Violet S.W. Loo, known as Vi, has long given back to the community. Holding an MA in education from the University of California, Berkeley, she is passionate about education. She and her late husband, Paul Loo, built a philanthropic legacy—giving generously to education institutions—that she continues today. Vi also serves on the boards of Chaminade University and Hawaii Pacific University.
A lifelong art lover, she was the president of the board of trustees of The Contemporary Museum for eight years when it merged with the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 2011. She remained on the combined board as vice chairman and in July was appointed chairman. We had a long, laughter-filled talk with Vi to learn more about her and her vision for the museum.
What motivates you to serve on the museum’s board?
I feel that volunteer work is very important. Because time is precious I choose to serve an organization that is not only in line with my interests, but that also gives back many benefits to the community, and the Honolulu Museum of Art certainly fits that bill. I see it as an information center—all the galleries tell you about the history of art and helps us appreciate the multicultural heritage of our community, and the contemporary, provocative art exhibitions link us to the outside, fast-changing world of art. The museum is a great benefactor to all of us, it enriches our lives by adding a significant cultural dimension to our society. Having a great museum shows that Honolulu is not just a place for beach, sun and swimming—it has much more depth. In addition to being a valuable asset for residents, the museum helps employers who try to attract talent from the mainland. Given these factors, it is an honor to be given the opportunity to help guide, support, and grow such a vital institution for our community. Having a passion for art and being a collector makes it doubly exciting.
You have a masters degree in education, so clearly education is important to you. What do you think is the museum’s education role in the community?
Education is the museum’s most important role. Art education in the public schools has been so compromised, so it is important for the museum to provide and support much needed art education in our schools.
The museum is an important educational institution—classes at the Art School teach the young and the old the intricacies of art making. The school tours train young minds to look at, question, and analyze art. The museum has done excellent educational outreach—programs provide important art experiences that help to foster creativity and challenge everyone to think outside the box. These are important values, especially for young people who will be entering the work force.
I’m particularly impressed with the new programs at Spalding House. How innovative is it to use art to strengthen and teach the five basic subjects taught in schools? And adult education is equally important, because they are the ones who are our potential supporters. We reach adults through classes at at the Art School, free lectures at Doris Duke Theatre, and events such as Tour + Tea but I do feel we fall short in engaging adults in small groups to discuss art topics or art collection. That is an effective way to engage adults—everybody enjoys camaraderie. To cultivate small groups will help strengthen interest and links to the museum.
Do you have a favorite work of art in the collection?
I don’t have a favorite work, but I do have favorite artists whose work I admire and respect. One of the people I admire is Allyn Bromley. She does beautiful work that always informs, and she’s always pushing the boundary and doing something different. She doesn’t rest on her laurels.
What do you collect?
I buy what I really respond to. I have a lot of Bay Area artists. Abstract and contemporary art is very exciting to me. Collecting art is like opium, buy the first piece and you’re hooked!
You are the daughter of Run Run Shaw, one of the world’s best-known filmmakers—what led you to be such a strong supporter of the visual arts instead of filmmaking?
Film is one of my most fond entertainments. There’s nothing like watching a well put together film. And film can convey a strong message, you can be very touched. But it lacks the intimacy of art. You can get close up to an artwork and almost develop a relationship with it. I enjoy contemporary art because you can hang up a painting and react to it emotionally. Depending on your mood, you always see something different in it. It always grows.
I did grow up in a filmmaking family, but because of that I was also privy to cinema’s inner workings. Beneath the external glamor is a very complex, competitive, tough world. But the artistic side of filmmaking did rub off on me and I have always enjoyed the handling of beautiful art objects, and am thrilled by fine, innovative craftsmanship. Also, my father was a passionate art collector. I was fortunate to grow up with a lot of beautiful paintings and objects. He would have dealers come and bring scrolls, paintings, and objects—he leaned toward Chinese paintings and calligraphy, but he also collected European art.
When I became a docent at The Contemporary Museum, I was introduced to contemporary art. I was blown away by how it transformed my perception of the world around me. I take great pleasure in discovering the story or message behind art pieces. Art is a great teacher. It has taught me to respect the environment and curb habits of waste. It is quite a breathtaking experience to come face to face with a horse sculpture made of rusting railings, scenes constructed from rubber tires, or paintings encrusted with things you might discard. You wouldn’t normally think of these materials as art. These are some of the things that make the art world so exciting to me.
What is your vision for the museum moving forward?
A dynamic, vital multicultural arts institute with an innovative, vibrant educational center, highly regarded nationally and internationally, is an exciting and compelling dream for our Honolulu Museum of Art. It is an ambitious dream but I believe it is achievable.
Financial stability is an essential ingredient. Under the watchful eye of director Stephan Jost, we have worked tirelessly to wrestle down our loans and are close to having a balanced budget. An organized, efficient and competent staff—a lean and mean machine—is another must for a strong, sustainable museum where guests can learn and enjoy a transforming art experience. It also ensures that we are prepared for any future expansion.
There is a need to increase classroom spaces to accommodate even more innovative education programs to support schools and enrich lives of adults. The addition of gallery spaces are important not only to showcase larger notable exhibitions and imaginative on-the-edge shows that keep our community informed and enthused about the continually evolving art world, but will allow for more opportunities to highlight outstanding parts of our permanent collection—gaining the museum respect and prominence.
Growth in status is important. Notable status attracts donors and of equal importance attracts consideration of meaningful art gifts from serious collectors paving the way to dynamic growth and recognition.
This is a challenging vision but with a dedicated board of trustees and a well-organized and efficient staff led by a visionary director, it is not an impossible dream. And since the successful merger of The Contemporary Museum and the Honolulu Academy of Arts, we have already taken important strides towards reaching it.