The Covid-19 pandemic may have had something to do with the City’s decision to go ahead with the new Downtown Art Center, now set to go in above the Chinatown Satellite City Hall. New owners are in at Pegge Hopper's former site, too, but no one expects it to be easy.
"Covid actually helped us along with this dream."
Sandy Pohl is the owner of Louis Pohl Gallery, the only private gallery left standing from Chinatown's heyday in the early 2000's. Pohl is leading a hui of arts professionals who have secured a six thousand square foot space in Chinatown Gateway for a Downtown Art Center. How did Covid help?
"Well, because everything shut down, right?" says Pohl. "That space was vacant for four years, and with Covid and the economy the way it is, it will probably be vacant another four years if not ten. So we're taking a chance, the City is giving us this opportunity. We're basically filling a vacant space and they saw the logic in that."
Pohl leveraged a $75 thousand dollar grant from the state to make it happen. That investment will now go to rent and programming for a 6 month trial period. Pohl says, if this interest from the City becomes deeper support, with neighborhood wide improvements, it would buoy the struggling neighborhood. If all goes well, the Art Center could gain another 4 thousand square feet at the end of the trial period.
According to the proposal the Downtown Art Center (DAC) submitted to the City, " The DAC is a collaboration of the Creative Arts Experience, Hawaii Craftsmen and the Honolulu Culture and Arts District Association (HCAD). In July 2020, HCAD amended its name to the Downtown Art Center. The mission of the new DAC 501c(3) nonprofit is to be a hub for creativity and community by supporting Hawaii’s visual, performing and literary artists while creating social impact in the nationally recognized Chinatown Historic District of Honolulu."
The group already operates the Downtown Art Center Gallery on the first floor, under the direction of Barbara Rau.
"Louis had this dream, Bob Midkiff did, and Andy Friedlander did, because he gave the opportunity to Arts at Marks right? So twenty years, this is a twenty-year thing in the making!"
Hear more from Sandy Pohl, Andy Friedlander, Maile Meyer, and Wei Fang on arts possibilities in Chinatown.
Andy Friedlander is Principal Broker with Colliers International, the firm that closed the recent sale of the Pegge Hopper Gallery.
"It's going to be tough in the short term for them, because of the homeless population," says Friedlander.
Photos just this week on the Chinatown Watch website chart nudity, public defecation, and a robbery at knifepoint.
"It's a disaster at the moment but I'm absolutely confident it will come back. And Maile's energy is so terrific, it will help bring back this part of Chinatown."
Arts strategists Maile Meyer and Wei Fang are co-creators of the new Arts and Letters Building.
If you remember the airy Hopper gallery, Na Mea/Native Books, beautiful things and activities will go on the ground floor. Activations are also expected from partners at Aupuni Space, an emerging artists collective in Kaka'ako. Fang says Ka Waiwai Collective, will bring co-working and programming to the second floor. Community nexus Mahina Paishon-Duarte is managing partner of Ka Waiwai, described as a Hawaiian space where community, cuture and commerce intersect.
"As you know, Pegge has this really beautiful third floor artists loft," says Fang. "It's a really flexible space that we intend to keep for community groups, members of Waiwai Collective and partners in any of our programs."
Both Fang and Meyer played key roles in the Kaka'ako art scene that preceded today's high-rise stores and apartments. Fang was part of the influential Kaka'ako Agora, and Meyer had Two ii 's Gallery and SPF Projects on Auahi Street. That was a planned development, this is a little less assured.
"There's a lot in flux and everyone knows right now," says Meyer. "But we're carrying on for our post Covid vision of vibrancy, connectivity, hotspot for culture, commerce, and politics. Because that's what we need, we need places where people are still being positive regardless of what's happening around us."
Programming in the Arts and Letters Building could begin in the fall. The Downtown Art Center is planning to open with a statewide exhibition by Hawai'i Craftsmen. Their organization is one of the most experienced and cohesive in the state. Their exhibition, currently scheduled for late October, will be accepting entries through October 5, 2020. All are encouraged to enter.
The Arts at Marks, across from the new Arts and Letters building has a show of art by local tattoists on view. They hope to open with a new show later in September. Hawai'i Theatre has produced a number of live music concerts from its stage and recently formed a partnership with the Hawai'i Symphony.
In other Chinatown news, the MIghty Union hui is proceeding with building permit approvals and historic preservation nomination filing for the Wo Fat renewal project.