Stephen L. Little, director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, would like to raise funds that could be used to purchase works of art.

Art academy head
wants to broaden collection

Stephen L. Little

>> Position: Director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts

>> Background: Served as the academy's Asian art curator from 1989 to 1994, then moved to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995, serving as the Pritzker curator of Asian art until 2002. He returned to the Honolulu academy in February 2003. He was a Yale Fellowship Alumni and received grants to travel and study abroad in Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and India.

I understand you want to build the academy's endowment?

We have a strong endowment from which we are able to cover most of our expenses. We do a lot of fund raising for special projects. This current Japan and Paris exhibit is over a million dollars. It's the most ambitious exhibition; it had never been done before. There's never been an impressionism exhibition here. We're in very good shape. I think one of my goals having been a curator is to build the collection, and the majority of works have been given as gifts. In order to compete with other museums, we need a bigger endowment for acquisitions. It's become more expensive to collect. Impressionism is a good example. We were delighted two years ago to get a gift of two impressionist paintings. I would like to create an endowment for acquisitions. I would like to have around $50 million. That's peanuts compared to some museums on the mainland. Fifty million does not generate much interest. A single Andy Warhol painting can be several million dollars right there. Everything's relative. Life has gotten more competitive. One of my goals is to build the European and American collections. We have a good base, but there are gaps. We are famous for our Asian collection. The European and American painting field, the prices have skyrocketed in the past 15 years.

How do you make due with a limited budget?

My approach is twofold. On the one hand, we have certain strengths. On the other hand, since we are dedicated to world art and we cover every major area of the world, it's important to fill gaps. It's a slightly schizophrenic approach. One needs to be really attentive to what one has and one needs to be very attentive to the market to opportunities that come along and one has to assess where one's resources are on an almost daily basis. And the opportunities are difficult to predict. That's what makes it fun.

Can you give us an example of looking out for opportunities?

We recently were able to purchase, at very low cost, a collection of several thousand works of Japanese art from a private collection in Japan of an American scholar named Richard Lane who had worked at the academy in the past and nobody knew he was a collector. We were able to purchase several thousand paintings and woodblock prints for $26,000. That was a case where the opportunity could have easily been missed if we had not been paying attention. It's kind of a daily detective work.

What are the tricks to fund raising for art?

In my experience there is no book. Fund raising is a very mysterious art. Successful fund raising is always a team effort. Of course, part of what I hope to achieve is not only creating a greater potential for us to buy things but the other side of that coin is encouraging gifts. I'm devoting a lot of my attention to that. If one has a good collection to begin with, that makes that task much easier. I'm looking 10 to 20 years out. This is a slow gradual process of gaining people's confidence. Fluidity and flexibility of thought and strategy and openness to novel approaches is important. There are whole areas we have not looked at. One is Asia. That may seem absurd to some people. But we have such ties to Asia. We have one of the top 10 collections in Asia at the academy. The overriding, most important element in fund raising is a clear vision. If your message is muddled, forget it.

How has the first year as director been?

I've had a wonderful experience. I was very lucky to have worked here for five years as a curator. I had a very good sense of the collection and the people who work here and the board and the community, so that was a huge advantage coming back here, having been here. It can take five years to become familiar with all those aspects of these jobs. I'm eternally grateful that the academy is a really stable platform in terms of its collection and its financial stability. So it's a place where I can really do, I hope, visionary and really unusual exhibitions and programs.

How so?

First, having a great permanent collection means other museums around the world take you seriously. Our reputation, for example, helped enormously in getting many of the loans in the current Japan-Paris exhibition. It would have been much more difficult if we had not had in our collection a Monet, a Gauguin, a Van Gogh, a Picasso. Secondly, we've been around since 1927 and I think the museum has a wonderful track record in terms of providing for the community in a place where anyone can explore their own cultural roots and origins and learn about their neighbors. Certainly, we have the biggest arts school in Hawaii, the Academy Art Center at Linekona.

Do you personally have a favorite artwork?

No, I'm very eclectic. I find everything interesting. I tried for many years to be an astronomer. Then I failed calculus, so that was the end of that.

Inside Hawaii Inc. is a conversation with a member of the Hawaii business community who has changed jobs, been elected to a board or been recognized for accomplishments. Send questions and comments to


E-mail to Business Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2004 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --