We asked Hawai‘i’s art-loving governor Neil Abercrombie, who has been coming to the Honolulu Museum of Art since he was a graduate student at the University of Hawai‘i in the 1960s, to tell us his favorite work in the collection. Big-picture guy that he is, he went beyond a single work of art—he chose a space in the museum. The governor visited us last week to talk about it.
A longtime supporter of the museum and the arts in general, the governor played roles in shepherding the creation of the Contemporary Museum (now Spalding House) and the Honolulu Museum of Art School. More recently, he’s lent his political muscle to the arts in various ways, such as including $50,000 for Hawai‘i Fashion Month and $5.7 million for the Hawaii Film Studio in the 2013 state budget, and funding for five positions for economic development, the High Technology Development Corporation, and the Creative Industries Division in the 2014 budget. And in 2013, he proposed legislation that would have authorized the transfer of a portion of transient accommodations tax revenues to the Works of Art Special Fund for the promotion, advancement, and support of Hawaiian culture and the arts. Unfortunately, neither bill was heard in legislative committees.
The governor and his wife, Dr. Nancie Caraway, make art part of their lives. They are Sunday brunch regulars at Spalding House, where they “love the view, the ambiance, and the art.” And Justin Fujioka, the governor’s press secretary, revealed that “Often when the governor is traveling in the car, he talks about art and music—especially jazz.”
Always connecting the dots and conceptualizing, Abercrombie had a lot to say about the museum as we wound our way through the halls to his favorite spot. We’ll let him speak for himself.
So instead of a single artwork, you chose something else you love at the museum. What is it and why?
Visually the museum is constantly a joy, no matter where you are, but particularly…when you come into this courtyard. [We enter the Joanna Lau Sullivan Chinese Courtyard.] Look at the color, it’s warm and inviting and calming—everything is just right. My blood pressure immediately comes down the minute I come into the museum.
Look at the symmetry of the trees and flowers and vines and water. Every time you come in it’s different—it has vitality and waxes and wanes. Right now, just at the beginning of June, everything is blooming, spring is bursting. At other times it’s more somber, but it all causes reflection.
[A dragonfly darts by like a tiny drone.]
That’s another thing I like about this courtyard—usually there are little creatures you don’t see. Dragonflies and butterflies…things you don’t see anymore. I used to, 40 years ago. I have to believe that the Cookes, were they able to be here with us today, would be profoundly moved and I think overjoyed that the vision that they had that this could be a place for a new culture—and what they meant was not to get rid of anything, but to foster a synthesis of cultures, as was outlined in Anna Rice Cooke’s inaugural statement almost 100 years ago. I think they would be very pleased that there’s been a continuity of purpose, that no matter who is in charge of the museum, no matter who the trustees have been over the years, they have been of one mind in terms of this singular purpose of taking everything that has been in Hawai‘i from wherever it was in the world and making it contemporary and fresh. The Chinese courtyard reflects all kinds of ancient tradition but I think it’s also very contemporary.
And why is it important for Honolulu to have an institution like the Honolulu Museum of Art?
It gives you an opportunity to reflect on your humanity and to keep reviewing yourself in the world, and to reflect on the extraordinarily rich and deep traditions from around the globe that are combined in Hawai‘i. After all, we are 2,500 miles away from any major land mass, which means every thing and every body had to migrate here from someplace else, so the one common connection we have is our humanity. The variations on that theme are probably more richly mixed here than any other place on earth. So the museum is a reflection of that. And to the degree that it has been—three cheers, and to the degree that it could be even more—let’s do it. Whatever I could do in the process, rest assured that I would like to be a part of it.
Did you visit the museum while you were a graduate student at the University of Hawai‘i?
Oh yes. The museum had [Jean] Charlots and the Michener collection. What fascinated me was that [novelist James] Michener was able to put his collection together at a time when people weren’t that interested in the genre, at least for a layperson like myself. Thank God for his interest and eclectisism. The museum was not only smart enough but attuned enough to say, yes, here you will find a home and your collection will be respected and understood and shared with joy. If Michener was here today I think he’d be very pleased.
When I was first at UH, I became very interested, and still am, in the values associated with samurai culture—the bushido, sense of duty, honor, how does one act as a human being in a responsible, honorable way? We were involved in civil rights, the first stirring so the Vietnam War, it a post-colonial world was still emerging. What the museum and Michener did was focus on the values associated with the artwork. Why does the Michener collection continue to fascinate? Because the prints reflect a value system— a perception within the culture with regard to our humanity. They fascinated me.