Maybe I’ve been living under a rock.
But on a recent assignment to interview some folks at the Hawaii Film Office of the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, I discovered what I now believe to be one of the hidden gems in Downtown Honolulu. The Hawaii State Art Museum.
I had heard about it every now and then, particularly when there used to be an event called “Live from the Lawn,” which no longer exists. And I’ve been meaning to head over to Chef Ed Kenney’s cafe there on the ground floor — Downtown @ HiSAM. But I’ve never gotten around to it. Until now.
The building is at the end of Hotel Street at the intersection of Richards Street. Pass through the hustle and bustle of the Hotel Street busline, through the wrought iron gate, slow down and step back in time while taking in the majestic grandeur of this historic building. It’s called the No. 1 Capitol District Building, as it’s right across the State Capitol. The Spanish mission-style building and the land it sits on has a rich history. It sits on the site where the former Royal Hotel was built in 1872. I’m told that’s how “Hotel Street” got its name. The hotel was converted to the Armed Services YMCA in 1917 and the building currently housing DBEDT, the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and the Hawaii State Art Museum was built in 1928.
After my meeting on the 5th floor, I wandered down to the 2nd floor to see if I could check out some of the exhibits.
The friendly security guard asked me to leave my umbrella at his desk. I was curious as to why, and he explained that the rule is to prevent me from swinging it around and destroying some of the art. I accepted that response and politely obliged. But when I turned to look back at him, I thought I saw him giggling. Upon entering the gallery, I paused to admire a shiny, stainless steel rat trap. This was no ordinary vermin destroyer, well, it was for no ordinary vermin — as it was approximately 3-feet long. and about 2-feet wide. This was indeed a work of art. At that moment, I knew I was going to like this place so I ventured on in.
There are three galleries at the HiSAM, featuring a permanent Hawaiian art exhibit along with temporary exhibits. I spent most of my time taking in the temporary art exhibit of Hawaii’s talented youth. Mesmerized by the self-portraits, some of them expressing happiness, others reflecting pain, I wondered what was going through their minds as they created these works. A foot-long metal pea pod containing three human-like heads (the peas) displaying different emotions was fascinating. Lost in time, I needed to get back to the office, vowing to return on another day to discover more. There was so much more to see.
As I slowly made my way back to the security desk to claim my umbrella, I realized that but for a happy young couple who had asked me if I would use their iPhone to take their photograph in the gallery, I was the only one wandering the maze-like corridors. It was not only a culturally satisfying way to spend my lunch hour, but a peaceful experience, as well.
There are a lot of wonderful things about the Hawaii State Art Museum, but perhaps the best thing is it’s always free. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Sunday, Monday, and all state and federal holidays. The museum is also open for First Friday, the downtown gallery walk held on the first Friday of every month, from 5-9 p.m.
Downtown @HiSAM is located on the first floor. Hours of operation: Monday to Saturday, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. The café is also open on First Fridays, from 5-9 p.m.
Photo: Stacy Yuen Hernandez