As an artist, art curator and consultant, Kelly Sueda is not wasting any time with his talents.
Whether it’s a gigantic outdoor sculpture in the middle of Ala Moana Center, or a selection of paintings that line the walls of Kapi‘olani Hospital, or permanent work on display at the Honolulu Museum of Art, it’s impossible to go far in Hawai‘i without seeing the lasting influence of local artist Kelly Sueda. Besides being a full-time painter himself, Sueda serves as an art curator and consultant for both private clients and massive organizations alike. His passion is connecting people to artwork.
“Sometimes you see art in public areas or hallways or lobbies and they’re just posters or mass-produced copies. But if I’m involved in curating or selecting artwork, I want to help build that collection,” says Sueda. “I like to mix pieces by blue chip artists from around the world with amazing work by great local artists from Hawai‘i; building a collection that’ll be important, long-lasting and also an investment.”
As a teenager, Sueda had an aptitude for the performing arts, graduating from Mid-Pacific Institute in 1991 with a focus on theater. But he had picked up painting as a hobby during his last semester in school and loved it. After graduating from the University of San Francisco with his BFA in 1995, his then-girlfriend (now-wife) Alexa encouraged him to organize an exhibition of his work. Over the course of an entire summer, Sueda created 42 paintings to hang in the Kirsch Gallery at Punahou School. He and his family invited everyone they knew, and more than 300 people turned out for the opening reception. The response was unbelievable: all but two of the paintings he had created for the exhibition sold. Six months later, Sueda would host another show at the former Queen Emma Gallery, which sold out completely.
“All of a sudden, I had enough money to continue working as a painter.” Sueda says. “Alexa had one more year of college in San Francisco, so I moved to be with her. Eventually, I set up a studio over there and had one in Hawai‘i and worked on commissions, flying between both cities. Every year, we started a tradition of purchasing a piece of art together, to build our own collection.”
Sueda was already familiar with purchasing art; his father, local architect Lloyd Sueda, offered to buy him a car as a congratulation present after graduating college. Sueda asked if he could instead put the money towards purchasing art. At college, he had been exposed to up-and-coming artists and was interested in accumulating works that he loved. It was the perfect hobby for Sueda, pairing his own knowledge and appreciation of fine art with the opportunity to develop contacts in both the Hawai‘i and international art markets.
This hobby would pay off tenfold when a local commercial developer in Hawai‘i would later commission Sueda to complete a large painting for a new property. Recognizing his curatorial abilities, Sueda was invited to assemble the art for the entire development. Gregg Northrop, a friend of Sueda and owner of the largest art-consulting firm in Hawai‘i at the time, The Fine Art Associates, previewed the collection and was impressed. He happened to be looking to step away from his business at the time, and asked Sueda if he’d be interested in becoming owner of the Fine Art Associates. After some deliberation, Sueda agreed.
For close to seven years, Sueda operated the Fine Art Associates, buying art and curating collections for clients. But by 2010, he now had a son and a newborn daughter. Sueda was juggling being a father, a husband (whose wife was a full-time practicing physician), painter and business owner. He decided to leave the company to focus on his two passions: his family and art.
By the time this article goes to print, two of Sueda’s latest projects will be completed and on display. One of these is a series of massive permanent sculptures at Ala Moana Center. The other is a selection of more than 75 art pieces specially curated for the new intensive care building at Kapi‘olani Medical Center.
“For [Kapi‘olani], we commissioned local artist Mike Furuya to create a series of paintings with clouds that look like animals; hidden items like hot air balloons and rocketships in the images that the kids can explore. There’s a big mozaic coming together that features children’s artwork too,” Sueda says. “Some will be in the physical therapy and patient rooms, but many will be in the common areas and hallways so families can come in and take a look.”
His next project is one of his biggest to date: curating art for Park Lane Ala Moana. When the new residents of the luxury estate complex move into their new homes in early 2017, they’ll be in the presence of more than 330 unique pieces of artwork.
“It’s a project like no other in Honolulu,” says Sueda. “The art on display at Park Lane will be a mix of everything from photography; printmaking with woodblocks, etching, stone lithography, aquatint; sculptures of bronze, glass, wood; paintings and drawings on paper, canvas; and more. It’s going to be a world-class, museum-quality collection.”
Sueda was brought on the project in early 2014 and spent the past two years browsing, selecting, and curating this massive ensemble collection of work in collaboration with Park Lane developers.
A majority of the art will be located in the common areas, as well as Park Lane itself, a walkway that stretches from one side of Pi‘ikoi to Ala Moana Boulevard, leading to the complex. Sueda estimates that close to 60 percent of the artwork selected will be by local artists. The remaining 40 percent will comprise work created by internationally renowned artists including Jun Kaneko, John Buck, Richard Serra and Andy Warhol.
Sueda has managed to succeed not only as an artist, but as an art broker, businessman, and an entrepreneur. “I look to my dad as a big influence on me. He’s the hardest-working person I know,” says Sueda. “Growing up, I knew he was an architect, but I always thought of him as a businessman. It wasn’t until after I got out of college that I realized he was an artist who was doing something creative but still monetizing from it. I think he would’ve loved to have been a sculptor, but he had to provide for his family. He had to figure out how to get a job in the arts and make it work.”
Today, Sueda has finally found balance between his family, painting and curating art collections. His goal now is to coordinate art pieces that can reach an even larger audience, such as through the installation of artwork in public spaces. Just as how his own life has taken him across oceans and to businesses and clients through art, Sueda hopes to bring that world to others.
“It’s about that exposure to creativity. In Seattle and New York and other cities, you walk around and there are public sculptures and that’s incredible; to be able to walk down the street and be exposed to these different things,” Sueda says. “Hawai‘i has a little bit of that now, but we could push it even more. Imagine, someone can walk down the street, see artwork, and get inspired. And who knows what they can go on to do from there?”