East Hawai‘i Cultural Center: In the Heart of Hilo

Feb 19, 2019

Once the Hilo Police Headquarters, now the East Hawai'i Cultural Center sits on Kalakaua Avenue opening onto Kalakaua Park. The stately park has a low stone amphitheatre, rest spots, and welcoming shade.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

The East Hawai‘i Cultural Center is in a stately stucco building, white with green roof, that used to house Hilo’s police headquarters.  On the Wailuku River side of Hilo, this active community art center now offers art classes, a gallery, plus a theatre and café.   HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports, over the past couple of years, a slow regeneration has been underway.

Tanda Francis. Vessel. Acrylic on canvas. The Global Metaphysics of Abstraction exhibition continues at EHCC through February 21, 2019.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Global Metaphysics of Abstraction II, featuring African American Artists from New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, continues at the East Hawai‘i Cultural Center through Friday.  Fan favorite, the Young at Art exhibition opens Saturday, March 2nd 2019

Address:  141 Kalakaua St, Hilo, HI 96720
Phone:     (808) 961-5711
Email:      admin@ehcc.org

Hours of Operation
Gallery - Tuesday - Saturday  10am - 4pm  
Office   - Tuesday - Friday      10am - 4pm  

There are twice weekly gatherings for gamelan.  Crochet classes start March 4, Plant Dyes for keiki on March 16, 2019.

You come off a beautiful terraced park, here uptown Hilo, the doors to the East Hawai‘i Cultural Center are wide open, welcoming, free.

"Well the idea here is to serve the diverse community that we live in."

Volunteer Executive Director of the East Hawai'i Cultural Center Michael Marshall, is also affiliated with the University of Hawai'i at Hilo Art Department.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Michael Marshall is the volunteer Executive Director of the East Hawai‘i Cultural Center, EHCC.  He says a new group of directors came in about 3 years ago, and kind of upped the ante in terms of programming.

Marshall:  It really feels like an exhibition space, you come in, it’s a little bit of a refuge from the outside,  it’s clean, it’s contemplative, and the shows have been, on balance, well about par.

Marshall says the turnaround was spearheaded by Stephen Freedman, former owner of IdSpace Gallery in Kurtistown, and HiArt Magazine.  Freedman stepped in as board chair and began recruiting for diversity.

Freedman:  We set up a very diverse board of young people, old people, representatives of constituent groups in the community. We rewrote the by-laws so no one including me has more power than anyone else.   Each month we represent an underrepresented voice, and we all work for that particular purpose during that period.  That, in a nutshell, the system.  It’s worked wonderfully, it’s been a delightful experience. 

Freedman says the shows are generated from each constituent group, curated, and led by them, and the whole organization supports that cause for that month.

Freedman:  Our organization facilitates and enables that process and hopefully maintains standards during the time that happens. 

If you’ve actually found a way for a gallery to sustainably run itself without burning everybody out, that could be a real model.

Musa Hixson. Mixed media.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Freedman:  That’s an important part too.   The first thing I said when I brought together the team, I said, I don’t want any generous people.  I don’t want people who are kind and have a lot of time on their hands. 

Freedman:  I want people who are invested, who have something to gain.  For example, young people don’t get power in the community, power to see the cultural concerns they care about represented.  So we gave them power in exchange for their work. 

Jackie Johnson, highly respected UH Hilo Theater professor, has been given the upstairs theatre space—they did Aristophanes’ Lysistrata last fall.  Another woman, Carol Walker, needed a home for her gamelan orchestra…now twenty people are practicing regularly.  And there’s a little bit of grant writing going on too.

Freedman:  We came in with $9 thousand dollars in the bank--to run a building that costs around four thousand each month.  We’ve had almost no grant funding or anything like that, but we’ve managed to keep going with people being very cooperative and enjoying the process.

Hello?  But really.

Volunteer Executive Director Michael Marshall, gestures broadly in the EHCC Theatre on the second floor.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Freedman:  We’ve had just enough support from donors, from the University, from various people who have helped us, a small amount of membership, just barely keeping ongoing with that sort of thing.

They’ve found that previously marginalized and untapped communities are willing to support.

Freedman:  I know it sounds incredibly unlikely, the system seems self-sustaining, it seems to work.  It surprised me as much as anybody.  The hardest work is to prevent loud, boisterous, patriarchal voices from running things, which is what almost always happens then things are left to themselves.  So I’m kind of the bully bully, I just keep the bullies down.

Freedman’s father was an evolutionary biologist, who maintained that Darwin’s theory of the centrality of competition in human evolution is not the whole story.  Freedman’s father, and Freedman as well, believe that cooperation is an equally potent driver for human behavior.  Nice experiment underway.

You go, Hilo!