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Reflecting on the Legacy of George Ellis; Downtown Art Center Contends With Rental Negotiations

downtown art center building.jpg
Noe Tanigawa
The Downtown Art Center at Chinatown Gateway Plaza

Those who knew George Ellis, the much-admired former director of the Honolulu Museum of Art, remember his goal of curating the museum to welcome and teach people from all walks of life.

"George was trying to bring it back to where every ethnic group in Honolulu would view it as home and would become part of it," said art patron Tim Choy, who knew Ellis in his prime.

Ellis, who led the museum formerly known as the Honolulu Academy of Arts from 1982 until 2003, died on June 26. Under his leadership, the museum expanded its art holdings and deepened roots in the community.

Hawaiʻi Public Radio sat down with Sandy Pohl, director of the Downtown Art Center, and Choy who once joined the museum to be Ellis’ assistant.

Choy said he supports the new Downtown Art Center because it has stepped in to "fulfill a void that the closing of Linekona (School) has created."

"I'm left with the feeling, when I watched George's successors, that art education and supporting the local artists really was not a priority of the directors," he said about the Honolulu Museum of Art.

On the topic of the DAC, rental negotiations are at the forefront of many conversations.

Earlier this week, the City and County of Honolulu confirmed the art center is paying them 74 cents per square foot for a little over 10,000 square feet in the Chinatown Gateway Plaza.

The DAC also pays for electricity and air conditioning. Pohl said in June, the DAC's rent was raised to $2 per square foot, more than double, which will take effect Sept. 1.

She said it was presented as non-negotiable. The city disputes the numbers provided by Pohl but would not disclose any others because of what they called "ongoing negotiations."

"What I think is reprehensible was this property had been empty for years, and then to start killing the goose that hasn't laid the golden egg," Choy said.

The city’s point person on Chinatown, Alex Kozlov, released this statement, "The City understands and appreciates what the Downtown Art Center has done for the community and will continue to work with the leadership to actively promote art in the Chinatown/Downtown neighborhoods.”

“The Department of Land Management, the Mayor’s Office of Culture and the Arts, and the Department of Design and Construction are working with the DAC to provide a practical financial arrangement for the Center, while balancing the fairness to other competing art galleries in the area. We are continuing to work with DAC with the community’s interests in mind,” he continued.

Tim Sakahara, spokesperson for Mayor Rick Blangiardi, is checking on any complaints about favorable treatment for the DAC. He declined to comment on potential plans the city might have for the Gateway Plaza space.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Art Center is showing landscapes by Plein Air Painters of O’ahu and Raku Ceramics by Hawai’i Craftsmen. The craftsmen are running a community kiln tomorrow at Marks Garage from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Take the kids, glaze a bowl and have it fired by the artists there.

This segment aired on The Aloha Friday Conversation on July 16, 2021.

Noe Tanigawa covers art, culture and ideas for Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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