Aiea, HI: Ola Ka 'Llima: Creative Culture and Art Spaces

Close up of traditional female Hawaiian dancers

Photo courtesy of PA'I Foundation

How can an organization support native artists and their work in the face of rising economic pressures?

For the many Hawaiians who practice native arts and culture, the rising costs of living threaten the continuation of age-old traditions. In the face of these pressures, the PA‘I Foundation set out a multi-pronged approach to provide support for local practitioners by developing a strategy of programming that provides venues for learning and exhibition while at the same time developing affordable housing for those from the creative community.


Though Hawai‘i is popularly perceived as a remote paradise with endless stretches of sandy beaches and surf, it has its own set of housing, economic, and cultural pressures. In urban Honolulu, for example, the development of high-end residential towers has contributed to rising costs in housing and other living expenses that pressure longstanding residents and Native Hawaiians. The Kaka‘ako district in the center of downtown Honolulu has been particularly prone to these problematic effects.


In the Kaka‘ako district, the PA‘I Foundation serves artists and Native Hawaiian traditions by providing venues for cultural practices to be passed on from one generation to the next —practices that are at risk of fading from the foreground of urban life. As part of an earlier assessment report done for the Ford Foundation, the PA‘I Foundation found that though the regional tourism sector relies heavily on native music, dance, art, and the overall “aloha spirit” to promote the area, there are in fact no larger programs of financial support for those practicing native artistic traditions.


The foundation knew that the threat to Hawai‘i’s significant tradition of place-based arts and culture, resulting from both larger economic pressures and a lack of funding mechanisms, was an issue that was often overlooked. Many native Hawaiian artists and cultural practitioners work full-time at non-arts related jobs because they cannot earn the needed income from their arts-based work and cannot afford the time needed to further develop their cultural practice. In 2000, for example, the State Foundation on Culture and Arts installed over $1 million of artwork in the newly constructed Hawai‘i Convention Center but did not commission any native Hawaiian artists. The foundation understood that in order to address the full needs of native artists that they needed to create artistic venues and to enhance affordable housing options, since many native Hawaiians and long-term residents were being priced out of an increasingly competitive residential market.


To address the need of supporting local arts and culture communities, the PA‘I Foundation set up opportunities for native Hawaiian artists to practice their craft. These opportunities took the form of classes and workshops in Hawaiian dance, music, and art led by Pua Ali'I'Ilima, the nonprofit arm of an important hula school founded in 1977 that focuses on serving the needs of residents and native Hawaiians. By carving out opportunities for artists to work, it would not only highlight the unique cultural tradition on the Hawaiian islands, but also help stimulate the broader cultural and tourism economy as well. To address the need for affordable housing, the Foundation envisioned a new development with live/work housing units and shared arts spaces to foster collaboration and support the artists in pursuit of their craft. In creating a new hub of creative activity, the Foundation wanted to foster new artworks and shared experiences for artists, while cultivating cultural exchange with the public through open houses, lectures, and workshops.


Because it had experience working across Hawaii for over 35 years, PA‘I capitalized on a network of partners already in place. For its Maoli Arts Month, for example, it worked with the Bishop Museum and several art galleries to exhibit Native Hawaiian art. It also partnered with the University of Hawai‘i to plan and implement workshops, performances, and conferences. For the art programming, these partnerships continued to be an integral part of the PA‘I vision. As PA‘I Executive Director Vicky Takamine said, “finding the right partners who have similar values and principles is critical for success.” But the affordable housing component of the project was a new challenge for the foundation, so Takamine brought on Artspace, a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization that develops arts-related affordable housing.


PA‘I assembled an advisory board composed of local citizens involved in the arts and culture, ensuring that the focus was kept squarely on native Hawaiian arts. Partnering with venues around Honolulu, PA‘I programmed 70 different events to showcase homegrown cultural talent. The foundation developed a communications strategy that used phone calls and printed material, as they knew that electronic media would not reach the target audience as robustly. In addition, Artspace introduced PA‘I to distance learning technology, which has been used for meetings and to bring artists and students together for workshops and classes. When technical expertise was needed on the ground, Artspace staff would travel to Hawai‘i, but this travel was also kept to a minimum to avoid high travel costs. Artspace identified and hired an architect (Urban Works Architects and Weinstein AIU) to create a schematic plan for the housing, and a general contractor (Ralph S. Inouye) who worked with the developer to keep costs low.


Working with its array of partners, PA‘I was successful in creating different classes and workshops for hula kahiko (ancient Hawaiian dance), hula ‘auana (modern Hawaiian dance), leo ki‘ek‘e (falsetto singing), ki ho‘alu (slack key guitar), ukelele workshops, and Hawaiian language instruction. PA‘I published the proceedings of the classes and workshops, making the content from the programs available to a broad audience who may have been unable to attend the original events. For the affordable housing initiative, PA‘I and Artspace developed plans for 80 affordable housing units, a 4,000 square foot cultural center, and 2,400 square feet of commercial space. The PA’I Arts & Culture Center, located on the ground floor, will include 2 performing arts/dance studios, gallery space, visual arts studio, and artist workstations. To accommodate this, Artspace succeeded in leasing a 30,000 square foot site in Honolulu.


The program that PA‘I developed instigated a robust citywide conversation about the value of art in urban economies—and the place of the artist in reaping some of those benefits. As Takamine asked, “if we are using artists to create value for a community, how do we ensure that artists capture a slice of the pie?” Referencing the gentrification that has taken place in Honolulu, she said, “a well-known irony of arts-driven community transformation is that artists are frequently victims of their own success, creating desirable places where they can no longer afford to remain.” The project prompted larger discussions around this issue, and it was a conversation the city was willing to participate in to address the rising costs of living. “The most surprising development,” said Takamine, “was the amount of support that we received from artists, legislators, city officials, and the general public.”


PA’I Foundation

Ola Ka 'llima Artspace Lofts
Project page for affordable housing project

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