In its 50 years the East-West Center has been a hub for cross-cultural exchange, and its art collection documents the many visits from people across the globe.
Through Oct. 3 the East-West Center Art Gallery is exhibiting 38 works from a collection of about 300 pieces in "East-West Treasures: Works from the Permanent Collection."
"We wanted to show a representation of many cultures and a diversity of art forms," said Michael Schuster, curator of the gallery. "We have a variety of art — classical, folkloric and contemporary; textiles, ceramics, metalwork, paintings — from a diversity of cultures presented to us by alumni, artists and dignitaries."
Benji Bennington, who nurtured the center’s art program from its earliest days in the early ’60s and became its first curator, said the collection grew out of the custom of guests honoring their hosts with gifts.
"One part of all cultures is that when they visit, they bring something," she said. "We couldn’t just store away what was given, so I got a collection started. We had to find a way to keep track of the gifts and record them.
"When Burns Hall was built, I decided to put art in the halls. I had lots of comments: ‘It’s so nice to see beautiful things not locked behind a case,’ people would say. I had exhibits in the lobby, and people could see them all day and on weekends. We’d get incredible support from other countries. They’d send us art on loan."
Bennington also started working with local artists to provide gifts for Hawaii dignitaries to present on their trips.
"I’d get six or eight pieces from each artist. Bumpei Akaji made us six or eight small statues to give away," she said.
‘East-West Treasures: Works from the Permanent Collection’
» When: Through Oct. 3; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays
» Where: East-West Center Art Gallery, Burns Hall, corner of Dole Street and East-West Road
» Call: 944-7584 or visit arts.EastWestCenter.org
» Also: "Influences from Hawaii," an illustrated talk by artist Mayumi Oda, 2 p.m. Aug. 29; illustrated talk by Hawaiian artist and educator Meleanna Aluli Meyer, 2 p.m. Sept. 12
THE CENTER’S ART program, which produces four exhibits a year, has always profiled little-known or marginalized cultures. During the Hawaiian cultural renaissance in the 1970s, the center exhibited contemporary Hawaiian art in a show titled "Hookui" (resistance).
"People would come in and sit down on the floor with their guitars and sing. I didn’t mind that kind of thing," Bennington said. "Our program was a catalyst for new things. We tried to respond to the community."
"We recently exhibited contemporary paintings from Pakistan, which has very diverse, multiple cultures. That’s the direction we take," added Schuster of the gallery today.
Reflecting the center’s mission "to better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia and the Pacific," Schuster and Bennington possess an open-mindedness that suits them perfectly for the curatorial post. Part of that insight comes from having immersed themselves in so many cultures.
Bennington has lived in Malaysia, Indonesia and Burma and visited every country in Southeast Asia except Laos. Schuster is well traveled as well.
"Having lived in so many different cultures, you become flexible and fluent in your approach to culture," he explained. "You never leave who you are, but once you can step back from your own culture, you can listen to what other people think is important. If you’re curious, you can find out what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and why it’s important to them.
"In the end we’re all human and we care about the same things."
Bennington said the job requires a broader perspective than considering just art.
"The difference between us (and a traditional curatorial staff) is that we deal with art and culture. We don’t forget about the people. Sometimes we get the people first, the art second. Art doesn’t get put on the wall magically. People and culture are an integral part of art."