Aaron Padilla has done almost every job there is to do at the museum—whether officially or unofficially. He’s the guy who designed the fans distributed on Shangri La tours. He orchestrated the hauling of 30 tons of gravel to the Spalding House Surface Gallery and shoveled the rocks evenly over the former tennis court.
Now he can put his encyclopedic knowledge of the museum to work as the new director of Spalding House—the museum’s location in Makiki Heights, where Aaron has been making waves with his school curriculum-driven exhibitions as education curator since 2013.
Aaron joined the museum in 2003 as an art instructor, teaching classes such as raku (he holds an MFA in ceramics from the University of Hawai‘i, along with a BFA in painting and printmaking from Pacific Lutheran University). Two years later he became the Bank of Hawaii Family Sunday coordinator. It’s a position that he says has served him well.
“I think my Bank of Hawaii position really primed me for everything I’ve done here,” says Padilla. “I had to work with every single department in the museum. If I had started working in, say, collections, I would have been focused only on the collection, and wouldn’t have had much interaction with development or education.” To run a monthly event on that scale well requires you have to have knowledge of and a good relationship with all departments. I find myself constantly going back to when I was in that position and using that as a reference point.”
What he doesn’t mention are his even-keeledness, sense of fairness (he could be a judge), generosity, keen intelligence and extreme work ethic. Those qualities galvanize people around him to get things done.
Padilla also brings to his leadership position the perspective of the artist—in his private time he is a successful painter, ceramist and sculptor, with pieces in the collections of the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, Fendi Foundation and Halekulani, as well as numerous private collections.
He works with some of Hawai‘i’s best artists, often commissioning them to create installations specifically for Spalding House exhibitions, as well as internationally known names, such as Los Angeles-based muralist Aaron Noble, whose work is currently on view in TXT/MSG.
“Aaron has proven himself to be a very capable leader. His ability to blend a curatorial and artistic sensibility is serving the mission of the museum well,” says museum director Stephan Jost, who announced Padilla’s new position in July. “Spalding House and its programs have become central to the Honolulu Museum of Art and having clear leadership on site is vital.”
Now along with his curatorial duties, he will also oversee Spalding House programs and operations. The campus’s art spaces encompasses exhibition galleries, the Cades Pavilion housing the permanent installation of David Hockney’s L’Enfant et les sortileges, the outdoor Surface Gallery, and the sculpture garden.
A new focus for Padilla is the museum’s garden experience. “That has always been a signature of Spalding House. When people walk through the entrance, they don’t turn to the gallery or talk to the volunteer at the front desk, they walk straight to the wall and take a picture of Diamond Head,” says Padilla. “That’s one of the museum’s special features, and the garden has a really interesting history. I think it’s time to emphasize that.”
As part of that new push, a volunteer group started clearing Spalding House’s meandering paths, uncovering long lost features, such as a large stone with Latin text carved into it, and further up the path are Chinese ceramic wall treatments. “All these things that play into the history of Spalding House, and are opportunities to tell its story. It’s a great space,” says Padilla. “We’ve done a number of small art interventions in the garden—such as a yarnbombing by TheFuzz and Lynne Yamamoto’s A House for Listening to Rain—and they’ve always been successful, but we’ve never institutionalized it. The garden can be used as a gallery and is an opportunity to be really creative and have fun.”
And in the brick-and-mortar galleries, visitors can expect to continue to find the fascinating art mashups that can mix the likes of Honoré Daumier and Hawai‘i’s own Corky Trinidad to get across an educational concept. “Though the next exhibition will change it up a little,” reveals Padilla. “So far the shows have all focused on a single subject or discipline, such as literature or science. With Plastic Fantastic?, opening in February, we’ll move toward an multidisciplinary approach. We are looking at the subject of plastic through a scientific lens, a literary lense, a social lense, and a mathematical lens.”
Padilla explains that the reason for the evolution is twofold—multidisciplinary learning is a growing education trend, and “we noticed that when we focused on a single subject, we couldn’t build on the momentum created by any given exhibition. The math teachers would show up en mass for the fall show, which focused on math show, then say, ‘OK, see you in a year.’ This way we can keep the momentum going.”