Stephen Little brings a world of inspiration to Honolulu Academy of Arts

Stephen Little’s childhood growing up in Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Turkey, in both Muslim and Buddhist cultures, imbued in him an innate appreciation for and interest in varied cultures and belief systems – qualities that suit his role as director of Honolulu Academy of Arts.

He remembers the experience of living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia Рwhere his linguist father was a cultural attach̩ for the United States government Рand visiting the 12th century temples of Angkor Wat when he was 6 or 7 years old. In the still landscape and monumental structures, he felt the power of an ancient civilization. The intensity of the moment stayed with him, and he learned to embrace Taoism and the value it places on wisdom gained through quiet reflection and listening.

“It really opened my eyes as a child,” Little says. “I lived overseas until I was 11, so I was always an outsider in very Asian cultures.”

Stranger still was his family’s move back to the U.S., where his global experiences seemed at odds with America’s self-reverential culture, and, as he immersed himself in art studies, in museums’ dominant Western and Eurocentric perspectives. In that narrow focus, the beauty of indigenous cultures was often overlooked.

He had traveled to Hawaii many times with his family en route to and from Asia and the Mainland, but he didn’t live here until 1989, when he became the academy’s curator of Asian art. In Hawaii, he found a city embracing equal parts East and West.

“It’s a mix that’s very rare, and I think Hawaii is a model for many cities in America,” he says, adding that he hopes the museum also will be a model for other arts institutions in promoting the spirit of equal exchange between cultures.

But to have any kind of voice at all, Little’s first task was to raise the academy’s profile in the global arts community. He had learned, through his work at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and Art Institute of Chicago, before returning to Hawaii in 2003, that one way to go about it was for the museum to take its shows on the road. Otherwise, shows at the academy tend to be isolated affairs, enjoyed by local art patrons and cultural tourists, but making few ripples internationally or academically, and without the revenue stream that would flow from increased prestige and patronage.

One of the first shows Little and his staff organized for audiences here and in Australia was “Life in the Pacific of the 1700s.” The show encompassed artifacts from Capt. James Cook’s second and third voyages to the Hawaiian Islands between 1768 and ’79 that ended up in the Cook/ Forster Collection at the University of Göttingen in Germany. This marked the artifacts’ journey back to Hawaii for the first time in more than 200 years.

A subsequent show, “The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan,” featuring more than 100 sacred items on loan from Bhutan, took five years to organize and has spent a year and a half on the road, starting at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, in September 2008, before moving on to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and Musée Guimet in Paris, where it remained until January. The show opens in Cologne, Germany, this month, before heading to Zurich, Switzerland. In Paris, Little says, posters for the exhibition lined the Metro, touting Honolulu Academy of Arts.

“The shows are changing perception, which is very important for Hawaii, showing we can create an exhibition strong enough to be shown in New York and Paris,” Little says. “This is not widely recognized outside of Hawaii.”

The pace slowed with the economic turndown, but Little is undeterred.

“There’s nothing like a crisis to make you focus,” he says. “The economic crisis has caused many of us to rethink many things. It’s made us think seriously about whom we serve and how to do that.”

Backed by a treasure trove of some 60,000 works, the downturn has led the museum to more thoroughly explore its own archives. Fall’s exhibition, “Hokusai’s Summit: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” allowed a re-examination of the academy’s extensive collection of Japanese woodblock prints, including more than 500 prints by Hokusai, a gift from the late novelist James Michener.

“From Whistler to Warhol: Modernism on Paper” opens Feb. 18 and will present European and American prints and drawings dating from the mid-19th and 20th centuries, including a number of unpublished and rarely exhibited works by the likes of the show’s namesakes, plus Edward Hopper, Edvard Munch, Max Ernst, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg.

Unlike business institutions, Little says that a museum’s commodity is the experience it offers patrons, and what makes it hard to quantify is the unpredictable factor of what viewers of the art bring to the experience in terms of their own travels and interactions with art.

“Half of the experience is what they come here with, making it a very unpredictable product,” Little says. “What we can do is guarantee the highest level of experience, and hope that what happens within our galleries is magical and that when people leave, something about them has changed.”

“From Whistler to Warhol: Modernism on Paper” Opens Feb. 18, continuing through May 2, 2010 Honolulu Academy of Arts Gallery 28: Henry R. Luce Gallery

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