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Honolulu Museum’s First Hawai‘i-born Director Leaves

Noe Tanigawa
Noe Tanigawa

In 2017, Sean O’Harrow fondly recalled formative years at the old Art Academy, as he threw himself into implementing change as the Honolulu Museum of Art’s first Hawai‘i-born Director.  Just over two years later, many are surprised that O’Harrow is leaving.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Sean O’Harrow, Director of the Honolulu Museum of Art, was born and raised in Hawaii. A UH Lab School grad with art history degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, O’Harrow established his career in England, then moved to the Midwest. Gone a total of 31 years, he was director of the University of Iowa Museum of Art prior to moving back to the islands. He becomes the Executive Director of Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art February 11. 2019.
Honolulu Museum of Art Director, Sean O’Harrow offers further reflections on Hawai‘i’s art scene, its potential for arts funding, changes at the Museum School, and more

Update 2-7-2019:  After the interview with Sean O’Harrow, I sent this request to HoMA’s Director of Communications, Joe Martyak:  I’m looking to confirm what Sean said Friday regarding the trajectory of fundraising.  Looking for fundraising numbers for the last five years, please.  And what is the museum’s budget?  Did it change in the last 2 years? 

Martyak:  Fundraising: Gifts and bequests have been about the same for the last three years. This fiscal year to date has been excellent for fundraising with several very generous gifts. Gift and bequest revenue vary based on the individual gifts received each year. Other factors that impact gift and bequest revenue are the upcoming exhibitions/programming plans for which funding is generated, as well as the fact that certain funding may occur in one year but be utilized to cover multiple years of programming or other multi-year activity.

HPR:  Sean also talked about staffing, and the audience I think would be interested in how many were employed 3 years ago, how many were let go, how many are there now, and what openings there are. 

Martyak:  Staffing: Staffing has remained close to 300 for the past few years. Remember that includes part time as well as full time. As for departures, please keep in mind there are various reasons: retirement, longevity at the museum, opportunity for upward mobility in career, family concerns, educational advancement here or on the mainland, spouse career, military rotations in family.

Job postings: 7, 2 still in drafting  split between full time and part time. Ranges from maintenance assistant, bus driver, sous chef, to cataloging, advancement and art instructor type positions. 

HPR:  People are always interested in metrics, so attendance and member trends are also important. 

Martyak:  Membership number has hovered around 13, 000 for the past several years. There have been normal variances in attendance due to such factors as special exhibitions or a program like the Garden Show which occurs every three years. We are taking advantage of new technology to get more accuracy with attendance numbers. Some target audiences have grown, e.g. ARTafterDARK topping 2000 at an event. 

HPR:  Also, a round up regarding the Museum School:  enrollment currently and over the last few years; number and type of classes currently compared to, say, 3 years ago.   Has the cost of classes gone up?  Would you prefer that I talk to someone in Education?

No response.

Honolulu Museum of Art Director, Sean O’Harrow, was hired January 1, 2017, and announced he would be leaving on January 11, 2019, the same day his appointment to a new post in Kansas City was announced.

O’Harrow:  My spouse suffers from severe asthma.  I don’t think anyone thought it would be affected by the atmosphere in Honolulu, like the sulfur dioxide.  When I was growing up as a kid, it wasn’t even a consideration.  Some doctors last summer basically said, "There’s no more medication, you’re going to have to solve it by actually moving the family."  It crept up on us but then became a hard reality.

In his time at HoMA, O’Harrow says he focused on the art strategy, programming and activities of the museum.

O’Harrow:  We focused the art strategy on Hawai‘i and the Pacific to make HoMA more relevant to the public.  The second thing I would say is that, I worked very hard on creating more efficiencies, for example combining departments, combining activities that made sense, and that sort of led to making the museum more financially sustainable.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Sir Henry Raeburn. Countess of Aboyne. This painting sat facing the Executive Director’s desk. Mr. O’Harrow said he placed it there to remind him of the key source of art museum funding: Widows.

O’Harrow:  It also led to donors having confidence in the museum to be able to raise a lot of money. Probably more money in the last year,  year and half than we did in a long time.  It was a win-win for both the public and the Museum.

(Recent figures on fundraising, visitors, and staffing have been requested, and are, reportedly, forthcoming.)

Changes in the past two years did involved the exit of over 30 HoMA staff members.

O’Harrow:  Well, there is a turnover in Hawai‘i, as you know, we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Also, when you  make changes, not everyone is in line with those changes.  So, there are many reasons why people move.

O'Harrow says about 75% of visitors to the Honolulu Museum are tourists.  The Museum School (Linekona) is a primary contact point for the locals who interact with the Museum.

O’Harrow:  People will look at Linekona as its own entity, but ultimately it’s part of the Museum.  We are an accredited Museum with the American Alliance of Museums, and the American Alliance of Museums has requirements that help the public and help the Museum serve the public better.  All the activities that take place in a Museum must be effectively managed by the Museum.

Was that somehow not the case before?

O’Harrow:  I would say in the past, I would say there was probably a lot more free-flowing activity, and requirements have gotten stricter over the years.  It just so happens that I’ve been on accreditation panels for a number of years so I’ve done this many, many times.  And I can tell you that one thing that we look for, as a re-accreditation panel, is to make sure that the Museum is in control of the activities and messaging that is going on, and so this is what we’re doing right now.

Are there as many teachers and classes as there used to be?

O’Harrow:  The teachers do come and go. In terms of classes, the number of classes are now at a more manageable size.  The key thing I have really pushed in my tenure here has been making sure you are able to serve the public within the means you have available to you.  It’s very easy to say yes to everything that comes around, but ultimately, the land of reality dictates what you’re able to do.

O’Harrow is relatively young, he soon discovered that staging an exhibition here costs three times more because of shipping, etc., he sees the limited fundraising landscape in Hawai‘i, and he might very well look around his new HoMA office and wonder, What am I doing here?  In answer to that observation, O'Harrow responded:

O'Harrow:  You know, we have to be super creative.  We have to be very, very ingenious in our solutions.  We have to be fiscally minded because we have limited resources because we're so isolated geographically.  So we just have to be stronger and better and work harder to achieve those things.  And I think it's a healthy approach.  Particularly when you're an artist, and you really have to survive on very little, I think it's good that you're able to be creative and ingenious with your solutions.

O’Harrow starts as Executive Director at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City on Monday, February 11th, 2019.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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