Friday, March 11, was director Stephan Jost’s last day at the museum before he and his husband, Will Scott, and daughter, Monique, move to Toronto where he will assume his position as Michael and Sonja Koerner director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Ontario next month. His personal, modest Ikea desk was packed with the rest of his household shipment, and he sat at the conference table typing away on his laptop, tying up loose ends, and having final meetings. I asked him for an impromptu “exit interview.” Always game to share his thoughts, here are Stephan’s parting words to you HoMA enewsletter readers.
It’s your last day at the office and you’re typing on your computer til the very end.
One’s tenure ends when you turn your keys and identification over. I gave six weeks notice, which was enough time to ensure that [interim director] Allison [Wong] is properly grounded and that everybody has accepted the transition. My strong feeling is that anything longer than six weeks, basically people go into the “enough already” mode. Because I’m moving on but also the organization needs to move on, and if you hang around too long it undercuts leadership opportunities for everybody. The reality is, in times of transition people have to step up, and that’s something that’s exciting, not a burden. So I look forward to seeing how people thrive the moment I walk out this door—because it’s all hands on deck and there are new opportunities.
What accomplishment, big or small is dearest to your heart?
Raising the pay of the lowest paid workers in a really tight budget. It’s still embarrassingly low, but we went from $8 to $13 an hour for a fulltime, benefitted employee.
Also, within the last five years, six to eight younger, local people who are as bright and smart as anybody I’ve ever worked with have joined the staff. That’s what makes me sleep really well at night. There are some great people here.
Another thing I’m proud of—I think we’re a lot more mission focused and intentional than we were, and in the process we’ve kind of figured out who we are. We’ll see in the next five or ten years whether it sticks—I’m pretty optimistic it will. Cultural change is incredibly hard to do because it’s almost all soft, it’s almost all about soft power, people knowing why they’re here—I think as an organization we now have limited band width for people who aren’t mission oriented. It gets harder and harder for people to thrive here if they aren’t aligned with the mission.
Another achievement was, by creating the Advancement department, getting people focused not just on mission, but also on the concept of philanthropy.
You don’t raise money by being in crisis. You raise money by having a really clear, simple mission, or kuleana.
That’s why I’m hopeful this kind of cultural change has taken root. Partly because it’s more enjoyable—nobody wants to be on the board of an organization in crisis. People want to be part of something that is a winner.
The thing I do worry about is…I hope we don’t lose confidence. I’m pretty optimistic, I’m pretty directional—this is where we’re going, and I worry that people won’t realize how much they actually move the organization forward. I pointed the museum in some general directions, but I wasn’t doing the work. When I started here my goal was to get 180 people walking in generally the same direction, it doesn’t have to be lock step, you know?
And do you feel we are now walking in the same direction?
Absolutely. And, I know it sounds corny, but for the most part they’re doing it with aloha. They like it. We like it.
You instituted some new directions in our mission and values, such as looking towards Asia as we continue to build the collection. Do you feel that will stick?
The question to me isn’t whether it will stick or not, it’s whether we’re ahead of the inevitable or behind it. The world’s cultural power and capital significantly has shifted toward Asia on many levels. I think I’ve gone to Asia every year since I’ve been here, without any grand agendas. I’m really just looking and learning, finding out what the heck is actually going on. In the same way that [museum founder] Anna Rice Cooke was buying Asian art in 1927, or Toledo Museum of Art was buying Old Master paintings in 1905, we can be ahead of the curve.
By nature when power shifts away from a country, a culture, there is denial about that, so the quicker we recognize the fact that cultural power is shifting—not in a bad way, it just is—the better position we’re in. We’re going to have to realize it. I’ve seen very little recognition from cultural institutions on the mainland about what’s going on. We have a chance to do it. My sincere hope is the Honolulu Museum of Art takes advantage of it, because in five or ten years that opportunity to be ahead of the curve won’t be there.
What do you see as being ahead of the curve in Toronto?
I actually think this cultural shift is a global phenomenon, so I’m interested in two things for Toronto. One is the connection to Asia—52 percent of the city is foreign born. In some ways they are 30 to 50 years behind Honolulu, but it’s going in the same direction, and I do think that question of how Toronto links to Asia and Asia links to Toronto is important. The other thing I’m getting interested in is the opportunities to show women artists. There are a lot of under-recognized, high-quality artists and many of them are women. I think there needs to be a cultural institution that is more intentional about that. I look back and think we did alright here in terms of balance, but it wasn’t as intentional as I would have done. Those are huge things.
That multiculturalism you’re talking about addressing in Toronto, did you learn ways to work with it here at HoMA?
Absolutely. I think that’s the primary reason I got the position.
What are two big things you’re taking away with you from Honolulu?
Well, there are things you know and things you actually experience. I would say that something I’m taking away with me is learning the importance of allowing multiple narratives to exist simultaneously—there are deep multiple narratives that are true and they are all important, but trying to reconcile that into one historical or cultural narrative isn’t honest, and it’s also not productive. With shows, the great example was Theresa Papanikolas’s Art Deco Hawai‘i. People who are kama‘aina went through it and felt warm and nostalgic, while others went and read the labels and also realized that it was incredibly respectful of a political reality that was quite brutal. There you had at least two narratives that are functioning simultaneously in the same show and people are leaving engaged and satisfied—that was really well done.
Another thing is learning to be deliberate and intentional about not putting people in positions where they lose face or are embarrassed. In any organization there are always transitions and that requires trying to be generous and yet clear when something needs to change. I think there have been times when I’ve asked for permission to do something, where I wouldn’t have done that before coming to Hawai‘i, and more as a sign of respect. Asking for permission opens up an ability to form our own alliances. That’s something that wasn’t part of how I operated. There’s less of a need for the Jack Welch leadership style—the big leader. I don’t believe it, actually. Yes, I have certain responsibilities and obligations, but I think being the big man on campus isn’t effective.
The rebranding of the museum completely in house is huge too. Working on that really changed my perspective. I learned that if you get a small team of competent people, you can move very fast and make lots of decisions. I think we showed that here. If we had gone through a traditional process of RFP [request for proposal], consulting firm, etc., I don’t think it would have been much better. In a lot of it ways it was just about cleaning up and removal of stuff.
I’ll be curious where the community and leadership takes the museum. If the staff’s not on board nothing will happen.
What’s something you, Will and Monique will miss about Hawai‘i?
When you miss someplace, you only realize it when you’ve left. My instinct is I will miss the effortlessness with which people deal with difference here. Gay guys with a kid—it’s been really easy. And that’s not because Hawai‘i is the most socially progressive place in the world, it’s that people know how to deal with difference. They don’t see people who are different than them as a threat to who they are.
Honestly, I feel like I’m leaving too early. My heart does not want to leave, and my head says this is an opportunity that I feel and think I need to take. It’s not an opportunity that’s going to be there in six months, or a year or five years. More than once Will and I have looked at each other thinking, ‘What the hell did we just do?’
That leads to my last question—is there something you wish you had seen through, but ran out of time?
Yes—unifying the staff in education and curatorial, which are key mission things, getting them really mission aligned and collaborative. It’s taken five years to get to this point where the groundwork is done, and I think we’re almost at the point where we could have taken next steps to really have that gel as a team to serve the public and I’m leaving too soon to do that. But I think people know that, and I’m hearing it from all sides. That’s great. That was not a possibility five years ago.
Pictured at top: Stephan Jost in the Mediterranean Courtyard, February 2016.