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Hawai‘i’s Arts Infrastructure: The Honolulu Biennial Swings Support Behind the Downtown Art Center

Noe Tanigawa
Chinatown Gateway Plaza on the left, is a City owned affordable apartment complex with parking below. The 14,000 s/f second floor could generate jobs and activity in the area around a Downtown Arts Center.

This year, the 2019 Honolulu Biennial set roots in this community with thoughtful installations, and exuberant music, video, and conversations. According to the Biennial Foundation, forty five thousand visitors came from out of state for the events, and the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority estimates direct visitor expenditures around the Biennial reached $82 million dollars. All this, on a public investment of $35 thousand dollars. Now, the HB is ready for its next step, a permanent center for creative exploration.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio
Hawai'i Public Radio
Katherine Ann Leilani Tuider, Executive Director and co-Founder of the Honolulu Biennial, in Ward Village's Famous Footwear space BEFORE the HB19 build out. 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.'--Margaret Mead.

Katherine Ann Leilani Tuider is Executive Director and co-Founder of the Honolulu Biennial. We caught her on a curatorial residency at the Varda Houseboat in the Bay Area.  After the Biennial ended in May 2019, Tuider got busy travelling. She was in Singapore presenting a workshop on fundraising in the arts. She represented North America at the International Award for Public Art in Shanghai, and visited the Setouchi Triennale in Japan, an astonishing model for one kind of art viewing.  Tuider says in all those cities, the arts were actively serving their purpose.

“Art creates beautiful public spaces and it attracts people to them.”

Certainly that’s what the Honolulu Biennial HB19, did this year in its second edition----HB19 visitors increased from 97 to 114 thousand people, and Tuider’s proud that 76 cents out of every dollar went toward making art. Teachers are in on it now, so education programs doubled this time. And once again, skilled workers were involved in tech dependent installations, fabrication, and documentation.

“We’ve created a lot of jobs in the creative economy,” Tuider notes, “And want to continue to, so State funding is super important in order to realize that.”

HB2021 is shaping up--Dr. Melissa Chiu, Director of the Smithsonian’s contemporary art venue, the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington D.C will curate exhibitions all around this city. After two outings in pop up locations, Tuider says the Biennial Foundation is looking for a more permanent space, a flexible, generative community space.

“One thing I am excited about is what Sandy Pohl is doing at Downtown Art Center,” says Tuider. “I’m really interested in seeing how we can come together as a community and support her in that space.”  

Tuider notes the Satellite City Hall and DMV already generate traffic in the building at 1031 Nu‘uanu Avenue.  The first two floors of the building were vacant for eight years, until the Satellite City Hall and DMV moved in summer 2019. The Downtown Art Center Gallery opened in an adjacent space on the first floor, but the much more spacious 14,000 s/f second floor is also in play.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio
Hawai'i Public Radio
Nicholas Galanin. We Dreamt Deaf. Taxidermied polar bear, shot in Shishmaref, Alaska. An unforgettable image from HB19.

“If we’re able to come together as a community and renovate that space, and secure a long term lease from the City and County as an in kind donation to our creative community, what could that two story building be in terms of an art space?” asks Tuider. “It could be fantastic.  Think of the impact it’s going to have on Chinatown.”

Tuider notes that changes underway at Honolulu‘s major art institutions make this an opportune moment to invest in art’s future downtown.

“I think we’ve got an incredible creative community,” says Tuider, “And if we come together in an attitude of abundance we’re going to do some really amazing things.”

What would that attitude of abundance be based on?  For one thing, Tuider points out, Hawai‘i is fourth in the number of millionaires per capita, we’ve got over 24 thousand millionaire households here. Tuider is convinced many do use and appreciate Hawai‘i’s art resources.

Meanwhile, The Arts at Marks Garage on the ropes. The condition of Chinatown generally is dismal, but a renaissance is happening across A‘ala Park. Transit oriented development offers a chance to revive the Kekaulike and Nimitz area for a train station.  Remember, Francis Haar’s photos document it was the train stopping at A‘ala park that made it such a nexus in the early 1900’s.

The Downtown Art Center could provide a creative magnet that connects Bishop and River Streets.

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