At last month’s Board of Trustees meeting, two of the group’s longest-serving and most distinguished members—Samuel A. Cooke and Wesley T. Park—stepped down. The board voted to make both men emeritus trustees, and Cooke was named honorary chair emeritus for life.
Sam Cooke joined the board in 1969—the year the museum’s director Stephan Jost was born—and held the position of chairman of the board from 1975 to 1981, and 1997 to 2007, steering the museum through its greatest period of growth since it opened in 1927, and spearheading greater diversity at the leadership level. Cooke and Park are close friends; one of the first things Cooke did upon becoming chairman was to invite Park to join the board.
Cooke is more than a business leader in the community—he is the great grandson of the museum’s founder, Anna Rice Cooke. Like her, he is a prolific collector, focusing on books about and art of Hawai‘i. But he didn’t join the board out of a sense of obligation to continue a family’s artistic legacy. He and his wife, Mary, both have a Kennedy-esque sense of serving—he was the founding chairman of the Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i and headed the Cooke Foundation and she was the founding president of Malama O Mānoa. And together they have created the Mānoa Heritage Center, to protect a pre-contact heiau on their property, a project that will eventually see their home become a museum.
Seated in an ‘umeke-filled sitting room of the Tudor-style home his grandparents built in 1911, the straight-talking former businessman (he retired in 2002 as senior vice president of Morgan Stanley’s Honolulu branch) still has a boyish air about him at the age of 78. He graciously (and pithily) answered questions about his time at the museum. (Pictured above are the power braddahs Cooke and Park at the post-board meeting celebration commemorating the men’s long, successful terms on the board.)
Your grandfather Charles Montague Cooke was chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, and there are a lot of Cooke descendants. How did you come to represent the family (along with your cousin Lynne Johnson) on the board?
I was asked 46 years ago by Scott Pratt, then president of Hawaii Trust Company and chair of the museum’s board of trustees, to be involved.
Did he ask you because you were a Cooke or because you were a collector?
You have to ask him and he’s dead.
Did you have to think about it? Or was it a no brainer?
Did you go the museum as a kid?
No. You see, my grandfather was a malacologist and worked at the Bishop Museum. He was the foremost expert on Hawaiian land shells in the world. So I spent most of my free time as a youth at the Bishop Museum.
When you were growing up did your great grandmother loom large in family lore?
Not in my family. My father was a great outdoorsman—a fisherman and hunter—my mother was, too. They both caught world-record fish.
So you’re kind of an anomaly to be the art guy in the family.
At last month’s board meeting, you said whenever you see improvements at the museum you think of Wesley Park. Can you explain that?
When I became chairman of the board, I asked Wesley Park to come on board. I needed his profound judgment and I needed a representative of that part of the community, which we had never seen before. The first thing Wes did for me was take me through the museum and tell me that is was a lovely museum but was way behind the times in physical terms. He suggested that we put in a new floor, put air conditioning in the galleries, and install security measures in each gallery. It hit me as a wonderful idea, so I went to George Ellis, who was the director then, and told him about my conversation with Wesley Park and he agreed with me so we started, way back in 1997, a drive called the Renaissance Campaign to raise $30 million to do all these suggestions.
Speaking of the Renaissance Campaign, I’ve heard that outside consultants told you the museum didn’t have the capacity to successfully complete a major fundraising drive. So how did you do it?
I realized right off the bat that raising $30 million was going to be a real chore. But we had several things going for us—one was the director George Ellis, who had previous contacts with people like the Christensens of California, who gave us $5 million, and he was close to the Luce Foundation. Consequently we were able to raise about half of it on the mainland, which I had not given credence to prior to the beginning of the drive.
So that was a new strategy for the museum—to reach out to mainland donors?
Was it hard raising the rest of the funds locally?
It was extremely hard. But we got with the spirit of it. The city got with the spirit of it. And we touched everybody from the five-dollar donor all the way through the five-million-dollar donor. That seemed to work.
You spearheaded the Renaissance Campaign, which funded the Luce Pavilion expansion, among many other improvements at the museum. Was it your proudest achievement during your decades on the board?
No. My single most significant achievement I remember is when I first came on the board. The museum had been given a Hawaiian stamp collection by Mr. Frank Atherton—the Atherton family have been very supportive of the museum. But we didn’t have the facilities to take care of those stamps, and they were extremely valuable. So I went to the board, as a new board member, and convinced them that we should sell the stamps and buy art. The initial reaction was they could never do anything against Frank Atherton’s will, but slowly they turned around and accepted the fact that we were not taking good care of the stamps and that they were deteriorating.
Mr. Atherton had left a memo with his gift that read that the stamp collection has to stay within the confines of the Hawaiian Islands. So we brought in [renowned philatelist] Mr Raymond Weill from New Orleans to give us an idea of what the collection was worth. Then we advertised the stamps for sale, which were finally bought by Mr. Thurston Twigg-Smith and Mr. Alfred Ostheimer. We then took that money and bought the Copley and the Cycladic figure—both of which are on view in the museum right now. James Foster was the director of the museum in those days and he chose extremely wisely.
Yes, since you’ve been on the board the museum has acquired amazing artwork. Do you have a favorite?
I have two favorites. One is the scene of upstate New York painted by William Guy Wall, and I was there when they acquired it, and the other painting, which has a wonderful story around it, is the Thomas Moran, which hangs with the painting of upstate New York in the American Gallery.
I was with Scott Pratt, who was the chairman of the board and president of Bank of Hawaii, and Jim Foster at Bank of Hawaii to discuss salaries. When it came to Jim’s turn, he had to leave the room because he didn’t want to discuss his own salary. So after Scott and I discussed it, we asked him back in and Jim was spellbound. We said, “What’s the matter with you?” And he said, “Do you know you have a Thomas Moran hanging out there?” And we said, “Who’s Thomas Moran?” And he said he was one of the foremost artists of the day and his landscape paintings helped convince Congress to create the National Park system. So we got the painting down and had it cleaned—it’s a magnificent painting, it’s one of the most beautiful paintings in the museum. It was commissioned by C. M. Cooke—Mrs. Anna Rice Cooke’s husband, and my great grandfather—directly from Thomas Moran for $1,000. He was chairman of the board of the Bank of Hawaii, so he hung the Moran in the bank and left it there and forgot about it. Fast forward 60 or 70 years I received a call from a dealer in Texas who said he would like to purchase the Moran for $6 million, but we won’t sell it.
You said in a 2009 Advertiser profile of you that you are involved with the museum to make sure it continues to serve the people of Hawai‘i. Why is that important?
Well I’ve come to realize that a fine arts museum is probably one of the most significant tools to educate young people. Overall it has a very, very good collection, it’s small but it’s very good. J. Carter Brown, who ran the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and was considered one of the great art impresarios of his time, told me that he thought the Honolulu Academy of Arts was the finest small museum in America.
Your fellow trustee and Hawai‘i-art collector Michael Horikawa told the museum blog that he’s had the collecting bug since he was a kid. How about you?
Unlike Mike, I also collected books and I have a complete library of most of the early voyagers who came to Hawai‘i. Most of them are first editions. That’s where I started my collection. When I was in college, I bought a set of Cooke’s A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean at Abercrombie & Fitch for $40. I was interested in the Hawaiian Islands, from the standpoint of Western contact.
What did you study—were you a history major?
Hotel administration. I tried it for a while but it didn’t work.
So from books you branched out into paintings?
I presume family heirlooms have made their way down to you to form part of your collection.
Not true. Most of the good stuff went to the Academy and the authentic Hawaiian artifacts went to the Bishop Museum.
Moving forward, where would you like to see the museum go?
I’d like to see the museum move ahead. We are small. I’d like to see it get larger. We only display about 10 percent of what we have right now. So there’s room to grow. I think arts and education are becoming much more a part of our way of life in Hawai‘i and we have to be there to service [the community]. My great grandmother, when she built the museum, said it was for the entire population of children of Hawai‘i, and she was going to have art representative of almost every race, which she’s done. We’re the only museum in America to have a Filipino gallery and this has had an impact not only on our community but in the Philippines as well. I not only think the museum is on solid footing, I think we have a director who is perfectly capable of taking the museum wherever he wants to. And I’m lucky to be a part of it.
I am so grateful to the Cooke family and the honolulu museum of art for the Philippine gallery being a Filipina American. I enjoyed walking through it on my last visit to Hawaii and I attend the “art after dark” events 4 or 5 times a year even though I live in Piedmont California! I recognize the importance of art in everyone’s lives and how it molds the minds of the young and those of every age! I always recommend the museum to my friends here in the Bay Area as part of their itinerary when they visit the islands and I hope to support the museum even more when I move there this coming year and hopefully even work there!
This is fantastic. Love the transparency and candid responses. I love this realistic, documentary style. I shall add the Art Musuem in my trust. The Cooke legacy goes on and on.
Wonderful article and wonderful man. Sam Cooke a quiet Hercules for art in Hawaii. We owe him so much!
Inspiring! Sam and Mary Cooke are such a wonderful caring couple. They have so much energy for creating a beautiful future for Hawaii in Art and many other ways. We in Hawaii are so fortunate. Mahalo for so much Aloha !