Acting in Kind

Kumu Kahua Theatre returns the favor, coming to the aid of The ARTS at Marks Garage.

In a case of life imitating art, creative collaborations headline a cultural renaissance for Chinatown, 14 years after the arts at Marks Garage first led the charge.

This second act comes with an ironic twist. The main player behind the campaign to save the struggling ARTS survived its own money woes in 2010. Kumu Kahua Theatre was on the brink of closure, but turned its financial picture around through community donations.

Fast-forward five years. When the 45-year-old theater’s younger neighbor, The ARTS at Marks Garage, suddenly lost two grants equal to a year’s rent, Kumu Kahua stepped up with a sponsorship to keep The ARTS alive.

A call to Kumu Kahua’s Donna Blanchard, managing director, from Marks’ anxious Rich Richardson, executive director, sparked the win-win advertising agreement.

“Even though I am proud, I opened up my mouth in the interest of protecting the space,” recalls Richardson, who also heads the Hawaii Academy of Performing Arts and Chinatown Artists Lofts.

Blanchard says her “aha moment” to sponsor Marks came while having a Deschutes IPA with a friend at Downbeat Diner & Lounge on Hotel Street, formerly a red-light district. Her support for local businesses comes through loud and clear as she laments the loss of two restaurants across from Hawaii Theatre: Brasserie Du Vin and Soul de Cuba Cafe.

“There’s a battle going on in Chinatown every day for the sort of people we’re able to attract and keep in the area,” Blanchard explains. “We have to have good reasons for people to come downtown, go shopping, get a drink after a show and stay in the neighborhood. I really don’t think we could do that without Marks Garage.”

The artist-run, non-profit gallery is credited with revitalizing Honolulu’s gritty Chinatown. Exhibit A for Marks’ mission “to transform our community with the power of the arts and establish Honolulu’s Chinatown as the creative capital of the Pacific” is First Friday.


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The gallery walk on the first Friday of every month attracts thousands of artists, businesspeople and hipsters to Honolulu’s cultural hub. The sight of patrons strolling Bethel Street and Nu`uanu Avenue to visit 30 participating galleries, restaurants and boutiques is a stark contrast to the historical stereotype of drug dealers and prostitutes ruling these same streets.

Headlines from international publications tout the turnaround. In 2005, The New York Times wrote: “In Honolulu, Arts Revive Chinatown’s Fortune.” Los Angeles Times produced a feature story in 2008, dubbing the area “Honolulu Hip.” Last year, National Geographic honed in on the epicenter of the local arts scene, saying: “Th ere may be no better place than ARTS at Marks Garage for an overview of what local artisans and artists are producing, from photography and watercolors to music and theater.”

“We provide an informal town square, a place to meet and mingle in the joyful setting of the arts,” Richardson says. “In the past 14 years, 300,000 people have had a good time here creating, collaborating and celebrating.”

Kimberly Lau is one of them. “I think we’re all a patron of First Friday,” says the Spire Hawaii Manager.

Her Bishop Street accounting firm is part of a hui of local businesses supporting Marks. Lau describes the gallery’s ripple effect this way: “They’re not only helping bring arts into the local community, but they’re [also] helping at-risk kids with after school mentoring programs, businesses with incubator and provide living spaces for artists.”

Lofts resident and Barrio Vintage co-owner Jonathan Saupe calls Chinatown the “best art hotspot in the entire state.” His Nu`uanu Avenue boutique supports local arts by displaying new works in the window. “The art scene is such a big part of our store and the neighborhood” explains Saupe, “where young local business owners and artists can experiment and thrive together.”

“You have to have support from businesses,” stresses Blanchard. “It’s difficult for an arts organization to survive here.”

A critical collaboration is a marketing blitz to create awareness that both organizations need help. Charisma Industries designed new websites and social media campaigns for Kumu Kahua and ARTS, including a push for donations from “1,001 friends.”

“Rebranding, new design and a greater push towards promotion and public outreach is especially important now,” according to James Charisma, agency president. “Kumu Kahua Theatre and Th e ARTS at Marks aren’t a temporary or pop-up effort. These groups are in it for the long haul, and their success and survival depends on the support they receive.”

“There is developing a vast conspiracy of kindness,” Richardson says, with renewed optimism. “I see lots of shiny goodness on the horizon.”

“This place has so much heart,” Blanchard adds. “I believe we can set a standard for collaboration.”

With the forces of art and aloha at work, Chinatown’s vibrant arts scene is poised for a comeback.

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All photos courtesy Denise de Guzman

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