The East Hawaii Cultural Center has been at the beating heart of our community culture on the Big Island for four decades. Run largely by volunteers, under the leadership of whoever had time and passion, the Center has offered a venue for a host of cultural groups, artists, theater and music ensembles, and workshops. When the current Board Chairman asked me to take over running the venue a month ago, I was excited and daunted.
Over my 22 years on the Big Island I watched enthusiastic, capable leaders of HMOCA/EHCC attempt to run the gallery, orchestrate workshops, negotiate with theater groups, arrange concerts, and write for grants to pay for all this, all the while trying to offer a voice to the vast cacophony of cultural groups and individual artists who make Hawaii home. No matter how resourceful or energetic the leader, the job was ultimately always larger than the person. The strife generated by dissatisfied artists and patrons would take its toll and the search would begin for new leadership.
I've had some experience running idspace, my private gallery in East Hawaii for a decade. We hosted dozens of artists and performers, local and from many countries, yet I certainly did not feel more capable than those who have previously been overwhelmed managing such a public Cultural Center. There are just too many hats to wear; office worker, art curator, grant writer, event coordinator, business person, politician. But to squander this invaluable community resource, felt criminal. So I spoke with friends and arrived at a creative solution: I would accept the challenge but refuse the job!
During my time working on my own gallery I had come into contact with high quality innovative people with a vast array of skills which complemented my own. Those were the people who had created our publicity, who had catered events, planned performances and attended to all the invisible tasks involved in running a successful art and performance enterprise. So the solution with the Cultural Center was to convene a team of capable people, each with portions of the skill required to renew the venue.
We would avoid traditional leadership models. Each of us would work autonomously, but cooperatively –– in partnership – to refresh and rebrand our Center as a venue for art, performance, workshops, and cultural engagement, for the entire community, young and old, endemic or immigrant. This was my first good idea, and my last. All the rest of the great ideas for the renewal of the venue have come from the amazing group of people assembling, and working for free to revitalize our Cultural Center.
Here are some of the good ideas introduced by this wonderful team:
A “host culture gallery”
We live on an island first colonized by Polynesians, who developed a cultural relationship to this place long before the rest of the world invaded. Shouldn’t a Cultural Center in Hawaii offer a voice for that endemic cultural group before all others? For the first time we will have one of our galleries dedicated exclusively to Hawaiian Culture, a gallery not only exhibiting our host culture and Polynesia, but curated by representatives of that group.
A Partnership with the University of Hawaii
The University and the Community College have vital arts and performing arts departments. But the artists and academics at the University have rarely exhibited or participated in our local arts community. Could the EHCC be a convening place for our cloistered cultural communities? We have invited the UH to a partnership with us in offering exhibitions, education, workshops and performance.
Our community arts programs will benefit from an international ensemble of visiting artists programs, and the great example the teachers of our community can create by educating and exhibiting in our public venue.
An agile music and performing arts program
The Center has a long but inconsistent tradition as venue for performance and performing arts. We are introducing a Director for the performance space, an experienced person with the skill, experience and vision to create a vital and agile program that will encourage music, dance, and theater, both local and global. We will encourage a variety of cultural groups to participate and will endeavor whenever possible to create relevant relationships between performance, exhibitions and workshops.
An online magazine
Patti Millington and I created HI Art Magazine many years ago to support the efforts of local artists and offer diverse perspectives on cultural events. We invited a team of writers and academics to contribute to this very successful effort which engaged attention worldwide to the unique quality cultural work taking place in the islands.
With a team of vital young computer wizards, we are building a powerful online presence to draw attention to our community of artisans, artists and writers. We will engage our partners at the UH, as well as writers from around the state to contribute to an interactive dialog, addressing the concerns of culture and community.
A powerful advisory board
Jay Jensen, Head Curator at the Honolulu Museum, a great supporter of our venture, suggested and volunteered for an Advisory Board – a group of experienced, powerful professionals to guide us in our efforts to bring the standards of our Center up to the standards of art venues on other islands. We have advisers from many of the major venues in our islands who will help us meet the challenges of building a sound economic basis for a rich aesthetic venue.
A café and reading room
We want people of all ages to not only show up for exhibitions and performances at our venue, but also to convene because this is a center for dialog and community engagement. We will amalgamate three upstairs rooms, the café, the lanai, and the board room, into one large, comfy reading room and café for the public, young or old to meet, hang out, eat and read good books.
An experienced Executive Director
In an early meeting discussing our plans for the Cultural Center, Head of the UH Art Department, Mike Marshall introduced me to Joel Tan. Joel is a powerhouse; an artist, a poet, an also a community organizer and experienced hand at running public art centers. Hilo has never been fortunate enough to have someone with the right skills in the right position.
We will form our new Board of Directors in January. Our new programming will begin in February, introducing our inquiry based approach to curating exhibitions, performances and workshops. While we’ll continue many of the successful group exhibitions which have invited our community in to participate, we will also begin reaching out to our allies in the arts for programming Hilo rarely sees.
In February, a great friend of the arts in Hawaii, Darrell Orwig will premiere a new series of extraordinary paintings for East Hawaii. Darrell has always been a significant artist, however this new body of works is beyond anything we’ve seen of him. It raised the hair on my neck. Don’t miss this icon of art in Hawaii.
Also in February, Shizuno Nasu will bring a troupe of world class dancers from Japan to perform upstairs at EHCC. Last year at idspace, Shizuno and Susumu Sakaguch hosted a troupe of artists, musicians and performers from around the world who created original, unique performance/installations every weekend for a month
But culture is not just for a few elite artists. It is the heritage of what we are as a community – our craftsmen, our artists, our teachers, our shopkeepers… all of us. We will invite all of you – the people of East Hawaii – to participate in engaging in the large issues which identify us as a unique community, a verdant island, a perfect model of our shrinking world.
What I’d like to say most emphatically to you is that this Cultural Center will be different from anything it has ever been in the past. This is for only one reason only: This will be a venue invented, created and run by all of you. I do not have a vision for this new East Hawaii Cultural Center. I have a vision for who will create it.