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Honolulu Museum of Art ushers in a new era

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    The Honolulu Museum of Art is searching for a new director at the same time it is getting ready for accreditation. Mark Burak is running the museum on an interim basis.


    The museumis putting the house up for sale along with Spalding House which is the site of the former Contemporary Museum of Art.


    Pu Panini, the Diamond Head home designed by famed architect Vladimir Ossipoff, has traditionally been the residence of the director of The Honolulu Museum of Art.

The Honolulu Museum of Art is selling two of its properties — including the site of the old Contemporary Museum of Art — while interviewing five candidates to lead the museum into its next phase, which involves an upcoming accreditation.

Museum trustee Mark Burak is serving as the interim director and told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that much of the hard work — such as the emotional decision to sell Spalding House, the site of the old Contemporary Museum of Art, and changes to the museum’s Art School — will be well underway by the time a new director takes over.

“We don’t want the next person coming in to get all the flak,” Burak said in his temporary director’s office on South Beretania Street. “We want a positive atmosphere. We want to be on a roll.”

An initial candidate pool of 162 names has been narrowed to five finalists, both male and female, but none from Hawaii, said Burak, who is also on the board’s search committee.

In its 90-year history, the Honolulu Museum of Art’s last director, Sean O’Harrow, was the first top administrator to have grown up in the islands.

O’Harrow, who was named in October 2016, was paid an annual base salary of $303,256. He lasted two years.

O’Harrow, now executive director of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo., did not respond to telephone and emailed requests for comment about his time at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

The last of the five unnamed candidates to replace O’Harrow is scheduled to visit this week. Burak said he expects the museum’s board to make an offer by mid-September and have the next director on the job well before the end of the year.

Burak described a wide-range of skills for the ideal candidate, including “considerable experience in museums in a chief role of some sort, if not the director. Ideally he or she would have the right blend to oversee exhibitions and art, but also know how to run an organization, know how to motivate and inspire.”

The new director also should have “natural leadership skills and know how to apply it to the job.”

At the same time, Burak said the museum’s new director should be “a strong delegator but not an abdicator … who can also understand finances, human resources and how to motivate and develop people.”


Stephan Jost, who spent five years as the museum director, left more than three years ago to run the Art Gallery of Toronto.

Based on the inquiries Jost has gotten from candidates for his old job in Honolulu, “there should be a very good applicant pool,” he said.

Jost arrived in Honolulu in 2011. On his first day at work officials were signing papers to merge the Honolulu Academy of Arts with the Contemporary Museum of Art in Makiki Heights to help both of them survive under a new brand called The Honolulu Museum of Art.

The current, 30-member board still includes seven people who oversaw the Contemporary Museum of Art and the merger led to emotional and financial travails, such as the announcement in July that the trustees had decided to put Spalding House up for sale, along with a decision to sell the historic Diamond Head home that has traditionally been the residence of the museum director called Pu Panini, designed by famed architect Vladimir Ossipoff.

No sale price has been set for either Pu Panini or Spalding House.

Jost was credited with tightening operations at the newly merged museums while trying to shore up their finances.

“You’re taking two institutions and you’re merging the staff, you’re merging the board, you’re merging the finances,” Jost said. “There was an expansion of the board and some people stepped off.”

He estimated that the employees’ pension fund was under-funded by about $15 million.

Through the sale of two nonpublic Contemporary Museum of Art properties and generous donations, the pensions were fully funded, Jost said.

“I’m unbelievably proud of that,” he said. “That means a couple hundred people in Honolulu will be living in retirement at a healthy level. … No organization can ultimately thrive if there’s a heavy debt burden.”

Jost looks back fondly at his five years running the Honolulu Museum of Art.

“It’s an amazing museum,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary place. It’s a museum that’s remarkably embedded in the community.”


The museum is scheduled for an accreditation review by the American Association of Museums in 2022 and Jost said he believes the museum will be prepared.

“It’s really a conversation,” Jost said. “They look at finances and that sort of thing but it’s really a conversation. It’s not one of these things where they say, ‘These are all the things you have to do.’ It’s really about what’s best for your community, and the Honolulu Museum of Art is in a very, very strong position for accreditation.”

Jost was replaced by O’Harrow, who started in January 2017 and held the job a little more than two years. He left in February to take over the Kemper Museum.

During O’Harrow’s tenure, tuition at the museum’s Art School across South Beretania Street went up around 30% as operating costs rose.

It was the first increase in 17 years, according to museum spokesman Kevin Imanaka.

“Additionally, the program offerings were optimized to ensure standard class lengths, the elimination of classes with poor attendance and a reduction in the redundancy of class types offered at the same time,” Imanaka wrote in an email to the Star-Advertiser. “And while tuition still doesn’t cover all of the direct and indirect costs associated with putting on the depth and breadth of classes that we do, we’ve been able (to) recoup more of our expenses while continuing to improve the quality of art instruction that our students want and deserve.”

The price increases “were long overdue,” according to Burak, the trustee and interim director.

The school was offering “more classes than it could handle,” Burak said. “It was a bit uncontrolled. There were pop-up shows in the hallways.”

Then, just as O’Harrow was packing up, Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials showed up at the Art School with more serious concerns in January, Burak said.

“OSHA said there were too many kilns in too-small areas, so we had to reduce the kiln house,” Burak said. “It’s a school. But it was almost like a community center.”

The has about 130 full-time employees, 140 or so part-time employees and another 300 or so volunteers, Burak said.

The museum lost one of its employees on Friday, which was the last day for chief curator Healoha Johnston, who starts a new job Tuesday with the Smithsonian Institution’s Asia Pacific American Center.

Johnston said the changes she saw during her five years at the Honolulu Museum of Art were “good changes.”

“This is actually a really good time for the museum,” she said. “The staff is more confident than ever in the decision-making process. … The new director will be greeted by an eager staff.”

By the time the next director takes over, Burak said, many of the hard decisions that lingered for years will have been made, such as the decision to put Spalding House up for sale.

“It was costing us a fair amount of money to run it and operate it,” Burak said. “It just came to the point where the board said, ‘We need to make the hard call.’”

So the environment at the Honolulu Museum of Art will be conducive for “great things to come” under its new director, Burak said.

Part of the success will come from board members taking a step back after years of tough issues.

“We need to let them (the new director) do their job,” Burak said. “They’ll need latitude. They’ll need to find their way.”

As for the candidates, Burak said, “We see enthusiasm. We see some fresh ideas. We see some pretty strong people.”

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