Art is in the House
The Contemporary Museum of Honolulu Turns 20

By Christine Thomas
Published October 2008 in Hawai`i Westways

Just off the winding roads of verdant Mount Tantalus, one residential driveway lies open to all. Fronted by a tree-shaded yard, an unassuming, one-story house has been the quiet home of Honolulu’s only modern art museum since 1988. In October, The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu celebrates 20 years of educating the community about global contemporary art (from 1940-present) and begins major structural additions that will enable it to engage a broader future audience.

The original Spalding House—built in 1925 for Anna Rice Cooke, founder of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and named for her daughter Alice Spalding—now houses TCM’s five galleries, accessible once past the Robert Graham-crafted bronze and copper entrance gates. Beyond the spacious interior lanai and grassy courtyard, the estate’s expansive, terraced meditation gardens, called Nu`umealani (heavenly terrace), unfold. An elegant swimming pool, tennis court, and permanent pavilion containing David Hockney’s intriguing L’Enfant et les Sortileges (1983), a fluorescent, three-dimensional, theatrical art environment based on the Maurice Ravel opera, rest on the periphery. And a stunning natural portrait of Diamond Head’s distant profile and Honolulu’s skyline peeks through branches of an enormous monkey pod tree, native plants, and vines that shade the lush lawn. “The scale and feeling of the museum is unique,” says Georgianna Lagoria, TCM director. “It gives a retreat kind of feeling, and you also have an intimate relationship with the art because it is in the rooms of this former home.”

The museum’s 3.5-acre grounds are a considerable attraction for residents who visit just to experience lunch at the Contemporary Café, but this asset also presents challenges. “[It’s] a beautiful and unique location,” says Gaye Chan, Chair and Professor at UH Manoa’s Department of Art and Art History, whose personal artwork has shown at TCM. “But the garden takes up a lot of space and does not contribute much to the mission of contemporary art. The neighborhood also limits the type and frequency of events.”

Allyn Bromley, a trustee and docent who has been with the museum from its beginnings, believes the beautiful setting overcomes these limitations, but acknowledges the bifurcated interest of first-time guests. “Visitors come up and say, ‘Tell us about this house,’” says Bromley. “I personally try to gloss over that quickly because the history of the house is important because of history of art in the community.” Her foremost focus is TCM’s mission to make contemporary art accessible to all.

In the Beginning

The roots of this undertaking began well before the museum opened at the Spalding House. Two years after Hawaii achieved statehood, in 1961, then Honolulu Advertiser publisher and president Thurston Twigg-Smith enclosed the news building’s courtyard on Kapiolani Boulevard, creating a gallery to showcase local contemporary art. “So in a way, this is really our 47th anniversary,” says Lagoria.

The Honolulu Advertiser Gallery (later renamed the Contemporary Arts Center) introduced island residents to modern art concepts, and for the first time artists here could show work in their own community. In the years since, says Jay Jensen, deputy director for exhibitions and collections, “the profile of contemporary art—the access to it—has increased a lot.”

The Honolulu Academy of Arts, the Hawaii State Art Museum, and the Pacific University Gallery all show contemporary art, but it’s not a major programming focus for them. TCM remains the only venue cultivating the genre and its emerging artists. “TCM is crucial to Honolulu’s cultural landscape,” says Chan. “Because of where Hawai’i is located, many artists’ works are not seen by the army of curators that frequent other urban spaces. Having TCM on your artist resume gives you added credibility as well when submitting your work elsewhere.”

Crystal Ball

After 20 years of bringing innovative perspectives to the community and, as Honolulu Star-Bulletin art writer Joleen Oshiro notes, continuing to “really work hard to nurture artists here,” TCM is expanding its foundation and energizing its influence. By late 2009, the Cooke-Peterson house, an adjacent residence designed by tropical modernist Vladimir Ossipoff, will be transformed into the new Contemporary Café and Cades Library, and the former café site into an educational workspace. This summer, construction began at the tennis court on a permanent collection building, which will feature a reflective skin and glass-fronted storage to provide insight into art conservation.

This addition will double the current 6,000 square feet of current exhibit space and allow art to be displayed at all times, alleviating current visitors’ disappointment when the museum galleries periodically close for exhibit changes. “Often people ask if we have a collection, so now that’ll be more obvious,” says Jensen, when selections from TCM’s 3,000 works, such as a Frank Stella relief, Robert Motherwell abstract expressionism piece, are permanently displayed. “The depth of our holdings will surprise people, especially our turned wood, ceramics, and ceramic sculpture, which many people have never seen.”

As TCM awaits the buildings’ completion, it will continue bringing art to the community—including new exhibits centered on Japanese art and never-before-shown Hawai`i artists—while looking ahead to the opportunities and permutations the expansion makes possible.

“We want to get the bones in place so we have the setting to be flexible and not fixed,” says Lagoria explains. But, she assures, “even though we’re getting larger, we’re still a jewel.”

The Contemporary Museum will celebrate its 20th anniversary at the Spalding House with the following exhibitions and events. 2411 Makiki Heights Drive, Honolulu; (808) 526-0232;

September 6 – November 23. The Puppet Show, organized by The Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, addresses issues of control and manipulation.

October 25, 2008. 20th Anniversary Garden Party Celebration, featuring twenty new park benches created by local artists, and a garden art sale through November 2.

December 13 – March 15, 2009. Japan Fantastic. 11 new-generation Japanese artists go beyond anime and manga, giving life to personal visions of fantasy and image.

April 4 – June 21, 2009. 20/21: A Juried Exhibition of Hawai`i Artists celebrates TCM’s roots, presenting 20 new artists selected from nominations by past Biennial artists. TCM selects the 21st artist.

July 11 – October 4, 2009. Tokyo artist Yoshihiro Tsuda’s first American show. Known for made-to-scale, painted wood representations of flowers and blades of grass, his spare and subtle installations require viewers to look carefully.

October 24, 2009 – January 31, 2010. 20/21: Recent Acquisitions, Gifts and Promised Gifts in Honor of TCM’s 20th Anniversary.

Photograph by Ric Noyle