In 1979, the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce (HJCC) sponsored the First Annual Art Exhibition. It was called Japanese Artists in Hawai‘i.
At the time, before the Japanese Culture Center of Hawaii existed, the Chamber’s missions were to promote business for its members and Japanese culture in Honolulu. The HJCC Culture Committee Chair, Milton Yanagawa and members, including Donald Doi, Daniel Takehara, Kiyoshi Ohbe and artist Yuko O’Reilly, considered an art exhibition a perfect vehicle to promote the emerging business of art among Hawai‘i’s many fine Japanese artists. The Committee chose the Amfac Community Center in downtown Honolulu for the site of the first Exhibition.
The First Annual Art Exhibition was an instant success. The Exhibition attracted many of Hawai‘i’s finest Japanese artists including Tadashi Sato, Satoru Abe, Charles Higa, Harry Tsuchidana, Satoku Dung, Yuko O’Reilly and Reiko Mochinaga Brandon. The public, especially the art community, hailed the Exhibition as the best new exhibition in Hawai‘i.
For the next five years Japanese Artists in Hawai‘i continued to feature the fine works of artists of Japanese ancestry. A solo exhibition featured the ceramic works of world famous Toshiko Takaesu.
In 1985, the Chamber chose to open the Exhibition to artists of all ethnicities. The number of entries exploded. From around 100 entries each year, annual entries rose to 200, 300, then to over 600 works. Artists eagerly sought to enter an Exhibition now considered one of the best in the State. Carl Ichida, a young attorney and art enthusiast, lead the Art Exhibition during this rapid growth period. He used his friends in the art community to support the Exhibition. The State Foundation on Culture & the Arts began acquisitions of the best works.
Works of Japanese artists continued to be the back bone in the Exhibition. Robert Hamada of Kauai began entering his magnificent milo and pheasant wood bowls. Most of the fine artists from the first Annual Exhibition continued to support the Exhibition with their prized works.
All but two exhibitions were at the Amfac Community Center. One year the Chamber held the Exhibition at Honolulu Hale court yard. The following year the Exhibition was held at the Jonah Kalanianaole Kuhio Federal Building on Ala Moana Boulevard.
In 1987, Stanley Yamamoto took the reins of the Exhibition and began the “Commitment to Excellence” era. A lifelong art educator and a personal friend to many artists, critics and patrons, Stanley Yamamoto chose the theme, ”Commitment to Excellence,” and directed its fulfillment. He began the tradition of invited artists. He chose independent jurists to select the best works from the general entries for the Exhibition. The Exhibition rose in reputation and prestige. A cadre of new and rising artists all sought entry into the exhibition with the invited artists. They readily accepted the new entry fees charged. To be selected into the Exhibition was a big boost to a rising artist’s reputation. The new cash awards stirred struggling artists’ motivation.
Inevitably, some artists were disappointed when their works were not selected by the jurists. The Chamber, began with 10 invited artists, added a new invited artist each year, then capped the number of invited artists at 20, to make room for more juried selected works. With the high standards set by the jurists, the number of new entries leveled at 500. Stanley Yamamoto selected Wayne Kawamoto, the University of Hawaii Art Gallery exhibition designer, to design the Exhibition. Using color, size and spacing, Wayne Kawamoto added another level of Excellence to the Exhibition.
In 1990, the Chamber was forced to find a new venue for the Exhibition. The Amfac Community Center held children birthday parties and other events with young children. For safety reasons, the Center threw out the panels for exhibiting paintings, which were piled in the stage area of the room. The cost of building and storing new panels was prohibitive. Fortunately, Stanley Yamamoto had arranged with his friend, George Ellis, the director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, a standby venue at the Academy Art Center Gallery in Linekona School.
The move to the Academy Art Center was major step forward for the Exhibition. Although a smaller venue, the Gallery was operated by the Honolulu Art Academy, whose full time mission is art. The Center administrator and staff embraced and assisted the Exhibition. The Gallery had extensive parking and was open on weekends. Public attendance increased.
In 2003, the Chamber celebrated its 25th Annual Art Exhibition. On registration day, two surprise artists, Tadashi Sato and Satoru Abe entered. Both had been invited, but had not responded to requests to be invited artists, so their arrival was received with special enthusiasm.
Satoru Abe said he and Tadashi Sato felt it was their duty to help the Chamber celebrate the 25th Annual Exhibition, because of all the Chamber had done for Japanese artists in Hawai‘i. It was to be last Exhibition in which, Tadashi Sato would participate. The following May, in 2004, Tadashi Sato died leaving a huge legacy of art through Hawai‘i and the world.
Soon after, Stanley Yamamoto shifted his leadership to Wayne Kawamoto. To broaden the scope of art and give the Exhibition new vitality, Wayne Kawamoto began selecting jurists with different art perspectives. He also began to rotate the invited artists while keeping a core of established artists.
In 2005, Wayne Kawamoto began the tradition of featuring a master senior artist to headline the Exhibition. The first master artist featured was Tadashi Sato, in memoriam. Satoru Abe supplied much of the personal details of his close friend’s life and art for the testimonial at the Exhibition’s opening reception. He summed up his personal feelings: “I have lost my drinking buddy.”
Satoru Abe was the second featured master artist, followed by Charles Higa, Harry Tsuchidana, Shige Yamada, Tom Okimoto and Reiko Mochinaga Brandon. Works from five of the six featured master artists appeared in the first Exhibition 32 years ago. For three years, the Exhibition honored past leaders who helped build the Exhibition. Naturally the first person honored was Stanley Yamamoto, who made “Commitment to Excellence” a reality and a lasting legacy.
To make more room for new and rising artists in the smaller gallery, the Chamber reduced the number of invited artists to 15 and limited the number of works entered by invited artists to one each.
History and art are about life and death. Many of Hawai‘i’s, finest Japanese artists followed similar paths in the development of their art. They began early in life by drawing, taking art classes in high school. Most went to New York and Washington D.C. to study in the major museums. Some worked as night guards in museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art so they could study the master works while they patrolled the galleries. A colony of 20 artists lived in the same New York neighborhood, where they worked, lived and partied together.
The Chamber has lost some of those Exhibition founders and leaders. Donald Doi and Hugh O’Reilly are gone. Carl Ichida died at an early age. Stanley Yamamoto also passed away. The Exhibition they started and raised to Excellence is their legacy.
Artists create because they must. It is not a choice in life, it is a compulsion. Tadashi Sato worked his art until just before his death. Tom Okimoto, the 2010 featured master artist died early this year. He agreed to be in the Exhibition, even though he knew death was coming soon. Charles Higa continued his work from a wheel chair until his death in 2012. Satoru Abe, in his eighties, works every day in his Kaimuki studio. Harry Tsuchidana, a spry 80 plus, works daily in his Salt Lake studio.
The Chamber continues to support the business of art. Over the years, thousands of artists have shared their works in the Annual Exhibition. Appearance of artists’ works in the Exhibition builds their professional reputation, increases the value of their works, and provides an opportunity to sell their works. Awards directly give artists earnings and enhance their professional resume.
To support the Exhibition, the Chamber has developed loyal sponsors. Five years ago Servco Pacific agreed to be the underwriter sponsor, giving the Best in Show award and buying works for its corporate offices. In 2011 HMAA and Pacific Guardian Life joined as patron sponsors. A loyal group of other sponsors have supported the Exhibition, notably Thurston and Sharon Twigg-Smith, a friend of Stanley Yamamoto, Glenn Okada, Nomura Design, Edward Enterprises and Spicers Paper.
HTH Corporation/Pacific Beach Hotel, Finance Factors, First Hawaiian Foundation, Hawaii Air Cargo and Island Insurance are also long time sponsors of the Exhibition.
The Chamber has become very good at producing the Exhibition. The Honolulu Chamber of Commerce and the Annual Art Exhibition are seen as one entity by the public and art community. The “Commitment to Excellence” is an integral and professional product of the Chamber’s business reputation and community service.
The Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce and its members can be very proud of Annual Art Exhibition. With a succession of creative Exhibition leaders, and the stalwart support of many Boards, Board Chairs, Executive Directors, Presidents, the dedicated Chamber staff and hundreds of volunteers, the Annual Art Exhibition has become one of the finest art exhibitions in Hawai‘i.