Art of Hawai‘i—art made by Hawaiians, and art made in or about Hawai‘i by anyone else—has always been part of the Honolulu Museum of Art’s collection. Founded by a missionary daughter, the museum has naturally for generations been the benefactor of traditional Hawaiian works collected by kama‘aina families—as can be seen in the case displaying an array of gleaming ‘umeke (calabashes). Yet the museum has never had a curator dedicated to this collection—which spans from pre-contact to the 1970s—until now.
On Jan. 5, 2015, Healoha Johnston assumed that honor, when she joined the museum as assistant curator, arts of Hawai‘i. The new position is part of the European and American Art Department, headed by curator Theresa Papanikolas. “All of us at the museum are just delighted to have Healoha as part of our curatorial team,” says Papanikolas. “Not only does she bring her immense experience and expertise to the museum, but for the first time we now have a specialist in this area. I think we’re all going to learn a lot from Healoha about Hawai‘i’s singular art history, how it plays within the local community, and how it resonates in its broader context. I can’t wait to see what interesting projects and initiatives she develops.”
Just two weeks into her new job, Healoha is busy familiarizing herself with the collection and her colleagues. Last week she got a tour of the textiles vault from textiles curator Sara Oka. The women swapped textiles stories as they slipped between the sliding rows of drawers and racks holding bolts of Hawaiian quilts, each wrapped in muslin and bearing a tag of the design hidden within. Healoha had Sara in raptures as she shared her experience of visiting Hulihe‘e Palace and sitting on a bed made of layers of lauhala. Then Sara opened a drawer of elegant little purses, some of them looking like they could be on the set of Downton Abbey, and Healoha joked, “You know I have a clutch fetish.” It’s always fun to watch curators nerd out over art and artifacts.
The quilts are particularly interesting for Healoha, whose Art History Masters thesis was on the Queen’s Quilt—the patchwork quilt Queen Lili‘uokalani created during her imprisonment at ‘Iolani Place, where the poignant textile resides. “I investigated the quilt’s symbols and considered their meaning within the context of the politics of the time,” says Johnston. She is also on the verge of completing a second Master’s in Pacific Island Studies.
The arts of Hawai‘i collection is one that crosses departments—with works residing in the European and American collection (we are aware of the colonialist irony in that), the textile collection, and the contemporary collection. After her textile vault visit, Healoha said she looks forward to working with Sara, and reflected on how collaboration with other curators is a two-way street. “For example, regarding textiles, my engagement is more on the scholarly side, researching things like symbols, while Sara’s expertise extends to hands-on training, so she knows things such as how something can or cannot be hung or mounted. Being able to rely on other people’s expertise—whether it’s technical skill or institutiional knowledge and exhibition history—can make a stronger show.”
Johnston, who has deep roots in Kuliouou, brings to the museum a diverse arts background. Her experience runs from serving as an assistant curator at the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and running a small photography gallery in San Diego, to curating contemporary photography exhibitions at the San Diego Natural History museum as an independent curator. For four years she was the gallery assistant to Luis De Jesus (whom she considers her mentor) at his well-regarded contemporary art gallery in Los Angeles where she did everything from working with international curators to handling publicity and the budget.
She has also applied her research skills and museum studies experience to other areas—most recently she worked as a grant writer for the Hula Preservation Society, where she assisted in the development of museum methodology practice that observes cultural protocol as well as conservation quality methods, and as a policy specialist for NOAA assisted with the writing of Marine National Monument Plans for the Marianas Trench, the Rose Atoll, and the Pacific Remote Islands marine national monuments.
Healoha looks forward to familiarizing herself with the museum’s collection of the arts of Hawai‘i, as well as reaching out to her curatorial peers in the islands and throughout the country who work with similar collections. “There is a lot of room to expand existing narratives about the art of Hawai‘i by working with curators at other museums,” she says. “It will take time, but I am really looking forward to cultivating those relationships.”
Museum director Stephan Jost has wanted to create the new position for some time, “because a massive amount of basic curatorial research needs to be done in this area,” he says. “It is a specialized field that we need an expert in. Most of our curators have been educated on the mainland or have little formal training in the arts of Hawai‘i. It is really a 20- to 30-year project to frame the history of art in Hawai‘i with all of the cultural complexities and contested issues.”
Healoha looks at the collection from a big-picture view, saying that “because there is such limited knowledge of Hawai‘i’s history in a general sense, the art history knowledge of Hawai‘i is even more nebulous. Nothing evolves in isolation—the circumstances in Hawai‘i today is a branch of a root that happened in the past. Being able to explore that historical trajectory allows us to better understand Hawai‘i’s visual culture.”