Art Maui – A Showcase for Art, A History of Passion

It’s hard to imagine today that Art Maui’s volunteers had to duck small stones cast at them by a few non-selected artists at its first exhibit in 1979. Or that one over-confident fellow with an exceptionally large piece of art went so far as to threaten co-founder Janet Allan with, “I’d sock you if only you were a man!”

But it happened — so passionate were the emotions over Art Maui’s leap into a world-class exhibit that it shook the local art community at its very roots. Equally for those artists who were accepted, it opened up exciting new opportunities for professional exploration and a showcase for the best Maui had to offer.

“People just didn’t understand that this was more than the Maui County Fair Art Show,” said Allan, “They felt every person should get at least one piece in the show. But the point was to get away from the Fair and the Wailuku Library because nobody was learning anything and nobody was getting better. They didn’t realize that we were creating a show with academic jurors, not creating a gallery. We wanted something that artists could learn from to improve their art first and then increase public awareness second. The jurors knew what they were doing.”

According to artist and fellow co-founder Dick Nelson, Maui was emerging from a company store mentality in an agricultural environment to one of resort development. Additionally, most of the established commercial art galleries were located on the west side in Lahaina with only a few elsewhere, like the new Wailea Arts Center and the non-profit Hui No’eau in Makawao. Any others had a life expectancy of only a few months.

“We believed Maui was ready for an art show which represented new challenges and directions for the artists and patrons alike. Art Maui’s goal was to provide the incentive for innovation and aesthetic stretching with a juried exhibition on a scale and visual setting new to the Valley Isle,” Nelson explained. “Art Maui was death to the status quo. We wanted to challenge the artist and to expose the public in a way that said ‘applaud this!’”

And so they set out to do just that.

With what had begun in 1978 with a simple request from Mayor Elmer F. Cravalho through his friend Miriam Fendler for a public art show to be ready in two months, turned instead into a yearlong endeavor.

The reason was that Nelson, as director of the Wailea Arts Center, along with Janet and George Allan, managers of the Lahaina Arts Society, had sensed the opportunity to forever raise the bar on the island’s art scene. Art Maui, they hoped, would instill a completely new mindset and refocus this exhibit toward artistic education and instruction.

They started with surveys and letters of appeal to over 400 Maui artists and then reached out to volunteers for help with preparations. Committee members provided much of the physical labor. But it was friends and dedicated art enthusiasts, like Earl and Sandy Stoner and Gini Baldwin who gave not only of their labor but also out of pocket. In addition, other people gave from their hearts; especially the “upcountry ladies” who set up pedestals and helped paint and nail the many donated hollow-core doors.

They invited Ruth Tamura of the Honolulu Academy of Arts to lend her expertise, as well as Tom Klobe, then Director of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Art Gallery, to provide Art Maui’s committee members with a space-designing and installation seminar so they could present it from the perspective of what they wanted people to see.

“It was quite a transformation,” said Nelson of the original location at the J. Walter Cameron Center in Wailuku.

Joseph H. Hartley of Maui Land & Pineapple Company was another early but critical contributor to Art Maui who, according to Allan, suggested they host a pre-show dinner and invite only those people who would commit to purchasing $500 or more in art. The organizers took his advice to heart, thereby setting a precedent that put Art Maui on solid financial ground for years to come.

In March 1979, the doors of Art Maui opened and just as the founders had hoped from the viewing public, applaud they did!

“It was a gala opening and there was a lot going on,” Allan said.

Inside for the artists were educational films, networking opportunities and the chance to speak with the jurors so they could learn more about their work. Outside in the courtyard for all to enjoy were various singers, a live performance of a Moliere play, as well as choreographed dance shows by visual and performing artist Ira Ono.

“We were giving the public something different from the galleries which they didn’t necessarily go into,” said George Allan. “We wanted them to feel welcome and to see art that was sometimes not especially saleable, but academically acceptable. We were pretty proud of it.”

Nelson reflected, “To paraphrase a statement by the American Architect Philip Johnson, we only miss or appreciate that which we have experienced. In 1979, no one would have missed or appreciated the Art Maui dream. Today, the loss of this annual exhibition would have a devastating impact on the cultural climate of our island.”

In that first year alone, Art Maui did indeed alter the mindset of its art community, managing also to rise above the elevated status originally sought by its founders. As a result, after 33 years, it remains at the forefront in challenging local artists to expand their work to world-class levels and to find value in the extraordinary experience.

~ By Elaine Gallant, 2011