Denby Fawcett: The State Art Museum Gets Rebranded As Capitol Modern - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Critics hate the new name, saying it sounds more fitting for a cocktail lounge or a hotel.

The Hawaii State Art Museum is now known as Capitol Modern. The rebranding was announced Wednesday.

Karen Ewald, the head of the state foundation that manages the museum, said the change came about because local residents and visitors found the original name confusing.

But I find the museumʻs new name even more confusing. The rebranded museum sounds more like a condo or even a cocktail lounge in Washington, D.C.

It is also confusing because the new name Capitol Modern omits the words museum and Hawaii from its primary name and only has the words in its secondary descriptor title.

“Capitol Modern” as the museumʻs primary name diminishes the salient fact that the state government created the museum and Hawaiiʻs taxpayers continue to fund it as a place to show contemporary art owned by the people of the state. It is not a private hotel or a bank.

Bernard Uy of the rebranding team from Wall-to-Wall Studios said the museum will always be the Hawaii State Art Museum. It just has a new nickname “Capitol Modern”  to replace its old acronym HiSAM.

Wall-to-Wall Studios, with offices in Pittsburgh and Honolulu, was hired by the museum three years ago on a $150,260 contract to help the museum rebrand and freshen its overall image and website as well as improve its brochures, signage and maps.

The company has helped rebranding efforts by clients as diverse at Zippyʻs, Civil Beat, Hawaii National Bank, Tori Richards, the Bishop Museum and the Surf Jack Hotel.

Uy said people will often reject any name change at first until there has been time for it to sink in.

“The success of a brand change is measured over the years. Branding is about the long game not the immediate reaction,” he said.

Karen Ewald, the head of the state foundation that manages the museum, says the name change was aimed at helping the museum attract younger patrons. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Uy said many local residents and visitors were surveyed by the company Market Trends Pacific before the museum selected the name. However, for proprietary reasons he said he could not reveal how many people were surveyed and exactly who they were or if they were given a chance to react to the words “Capitol Modern.”

I wondered if Wall-to-Wall kept the word “Hawaii” out of the state museumʻs rebranded primary name because the company used it in a rebranding project it did for the privately run Bishop Museum, which now describes itself in brochures and advertising as “Hawaiʻiʻs museum.”

Karen Ewald said the state museum started discussing rebranding in 2018 when it realized it had to modernize and clarify its mission if it were ever to stand out as a unique institution in Hawaii.

She said local residents and visitors alike were confusing the Hawaii State Art Museum with the Honolulu Museum of Art or the Bishop Museum or even a government archive.

A few out-of-town visitors were disappointed when they found themselves in galleries of contemporary art instead of a state history museum where they could view such things such as portraits of past Hawaii governors, she said.

Others were upset when they expected to be walking through a big museum only to find themselves instead in art galleries confined to the second floor of a downtown building dominated by state offices.

Ewald is the newly named executive director of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts — hired on a five-year contract at $140,000 per year.

She has been working at the museum for nine years as the Art in Public Places program director.

The museumʻs name change has been loudly criticized by some leaders of Hawaiiʻs art community such as Marika Emi, a designer and gallery director of Aupuni Space in Kakaako who expressed her concerns on Instagram and in a phone interview with Civil Beat.

“I was shocked when I saw the new name. The museum had a perfectly fine name before that clearly defined its purpose. If visitors were confused about the name, the museum should have worked to make itself a better institution rather than just embracing a superficial rebranding. That’s not going to take care of its problems,” Emi said.

The museum is located on the second floor of a downtown building dominated by state offices. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano is another who finds the rebranding of the Hawaii State Art Museum unnecessary.

“I prefer the old name, it informs, it has meaning. ‘Capitol Modern’ sounds like the name of a hotel or a business plaza,” Cayetano wrote in an email.

“Bureaucrats too often get hung up on little things like acronyms at the expense of losing sight of the big picture. Names of state buildings should impart a bit of history and purpose,“ he said.

The Cayetano administration created the museum in 2002 as a place to show the public the thousands of works the state had acquired from its Art in Public Places program.

Art in Public Places was created by state law in 1967 — the first of its kind in the country —  to require that 1% of all money the state spends on construction of public buildings be set aside to buy art. The artworks are then to be displayed in public places to beautify and humanize government structures or areas.

To be clear, the museumʻs new name has its fans. Public relations executive Pia Arma finds it refreshing.

“It is easier to remember and speaks more clearly to todayʻs younger generation,“ she said. 

There was similar controversy in 2012 when Hawaiiʻs biggest art museum changed its name from the Honolulu Academy of Arts to Honolulu Museum of Art.

Spokeswoman Lesa Griffith said the change was to make the mission of the institution clearer. Before the rebranding some people mistakenly thought it was an art school.

It is curious that the Honolulu Museum of Art included the word “museum” in its new name to clarify its role while the stateʻs art museum has removed the word “museum” from its primary name.

“Omitting ‘Museum’ was intentional, since we are at present a small gallery and a versatile space that is constantly changing and evolving — we are also so much more than just a museum,” said Ewald.

Ewald said that for many young people, the word “museum” connotes a stuffy, formal place where visitors are required to enter speaking only in hushed tones out of respect for the art.

She said the goal instead is to be perceived as an exciting meeting place for people of different backgrounds and interests. And she emphasized entrance into the museum will always be free, a rarity in downtown Honolulu where to enter most meeting places you have to pay at least for a drink.

“The vibrant programs at the museum today offer fresh experiences outside the traditional definition of the word ‘museum,‘” rebranding team member Malia Wisch said.

She is referring to events such as Pasifika Night last year when dancers — some of them living in public housing projects including Kuhio Park Terrace — put on dazzling performances in the museumʻs sculpture garden and the Queer Arts Festival also last year to celebrate the arts of Hawaiiʻs LGBTQ communities.

Pasifika Night Hawaii State Art Museum Denby Fawcett column dancers
Dancers performed in the museum’s sculpture garden during Pasifika Night. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2022)

Ewald said the people complaining about the name change to Capitol Modern are not the new patrons they are trying to attract.

“We are trying to target people who have never had access to the arts — people who are afraid to go into a state museum,” she said.

Ewald said she is happy to talk to anyone who wants to know more about the name change and insists the museum won’t back down from the rebranding no matter how strong the protest.

“If people want to still call it HiSAM then go for it. We feel strongly that the new name is a good thing. I would love it if the critics instead directed their passion into getting us a new cafe to repace our former museum restaurant that closed during Covid,“ she said.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

Typical State of Hawaii: whole lot of money spent on salaries and contracts of people who do not know what they are doing. Real good at defending themselves, though.

Kai · 2 months ago

100% the best description of things done in any Hawaii government. Not gonna release no information that could make anyone look bad.

time4truth · 2 months ago

Just another example of outsourcing to mainland "consultants," who "know better" than kamaaina, about naming local destinations.

katisha · 2 months ago

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