Opening on Nov. 17 is a testament to First Hawaiian Bank’s commitment to Hawai‘i artists—Celebrating 20 Years of Art at First Hawaiian Center. For two decades, the bank and the Honolulu Museum of Art has partnered on a program that puts the spotlight on the work of Hawai‘i artists. During that time, the bank has added to its century-old collection with contemporary works from the exhibitions at the bank. Now works from that collection go on view. First Hawaiian Bank chairman and CEO Bob Harrison answered questions about the institution’s longterm commitment to art and artists. (Pictured above is Harrison, his wife, Lori, and museum interim director Allison Wong greeting artist Harry Tsuchidana at First Hawaiian Center in July.)

First Hawaiian Center opened in October 1996 with an art gallery—which was the brainchild of then CEO Walter Dods. The space has always been dedicated to showing the work of artists with a Hawai‘i connection. What is the vision for that space 20 years later?
Bob Harrison:
For 20 years, the art gallery in the Main Branch of our First Hawaiian Center has been dedicated to the sole purpose of showcasing the work of artists with a Hawai‘i connection and making these art exhibitions easily accessible to those who live and work in downtown Honolulu. It’s open during bank hours and is free for anyone to stop in, meander through the gallery and enjoy the exhibitions. These exhibitions tell the story of Hawai‘i through the lens of these artists and it provides a cultural legacy and sense of place for everyone. We are very proud to continue to share with the community this enriching visual experience right here in the heart of downtown Honolulu.

You aim to bring new attention and focus to the art program—tell us why and how.
BH: Our focus has been and remains creating opportunities for artwork featuring artists with a Hawai‘i connection to be displayed and showcased in this beautiful space at the First Hawaiian Center. One of the ways we do this is through the purchase of artwork which we do to support the artists.

Since 1996, has there ever been talk about stopping the art program? Have you or any other executives had to defend it?
No. Absolutely not. We have enjoyed this long-standing partnership with the museum and look forward to continuing this art program into the future.

Why is supporting Hawai‘i artists important to the bank?
BH: Supporting Hawai‘i artists is important for all of us in the community. By supporting Hawai‘i artists we provide them with the ability to create connections through their work and to preserve our rich cultural heritage that makes Hawai‘i unique. For many of these artists, this art gallery offers them access to different audiences for their work and provides them with important exposure to patrons who may be interested in supporting their work.

Are the galleries part of your corporate culture? I mean—is it a novelty to staff, or something that is part of their work lives, and if yes, in what way?
BH: Our corporate culture is rooted in the values of Caring, Collaboration and Character. The art galleries, through the works of art displayed, exemplify these same values. The physical space is designed to create a seamless connection to the bank. Our employees are proud to be able to offer our customers and visitors the opportunity to view the work of the various local artists as they do their banking.

Do you think art helps keep employees happy and productive? If yes, how?
BH: Yes. Art displayed on the walls of our buildings creates vibrant spaces and offers our employees opportunities to be inspired and energized by the artists’ creativity.

Celebrating 20 Years of Hawai‘i Art at First Hawaiian Center highlights the bank’s own collection. Did the bank begin acquiring art when the galleries opened, or before that?
First Hawaiian Bank has been acquiring art long before we opened the galleries here at the First Hawaiian Center. We have pieces that have been a part of our company’s collection for over a century.

Does the bank continue to acquire art for its collection, and, if yes, what informs the acquisitions? Or, more simply put, who gets to choose?
BH: Yes, we have been acquiring pieces for our bank’s collection more recently in support of Hawai‘i artists and the museum. Selection of the pieces is done through our bank’s art committee. They curate pieces based on design and dimension for the space it will occupy.

Is the collection in storage, or is it shared with staff by hanging in employees’ offices? How do you decide what goes where?
BH: We have some in storage, but we like to display art in employee offices, conference rooms and public spaces within branches.

What art is in your office, and did you select it yourself? If yes, why?
BH: Currently in my office I have four art pieces that I love—a Tadashi Sato painting; a set of wooden bowls by Dan De Luz; a gourd by the artist Elroy Juan; and a painting by Lionel Walden. The Sato painting and the bowls were selected long before I started using this office. The interior space was really designed around these great art pieces. Each bowl sits perched on its own custom-built shelf, jutting out from the wall. We kept everything as is when I moved in as they just worked well for the space.

 I chose the gourd and Lionel Walden painting as recent additions to the office space. I felt that these pieces added a historic and traditional Hawaiian art sense of place in contrast to the very modern Tadashi Sato—striking a nice balance between the modern and traditional art.

Why is art important to Hawai‘i’s people?
BH: Art has the ability to bring people together regardless of our ethnicities, religion, or age and transcends cultural and language barriers. It helps people connect to each other, it brings personal enjoyment, offers a different perspective, and more importantly, art brings us together and serves as a reflection of our island community. It is an important part of what makes this place we call home special.

Can you tell us an inside story about the art on view at First Hawaiian Center?
BH: The Enchanting Garden is the outdoor water feature in the plaza fronting First Hawaiian Center that was designed by Hawai‘i artist Satoru Abe. If you look at the base of one of these sculptural trees at the corner of King and Bishop streets, there is a large inscription that looks similar to Japanese kanji, but if you look closely, it is actually a very stylized inscription of the three letters “FHB.” I understand it was an inside joke between the artist and the bank.

First Hawaiian Center has been a generous supporter of the museum. Why?
BH: It is a long tradition for our bank to support the communities we serve. Support of the museum reflects our bank’s commitment to Hawai‘i’s art community and is in recognition of the museum’s excellent stewardship of our cultural legacy. For 89 years, the Honolulu Museum of Art has been featuring world-class art exhibitions to educate and enrich our island community that has fostered greater understanding and dialogue. We share the same values with the museum in making art accessible to all. Through the First Hawaiian Center art gallery, we are supporting the museum’s mission of bringing together “great art and people to create a more harmonious, adaptable, and enjoyable society in Hawai‘i.” 

Celebrating 20 Years of Art at First Hawaiian Center is on view through March 17, 2017.