The museum is deeply saddened by the death last Wednesday of James Jensen, a longtime member of its ‘ohana. Known affectionately as “Jim” by his family and “Jay” by his many friends, co-workers and business acquaintances here and on the mainland, he devoted his professional career to the Honolulu Academy of Arts and The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, and, finally, the Honolulu Museum of Art—the organization formed by the merging of the two institutions he loved so much. (Pictured above: Jay at the museum in 1986, when he was curator of Western art.)
Do a search for “Jensen” on this blog and you’ll see many posts that give an idea of his wide-ranging work at the museum. We especially like this one he wrote about visiting a kindergarten class at Punahou to see artwork students created in response to the David Hockney installation at Spalding House.
“Jay was the consummate curator,” says museum trustee Sharon Twigg-Smith, who was a close friend of Jay’s. “He lived and breathed art. He was a walking encyclopedia of art facts. He had perfect recall of artists, titles, exhibitions, and museums—anything related to the art world. He never forgot names, or dates and could provide any detail of a collector’s history at a moment’s notice. His years of curating at The Contemporary Museum will never be forgotten by a community of art lovers who benefited greatly from his interest in bringing unforgettable exhibitions to our shores.”
HoMA deputy director Allison Wong, counts Jay as a mentor and great friend. “I had the great pleasure of working alongside Jay for more than 20 years,” she says. “He had a wealth of knowledge and a photographic memory and was truly the force behind the contemporary art scene in Hawai‘i. He had a keen eye to recognize emerging artists and gave many artists their first museum shows. He always made time for our local art community and never missed an exhibition opening or a chance for a studio visit. His contributions are too many to count and I am pleased to have been along for the ride learning from the very best. Our community has lost a true art hero and his work had made a huge impact on our creative economy.”
After earning a B.A. in Art History and an M.A. in Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jay moved to Hawai‘i in 1976 to work as the administrative assistant to then director Jim Foster. From there he became the museum’s publications editor, then assistant curator, and then curator of Western art. Then in 1991 he moved to the newly established Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, where he was associate director and chief curator. When the two museums became one as the Honolulu Museum of Art, Jensen was made curator of contemporary art.
In recent years, Honolulu residents experienced his curatorial skills in exhibitions such as Serious Fun: Thurston Twigg-Smith and Contemporary Art, Courage and Strength: Portraits of Those Who Have Served, and Decisive Moments: Photographs from the Collection of Cherye R. and James F. Pierce. In addition, Jay worked closely with Hawai‘i artists, whose work he featured in a space dedicated to Hawai‘i contemporary art. Diane KW Chen, Wendy Kawabata, John Koga, Kapulani Landgraf, Deborah G. Nehmad, Maya Lea Portner, and Paul Pfeiffer are just a few of the artists who worked with Jensen on installations for the space.
“Like most emerging artists in this town, I was intimidated by Jay because I respected him so much for his encyclopedic knowledge and bottomless passion for art as well as his unbelievable talent for curating shows,” says Nehmad, who in addition to being one of Hawai‘i’s most noted artists is also a museum docent. “As I got to know him while I was a docent, I was still intimidated, but his open door and unassuming manner started to put me at ease. When he first purchased my piece at a Honolulu Printmakers exhibition for The Contemporary Museum’s collection, I was ecstatic because I didn’t have a clue as to what he thought of my art. I felt like I had just been awarded my Ph.D. He was an incredible advocate for local artists, curating the Biennials at TCM and visiting every local art show he could get to. I was so honored when he offered me a show at HoMA and I got to work with him again. I was also honored to be able to call him my friend. I can’t imagine this community without him. I know that when I make my work from now on, I will always wonder what Jay would have thought of it.”
Jay’s influence was felt outside Hawai‘i as well. “He was well known on the mainland in every major city with a museum, and in all the many galleries he frequented, where he was on a first-name basis with many of the gallery directors and staff,” says Twigg-Smith. “He had relationships with major collectors all over the world, and many of the gifts that continue to come into the doors of the Honolulu Museum of Art, are directly related to his cultivated relationships with collectors who became aware of our museum through Jay. Through his numerous friendships with artists and museum directors, Jay was able to organize and lead museum-sponsored trips to mainland and international landmarks in Chicago, New York, Seattle, Houston and Japan, that were always enhanced by visits to the homes of artists and private collectors.”
Those who don’t know Jay well might be surprised to learn that the urbane art curator was born in Waupaca, Wisconsin, on July 10, 1949, and grew up on a farm. While one of his two brothers took over the farming operation, Jay pursued a life of art.
Jay’s knowledge of the museum’s collection was encyclopedic, and staff often consulted him for his institutional memory of both of the museum’s locations. He also made personal donations of art to the collection. He leaves an indelible legacy at the museum and will be greatly missed. To honor that legacy, the museum has created the James Jensen Acquisition Fund (see below).
Celebration of life
There will be a celebration of life on April 29, at the Honolulu Museum of Art Spalding House. The service will begin promptly at 11am. Parking at Spalding House is reserved. The museum offers free shuttle service from the Honolulu Museum of Art School (1111 Victoria St.), which will run continuously from 9:30am to 3:45pm. Additional parking is available in the museum staff parking lot at 1035 Kinau St.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the James Jensen Acquisition Fund for Contemporary Art. Make checks payable to the Honolulu Museum of Art, 900 S. Beretania St., Honolulu, HI 96814. Note on the check that it is for the James Jensen Acquisition Fund for Contemporary Art.