Home is Where the Art Is

Sean O’Harrow returns to Hawai‘i as HoMA’s new director.

There has always been a lot to love about honolulu museum of art. and with a new director at its helm, the future is looking bright for the institution and Hawai‘i’s art culture as a whole.

Sean O’Harrow officially assumed his leadership role at the beginning of 2017 and says his return to the islands—and the museum—truly has come full circle.

While taking art classes at the Art Academy as a child (he especially was drawn to ceramics), O’Harrow had countless hours to also wander the grounds and take in artwork for all kinds.

Even at a young age, he knew Honolulu Museum of Art was his future—although he didn’t realize in what capacity until he declared his major while attending Harvard 30 years ago (where he attained his undergraduate degree with honors in history of art).

O’Harrow ran his career through different areas of the art industry to make sure he was well skilled. He spent time as executive director of the Figge Art Museum in Davenport and director of University of Iowa Museum of Art. His travels took him from Hawai‘i to the mainland, to England to France—with a little bit of Asia mixed in. A good museum director, he says, must have a deep, engrained understanding of what makes the local art community and culture special, as well as an independent view—an outsider’s impression.

Keeping Honolulu Museum of Art relevant is a multifaceted responsibility, to hear O’Harrow tell it. Th ere are issues that need to be addressed locally—such as how to tackle the topic of distance for those that reside on neighbor islands, for example—as well as overseas in the form of changes in tourism.

Part of that, he says, can be achieved by raising the profile of the museum.

“It’s seen as kind of this hidden gem or a discovery or a surprise,” he says. “And I think that can’t be. We can’t continue [with that perception].”

Fitting within that puzzle is the piece of ensuring overall sustainability. According to O’Harrow, lasting forever is not a given, which means a healthy overall ecosystem of the arts is so vital.

“In places like L.A. and New York City, there are multiple museums, multiple art schools,” he explains. “But in Hawai‘i, you generally have one of everything, so you need to make sure each of those institutions are in good health. We cannot withstand any loss of organizations in the state without it affecting the rest.”

The museum will celebrate its centennial 2027, but, as O’Harrow explains, 10 years will fly by in the blink of an eye, which means he has a lot of work ahead of him.

“I know that the issues in Hawai‘i are different because we’re on an island, and there are different attitudes and problems that you don’t see anywhere else in the world,” he explains.

“Hawai‘i has these unique challenges, and a lot of them keep resurfacing.”

But he also believes that Hawai‘i’s art culture is something of immense value. He lauds the culmination and mixture of the various cultures to create visual works of art in every day life.

“The museum has to be part of that conversation; we have a responsibility,” he adds. “My objective is to figure out solutions and sort of break those cycles.”

His job, now as director, is to present the museum in such a way that inspires that same life-changing experience he had when he was a child.

“Some people think you go to a gallery, you look at art and then you go home,” he says. “Th at’s what I want to change.”

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