who also brings an extensive network in international art circles (he’s the managing director of Studio Becker’s Hawaii office, a millwright firm). And because Studio Becker also manufactures pieces, Hasegawa helps connect the artists with possible commissions, whether residential or corporate contracts.
It was Hasegawa who orchestrated the availability of space for GalleryHNL’s inaugural exhibition, a one-night show that opens on May 2, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., in the Pacific Gentry Design Center (it will be open to appointments thereafter), and the who’s who of local collectors is expected to be there.
It all came together quickly; the four of them, Chan says, make a formidable team.
“Mark’s like my id, but with money,” she said, laughing.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” Blackburn said. “The art scene in Hawaii is laughable. First Friday is a laughable event, nothing but a drinking spree. But the thing is, it shouldn’t be that way. The local population is not really embraced by the arts, and there’s a lot of reasons for that, but this is my chance to do something about it. I’m actually putting my money where my mouth is on this one.”
Everyone’s excited. It’s a young idea, only about three months old, and still full of hope and potential.
“It’s always very reaffirming to have an outside entity, especially a knowledgable entity, respond to your work,” said Babcock, who explained that it’s a challenge to translate through photography the physical presence of her tapestries made of woven fishing line.
“I’ve been working on these for the last 10 years. I think, to have people who are professionals in the field, to be able to see that body of work hands on, to see it and be as excited about it as I am, is a very valuable thing.”
Walker, a painter experimenting with the impact of digital glitches made through an intensive structured process, says that it’s exciting to have his work acknowledged and appreciated. “When you take so long in the studio, making work that so often goes unnoticed – to have Gaye, Mark, and Sanford look at the work and be really interested in it and be as excited about it and recognize it on the same level that you have in it, it’s really exciting.”
But what happens when GalleryHNL’s excitable rich uncles loose steam or find another obsession at which to throw their money?
Blackburn, who estimates he’s already invested $15,000 to $20,000 in this experiment, in addition to the $5,000 donated to establish a scholarship at the department, ensured me that he’s in it all the way.
“Once I commit, I’m like a pit bull. I just keep on pushing, and everybody who knows me knows I’m relentless … I’m a practical person. My way of looking at this is, we get as many works of art sold as possible the first time. It’s like any other big event on the planet. People will line up and stand in line to get a chance to buy our vetted artists.”
The location is tenuous; GalleryHNL might not physically continue at the Pacific Gentry Design Center for its next shows, which will feature new inductees to the gallery, but Chan and Blackburn say they won’t give up.
“Art, to me, is God,” Blackburn said. “This is sort of a mission for me … We knew we should put the UH art department on the map, because nobody’s going to put them on the map, unless we do it.”
Chan added, “The goal is to change us from being the best-kept secret into a household word.”