James A. Michener giving a lecture at the Academy of Arts. Date unknown

One morning in late 2016, I found an exciting email in my inbox.

It was an invitation from The National Association of Japan-America Societies (NAJAS) to deliver a lecture on James A. Michener. As many people know, Michener was a famous author and Hawai’i resident. He was also a serious collector of Japanese woodblock prints, and one of the Honolulu Museum of Art’s greatest benefactors in this area.

List of print donations by James Michener, from “Preserving the Floating World” lecture.

List of print donations by James Michener, from “Preserving the Floating World” lecture.

In 2017, NAJAS sent me to Seattle, Washington, to discuss our James A. Michener Collection of Japanese Prints, which is comprised of 6,102 prints dating from the 17th century through the late 20th century, at the Seattle Art Museum. As a former Seattle Asian Art Museum intern, I knew that city had robust holdings in Japanese art, particularly in nihonga paintings from the early 20th century, so I was especially honored that they were interested in the story behind our print collection. I presented the lecture, entitled “Preserving the Floating World,” at the Seattle Art Museum in May 2017.

Fast forward to 2018—I’ve just returned from a wonderful week in Pennsylvania, James Michener’s home state, where I presented an updated version of my talk at the Maridon Museum in Butler City and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. It was exhilarating to be in a city with such an intriguing history! Its transformation from a center for steel production in the late 19th century to its current incarnation as a gorgeous university town—home of both Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh—is remarkable. The breathtaking Art Deco architecture frequently made me feel like I’d been transported back to the roaring 1920s. Last but not least, the Carnegie Museum of Art, whose spectacular collection of paintings, including works by Winslow Homer, James Whistler, Jackson Pollock, Alberto Giacometti, and Andy Warhol, was largely developed over the past 123 years through acquisitions from its biennial exhibition, the Carnegie International. This made me realize the incredible long-term possibilities for our own collaboration with the Honolulu Biennial.

This amazing story about James Michener and the generosity with which he blessed the Honolulu Museum of Art reminds me how important every member of our museum community is and how, through the kind of single-minded dedication that Michener displayed, any one of us is capable of lifting an institution in our community to unforeseen heights.

The National Association of Japan-America Societies (NAJAS), is a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C. that offers educational, cultural, and business programs about U.S.-Japan relations to the general public through its 40 branches, including the Japan-America Society of Hawaii, based here in Honolulu. NAJAS recently began the Richard J. Wood Art Curators Series, in which representatives of “the best known collections of Japanese art” discuss the history of their museums to audiences at museums in other parts of the country.

-Stephen Salel, Robert F. Lange Foundation Curator of Japanese Art