The time to save the Arts at Marks Garage, Honolulu’s longtime urban arts center, is now or never, according to volunteer board members.
The nonprofit, community arts center, in operation since 2001 on Nuuanu Avenue in Chinatown, is in debt and in need of community support, or it might have to close by the end of the year. It is seeking a title sponsor willing to donate $50,000 to name the Arts at Marks theater after, and to help ease the center’s debt.
It is also seeking potential new community partners, volunteers and ideas.
“We have a short time window to figure it out,” said board member Melissa White. “So our goal right now, we’re planning to stay open through the end of the year, but if we don’t have concrete commitments in place by end of November, then the end of the year looks to be our closing date.”
So far, no one has come forward as a title sponsor, although many individuals have participated in the “1,001 Friends” campaign, a monthly donor program. For a donation of $10 a month, or $120 for the year, donors get a portrait taken by photographer Kim Taylor Reece, posted to the center’s Facebook page, with testimonials.
Reece, also a board member, said he got involved because he believes downtown Honolulu needs an arts hub.
Arts at Marks has been an incubator for hundreds of artists, he said. Besides serving as a gallery for visual arts displays, it offers a great performance space for everything from Shakespeare to contemporary dance. Many artists and performers got their start at the Arts at Marks.
“There are new and upcoming artists that don’t have any place to show their work, so Marks is the perfect incubator for the newer artist,” he said. “Everybody that we talk to really wants to help Arts at Marks. They see it as a cornerstone, a focal point of where arts in downtown Honolulu is. If we lose it, it’s going to be really, really sad.”
Attendance at the center’s events has remained steady, he said, at about 45,000 a year. But previous funding sources, such as grants, have shrunk, and without major support the Arts at Marks is at risk of no longer existing.
Some recent initiatives include a series of volunteer concerts by headlining musicians such as Eric Gilliom and Barry Flanagan of Maui, to help out the center.
A fundraiser, a Mad Hatter’s afternoon tea party, takes place Sunday afternoon at the Kumu Kahua Theatre foyer, featuring music by Yoza.
Donna Blanchard, who stepped down as director in late August to return her focus to Kumu Kahua Theatre, said there are two more years remaining in the lease but that the debt amounting to more than $70,000 presents the largest hurdle.
Blanchard, managing director of Kumu Kahua, stepped in as consulting director for the center two years ago as part of reorganization efforts. She started with a six-month contract and ended up staying for two years.
“I was surprised that the organization has been trying to survive on earned income, almost exclusively,” she said. “That’s very difficult for an arts organization to do.”
She said the center has lost support from some sponsors and grants from the past, and has been working hard to rebuild those relationships. The Friends of the Library of Hawaii still runs a bookstore within the space, which was renovated in 2017.
Board members are also reaching out and gathering input from the community on the center’s new direction.
The current exhibit, “Chinatown Without the Arts,” invites the public to write their thoughts and memories about the space, including ideas for how it can survive in the face of changing demographics, as well as how it can be supported.
“Let us know how you will support at the Arts at Marks Garage,” the exhibit says. “Let us know your ideas on how we can change to survive. Let us know how you will continue artistic practice in Chinatown if the Arts at Marks Garage can’t be saved.”
Hundreds have written their thoughts on Post-it notes, which blanket the gallery’s white walls.
At a recent roundtable the public was invited to discuss how the center could be revitalized and deepen its relationship with the community.
White said the board is looking for a sustainable business model, and welcomes new opportunities and ideas, but needs to act soon.
“Early November is going to be a major decision point for us,” said White. “So right now is the time to put new ideas forward so we can vet them. By early to mid- November we’ll know whether any are feasible to go forward.”
Blanchard said she was heartened when dozens showed up at the roundtable, with some offering to volunteer. She said this was a sort of wake-up call for those who take the center for granted.
“I think that people like knowing there is an arts center in the neighborhood,” she said, “but they also need to remember that they need to go, they need to be a part of it and help support it if they want it to remain a part of their community.”