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Grand Opening of Downtown Art Center Features Over 30 Local Artists

downtown art center
Noe Tanigawa
Hawaii Public Radio

The city has plans for the first and second floors of Chinatown Gateway Plaza, according to Makanani Sala, Honolulu's Culture and Arts Director. She said the idea is to create a hub for theater, arts, events and collaborations—and that's good news for area businesses of every kind.

Sandy Pohl fell into the gallery business through her late husband, educator, artist Louis Pohl. She has run Louis Pohl Gallery in four locations in Chinatown since the 1980s. Pohl has one master's degree in social work and another in public health.

"So I have an understanding of what makes people change, one on one, and also I take a little bigger picture, to make changes in a whole community," she told Hawai'i Public Radio.

Pohl said she applies both disciplines running her galleries, and now as Executive Director at the Downtown Art Center.

She said that in 2002 with prostitution on the street, Chinatown was actually in worse condition than it is now. That's when art and commerce triggered the last upswing.

downtown art center noe tanigawa
Noe Tanigawa
Hawaii Public Radio

"It was its time. People needed to be out and socializing with each other. So the bars actually picked it up, they funded it," she said. "We had 25 bars in the neighborhood, they each paid $150 a month so we could afford entertainment, police security, and barricades to block the streets. It was a working community because we all wanted it to thrive together. That's what it took."

Pohl sees Saturday's launch of the DAC as the start of another renaissance in Downtown Chinatown.

Eight different art organizations, from Hawai'i Craftsmen to the Handweavers' Hui, have thrown in early support, sponsoring shows and workshops at DAC. There are rooms available to rent for meetings, screenings, pop-ups and exhibitions. The exhibition space is booked into 2022.

Teri Skillman is Executive Director of the Hawai'i Arts Alliance, also a DAC partner. They have run the popular Art Bento programs in dozens of public schools every year. She says the DAC has six schools within a mile, all on bus routes.

"Our hope is the Downtown Art Center will help kids not just after school but on the weekends—and also the community," Skillman said.

Skillman said summer art and dance classes have already brought more life into the Chinatown Gateway building and courtyard.

Communities across the country, including Hawai'i, are feeling the after effects as pandemic fears ebb, according to Kumi Macdonald, Executive Director of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, Hawai'i or NAMI, Hawai'i.

She said a NAMI poll in February 2021 showed nearly 40% of adults in Hawai'i reported symptoms of anxiety and depression.

"More than half of Americans across the nation have reported that the Covid-19 pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health. That's more than half. So normally we say one in five people struggle with mental health conditions but now we're saying 50%," Macdonald said.

Along with physical activity, and meditation, Macdonald said the beneficial effects of creative activity have been documented.

"Medical insurance won't pay for it unless it works right?"

Art therapy through licensed practitioners is covered by insurance, Macdonald said. And Skillman maintains that participating in programs like Filipino dance and culture at the DAC is a form of social investment.

"I'm hoping our presence there will be good for the community and that we'll help with building community," Skillman said.

downtown art center mace and long.jpg
Downtown Art Center

This Saturday, Chinatown businesses and arts groups are hoping to hear more specifics from the City and County of Honolulu on its plans for Chinatown.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi is scheduled to speak at the Downtown Art Center's grand opening Saturday. The public is invited from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

On display will be over 30 key Hawai'i artists in the DAC's best-selling exhibition to date. There's a lot more to see elsewhere on Nu'uanu Avenue as well.

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