Honolulu as a city sinks to the bottom of coastal art cities. It’s rife with tourist-appeasing art: unburdened tropical sunsets, decontextualized native people, kitsch of every kind decorated with happy sea and island life. Even Travel + Leisure listed the city at the bottom of its culture rankings for museums and galleries in 2012.
It’s also a city that’s actively doing something positive about its art scene.
How does one do that? It likely involves nurturing a culture around art that is both approachable and accessible.
Following the lead of a number of cities nationwide, The Big Pineapple holds a monthly Night Market — an evening art fair meets street fair meets street art — that encourages both artists and buyers to step into each other’s shoes.
The event helps the city of 400,000, overrun by more than 7 million visitors per year, to find its own artistic voice. (Plenty of people come to tourist destinations looking for trinkets to remember their visit, but work that’s steeped financially in remaining the same does not do much social and artistic heavy-lifting). What’s needed is participation from artists who are more concerned with their own expression than maintaining the status quo.
Among numerous other inventive pop-up booths, 808 Urban had a fierce showing at Night Market. The nonprofit collective teaches teens to be career artists. The organization functions through mini organizations or “Junior Boards” of eight to 10 teens from the same high school. Their roles on the Junior Board cover much of the skills needed to become adult artists: team leaders, artists, videographers, photographers, graphic designers.
They take classes in their craft but also in culture — which in Hawaii, due to its confluence of populations, is multifarious and moving. Collective members also learn the pragmatics of the art business: How to secure a wall for a mural, how to raise money for corporate sponsorship, how to sell their art, which collective members do in 808’s storefront The Refuge, using the proceeds for their next works. These junior boards come up with their own art projects. So far, more than 200 of their murals provoke the island of Oahu. Walls and shelves at The Refuge bulged with everything from painted graffiti cans to portraits.
The nonprofit creates possibility outside of Honolulu’s tourist market.
“When you grow up on Hawaii, you want to get off of this rock,” says Refuge Co-Director and Program Manager Sierra Dew, who is an artist herself. “With projects like these, kids can say, ‘I see myself working here now.'”
Many other elements and organizations at the Night Market furthered the communal process of art making and buying. The hopeful result is that art becomes part of the community, not just something that defines it. An array of hands-on arts events, as well as people from all ages and walks, made the event feel good and urgent — like a city center that hasn’t been overtaken by picture-takers. Instructors from local arts organizations taught fairgoers how to silkscreen, paint, draw, and just play around.
Events like Night Market don’t mean that Honolulu as a whole will ascend from the depths of traveler trinkets to a city that’s well-versed in the importance of design, but it can’t hurt to dip more hands in the paint.
Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.