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Monday, July 28, 2014         

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Art lifts Grand Wailea over the top

By Elizabeth Kieszkowski

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Contemporary art is one of the intrinsic elements of the Grand Wailea Resort, and the valuable, international collection is a prime reason to pay a visit. Whether you're likely to be impressed by talent and execution, materials and imagery, raw presence or even monetary value, the art on display here is imposing.

Sculpture is present in abundance, from the humorous and sensual massives created by Colombia-born sculptor Fernando Botero, placed in the heart of the resort's central courtyard, to the earthy, ingratiating imp-cherub that is Esther Shimazu's "Boy Holding Fish," perched beside an artificial pond. Paintings are also ubiquitous. Works by Chinese artist Zhou Ling create an interplay between Eastern and Hawaiian imagery, while Canada-born artist Douglas Riseborough's disruptive, bold — and big — depiction of "The Birth of Maui" demands attention as it looms over a table of offerings at the hotel's Sunday brunch.

Many of the artists were asked to depict Hawaiian themes or imagery, and a significant number of the artists are based in the islands. Others are simply masters or art stars. And the story of how billionaire Takeshi Sekiguchi assembled and the resort embraced this grandiose collection is a drama of its own. As a spectacle, it is not to be missed.

 

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The Grand Wailea meets all the basic beauty-queen resort requirements, with a sprawling, sporty signature pool, enormous spa, noteworthy service and well-appointed rooms. Immensely attractive, despite its weathering of successive Japanese and American recessions and a series of owners, the expansive, 40-acre resort is poised to celebrate its 20th anniversary in the comforting arms of Hilton Hotels Corp. and its luxury-focused Waldorf Astoria Collection. That's reason enough to visit, and to gaze in admiration at its assets.

If you're interested in staying at the resort, keep an eye on its website: As the Grand Wailea approaches its birthday celebration on Sept. 4, special offers and anniversary events will entice visitors.

And if you visit, do not miss the Grand Wailea's most distinctive asset: its art, an elbow to elbow, eccentric concentration of some of the finest work available by local and international artists, in multiple genres. It is the resort's art collection that makes a tour of the site an experience that can't be duplicated at any other location.

HOW TO VISIT

» Stay the night: Rates at the Grand Wailea start at $369 a night, and a daily resort fee for access to the pools and fitness facilities, among other extravagant features of the resort, is $25. Travel packages and specials can provide savings and incentives. Reservations: 800-888-6100, or see www.grandwailea.com.

» Visit the Spa Grande (800-772-1933): Go to the Botero Bar (noon to midnight daily, with live entertainment each afternoon) or enjoy resort fare at the thatch-roofed Humuhumunukunukuapua'a restaurant (reservations recommended, 808-875-1234, ext. 4900). If you are planning on dinner, arrive before sunset, walk the grounds and watch the sky change from the "Humu" restaurant or from the beachfront.

» Make the NaPua Gallery and resort tour a destination: NaPua Gallery is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, and tours depart from the gallery at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays.

 

Enter the resort to the sound of a cliff-size artificial waterfall flanking the drive. Under the porte-cochere, face outward to gaze upon a statue of King Kamehameha by Herb Kane. Kane is revered for his paintings and illustrations of native Hawaiian historical scenes, but his work as a sculptor is underrecognized, and this statue stands apart from other figures of Kamehameha for its recognizably Hawaiian features. Turn toward the entrance, and idealized statues of mermaids and hula dancers rise up from a series of shallow pools. Behind these, one can glimpse the gleaming, rounded bodies of the resort's signature sculptures by Fernando Botero.

Beyond that lies a wonderland of sculpture, painting, mosaic and adornment in differing styles, and beyond those, the ocean. It's a confusion of riches.

"Everything had to be the best of the best," says the collection's curator, Michael Gilbert, who has been involved since the resort's conception.

The jarring extravagance of the Grand Wailea's art collection is of a piece with the resort's intrinsic nature — overwhelming but nonetheless impressive and sensually pleasing, like a brassy, glamorous trophy wife. Built with what a Hawaii Business magazine article called a "spare no cost and fear no amount of change orders" chutzpah by Japanese mogul Takeshi Sekiguchi at the height of the Japanese economic bubble, the resort opened in 1991. From the air one can see that it is built in the shape of a sea turtle, facing Haleakala. Sekiguchi seems to have intended it as an amusing delight.

Financially overextended, Sekiguchi lost control of the resort in the late 1990s, but his vision is unlikely to be forgotten by those close to the resort any time soon. "Art is in our DNA," says Matt Bailey, the resort's managing director since 2007. "Every corner you turn, you see something new."

Bailey's right: Visitors cannot move far in any direction without encountering a valuable piece of art. The Grand Wailea's extensive collection was valued at $35 million when assembled by Sekiguchi.

Nine bulbous bronze figures by Botero near the center of the resort form the heart of the collection, along with a priceless collection of modernist Fernand Leger's posthumously cast, framed bronze sculptures.

Vibrant glass pieces by internationally known artist Dale Chihuly are prominently displayed in the resort's NaPua Gallery, as are prints and an original painting by Russian-born surrealist Vladimir Kush, who lives within walking distance of the resort. Most of the gallery's holdings have been created by Hawaii-based artists, such as Oahu's Mark Chai, part of an "Artists of Oahu" show at the Grand Wailea earlier this year, who painstakingly shapes his highly geometric pieces by hand.

GALLERY MANAGER Will Herrera regularly gives tours of the Grand Wailea's collection. A sculptor himself, Herrera radiates appreciation as he leads viewers to the Leger and Botero sculptures. "They're almost floating," he says, as he looks at the Boteros. "They don't seem gravity-bound."

His tours always include Satoru Abe's "Moon Over Trees," an imposing granite piece on a side path, steps away from the resort's dining room. Abe's sculpture is concentrated Zen, balanced and beautiful enough to bring viewers to a standstill. A complementary piece, "Moon Through Trees," in copper and bronze, can be found in another part of the grounds.

Abe, Kane and sculptor Shige Yamada, whose "Maui Captures the Sun" looms over the resort's Grand Dining Room, are the resort's prized Hawaii artists and "living treasures," Herrera says.

The resort's chapel, whitewashed and steeply peaked, looks over koi ponds holding rare decorative fish. Inside, it's embellished with radiant wall-size murals depicting Hawaiian legends, created by Indonesian artist Yvonne Cheng, who traveled to Murano, Italy, to observe glassmaking before assembling them.

Herrera points out a 17th-century Murano chandelier hanging from the chapel's ceiling, glinting in the afternoon sun, and notes that its value likely outweighs the chapel itself.

Gilbert, who is also director of the NaPua Gallery, was not at the resort when I visited; he was consulting with collectors in Europe. But he specified that I should see "Hina and Mo'o," by Big Island sculptor Jan Fisher. The bronze casting shows Hina, mother of Maui, confronted by the evil dragon-lizard. Gilbert admires the skill Fisher used to combine realistic and mythologic imagery — but also Hina's expression of defiance.

Just a few years ago, former resort managers had allowed greenery to grow up and hide the statue from visitors. Even the lights shining on Kane's King Kamehameha statue had gone dark. Bailey frankly acknowledges "years of neglect" but says Waldorf-Astoria management now places a premium on visitors' experience of the art collection.

"We treat artists with the utmost respect," said Gilbert. As did Bailey and Ferrera, he pointed back to Sekiguchi's vision of building "a treasure of international stature" while paying homage to the Hawaii setting. A polite yet passionate curator whose expert opinion is often requested by collectors, Gilbert has been involved with the Grand Wailea's art collection since 1989. Shoulders dropping slightly, he said in the years after Sekiguchi lost control of the Grand Wailea, a subsequent manager inquired about the art's resale value, suggesting it could be sold to help pay down debt.

The cost-cutting mentality was reversed under Hilton management. Hilton spent $50 million in 2008 renovating the hotel's rooms, pools and spa.

Nothing is guaranteed — "it could all change tomorrow," says Gilbert, wryly — but Hilton has a 30-year management contract, and Gilbert is brimming with ideas for an anniversary celebration that honors the resort's art collection, from a reception including all living artists represented to reproductions of select Botero pieces ... in chocolate.

"It's an exuberant place," said Gilbert. "It's in your face, whether you like it or not."






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