CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Georgianna Lagoria and her husband, David de la Torre, help keep art alive in Hawaii through their jobs at the Contemporary and Mission Houses museums. CLICK FOR LARGE
Married to the museum
A couple's shared passion for art and history leads them to the helms of two acclaimed Oahu museums
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GEORGIANNA LAGORIA and David de la Torre trekked separate but intertwining paths in the Northern California art scene before they met in a museum studies graduate program in 1977. Today, after 25 years of marriage, 12 museums and 16 years in Hawaii, the two find themselves in parallel careers: She is director of the Contemporary Museum; he is executive director of the Mission Houses Museum. The two discuss art, their work -- "In graduate school, they told us, 'Don't expect to find jobs in the same place,'" Lagoria says with a laugh -- and their life together in a "Family Tree" profile.
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GEORGIANNA LAGORIA and David de la Torre are two halves of a warm, articulate, engaging whole. There is an easy give-and-take between the couple that leads them quickly into deep discussion about their profession, and an intimate understanding of one another that has them finishing each other's sentences.
That's probably what you'd expect of a couple married for 25 years and whose education and careers have led them down similar paths to a parallel existence today: Lagoria is director of the Contemporary Museum; de la Torre heads up the Mission Houses Museum. Between them the two have worked for 12 museums here and in California.
"I love museums. Museums are what brought us together," says de la Torre.
Both also love objects -- the ones that populate their museums and the stuff they have a passion for collecting. De la Torre even has an extensive Mexican folk art collection (his specialty) that was recently exhibited downtown. Yet for all their knowledge and passion for the objects, the couple makes clear that it is those who create objects and those who view them that give such items relevance.
"There's the importance of supporting the work of local, independent artists," Lagoria says as de la Torre nods in agreement. "If you like something someone made, I say don't just admire it. Spread your appreciation, and buy it and support them. Their art is the reward for supporting someone doing what they want to do."
"That synergy is very important for society," de la Torre adds. "It begs the question, What is patronage? How can even the smallest individual help?"
"They say the health of a culture lies in its ability to support its creative community," Lagoria replies.
THE PATHS THAT led to de la Torre and Lagoria's museum directorships began differently but were intertwining long before they met. Both grew up in California -- de la Torre in Santa Barbara, Lagoria in Menlo Park. But while de la Torre was exposed to fine art as a youngster -- "I could walk to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on my way to school" -- Lagoria grew up in the suburbs with art virtually absent from her life. The one exception was her sister, "who always had an affinity for art. I didn't make things, but I was always interested in what she created." Both spent time, still unknown to one another, studying art in Florence, Italy, as young adults, and both worked in the Bay Area's art community. By the time they met in a fledgling museum studies graduate program at the University of San Francisco in 1977, Lagoria was employed by an art dealer in the city, and de la Torre was working at a fine-arts gallery next door.
"Our paths kept crossing," Lagoria says.
In 1982, after both earned their degrees, they merged paths and married.
"In graduate school they told us, 'Don't expect to both find jobs in the same place,'" Lagoria recalls, laughing.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Married couple David de la Torre and Georgianna Lagoria are both museum directors in Honolulu. Lagoria is director of the Contemporary Museum, and de la Torre is executive director at the Mission Houses Museum. CLICK FOR LARGE
As far as the couple was concerned, California was the place to be -- until the birth of their son in 1989.
"There was a big earthquake, and for the first time, I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice not to live where there are earthquakes?' For the first time it scared me," Lagoria says. "But then we thought, 'Where do we want to raise him?'"
The answer came with a call in 1991 from George Ellis, then director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts. He offered de la Torre a position as associate director of the museum.
IN THEIR separate lives, Lagoria and de la Torre had both fallen in love with the islands. Lagoria spent many summers in Hawaii during her childhood, and the couple honeymooned here as well. So they made the move, and Hawaii has proved to be everything the family had hoped for in a home.
"One of the reasons we came here to work in Hawaii was to give our son something he couldn't have anywhere else," de la Torre says.
"Family's first here," Lagoria elaborates. "At (exhibit) openings we could bring him if we wanted to. We certainly couldn't do that in any other place. Children are always welcome here.
"There's a kindness and mutual respect to the culture. Daily, you feel it."
WHILE DE LA TORRE began his tenure at the academy, Lagoria spent a few years as a stay-at-home mom in Kahaluu. But that didn't keep her away from the museum scene.
"My son and I spent just as much time at museums -- the Bishop Museum, the Academy of Arts, the Contemporary Museum, the Honolulu Zoo, the Waikiki Aquarium," she says.
Lagoria kept her foot in the museum world professionally as an independent curator and consultant. Then, in 1994 she became a special exhibitions coordinator at the academy and moved to the Contemporary Museum as director in 1995.
Meanwhile, de la Torre's career was evolving as well. After eight years at the academy, he spent a year as an independent consultant in 2003 and then became director of the Art in Public Places Program at the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. Last year he moved to the Mission Houses Museum as executive director.
SO WHAT'S LIFE like in a household of museum directors? In a word: crowded.
"We've accumulated all kinds of stuff," says Lagoria. "We buy at auctions, we buy from friends. We buy contemporary art by artists we know.
"Then there's the category of 'just stuff,'" she says matter-of-factly. "An old Chinese steamer we inherited from a friend. A model of a Mississippi riverboat my husband found."
"We took that riverboat to 'Antiques Roadshow,'" de la Torre says with a big smile. "They said it was worth $750!
"We like to find and discover," says he.
"Discover and save," says she. "We're a refuge for wayward furniture."
"No!" he says, appalled.
But back to work and parallel lives. It seems Lagoria and de la Torre's careers are particularly parallel at the moment. Both their institutions are undergoing major changes, with each sitting at the helm.
The Contemporary Museum is planning an extensive expansion that includes a two-story gallery, an education space and new cafe and library spaces.
"The goal is to bring out our permanent collection," Lagoria says. "We have 3,000 pieces in storage. We want to be able to show some part of our collection constantly."
LAGORIA AND staff are working on building designs and raising funds, with the goal of having the facilities completed by fall 2009.
De la Torre's museum changes are more ideological, though he's started work on cataloging and photographing the 16,000 objects that belong to the Mission Houses, which will make them accessible to those beyond the museum walls.
What he's most passionate about, however, is attracting more residents to his space. "We want the community to rediscover the grounds. We want it to be a new gathering place for locals and tourists alike."
With new programs and continuous, changing exhibits in the Chamberlain House, which serves as an art gallery, de la Torre hopes to nurture an appreciation in the community for Hawaii's 19th-century history. While it's a time characterized as controversial, de la Torre says the era has a valuable connection to modern-day Hawaii.
It's that vision of evolution that serves as a guiding force for the couple as they do what they love best.
"When we tell others what our work is, they say it's exciting," Lagoria says. "We're proud of our work."