Stephan Jost

Director, Honolulu Museum of Art
Stephen Jost

Photo courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art

Stephan Jost—Podcast Transcript

Stephen Jost: The Blue Star program, which basically makes sure that the financial threshold for coming into the museum is zero. Basically, "Come on in. It's free for you if you're active duty or in that family." But then, you have to make sure that when they come there's something engaging for them.

Jo Reed: That was Stephan Jost the director of the Honolulu Museum of Art talking about the Blue Star Museum Program.

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nations great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.

From Memorial Day through Labor Day, some 2, 000 museums across the land will forego their admission fees for the nation’s active duty military personnel, National Guard and Reserve, and their families.  The museums are participating in the Blue Star museum program --a collaboration among the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, the Department of Defense, and of course, the museums themselves.  This is the fourth summer that museums are reaching out to military families and inviting them in as honored guests.

Although the program is country-wide, as you can imagine, museums located in areas that house military bases tend to be quite active in the Blue Star Museum program.  This is certainly true for the Honolulu Museum of Art. Honolulu is home to multiple bases and depends on the military for 20 percent of its economy; so, the museum  is not only enthusiastic about the Blue Star Museum program, it has a track record of reaching out to the military as one of the core communities it serves. This tie to the military is one of the unique aspects of the museum and it was embraced by Stephan Jost who became the director of the Honolulu Museum of Art in 2011. The art museum in Honolulu has long intrigued me--it's known for its fabulous art and for its innovative community outreach -- so I was eager to speak with Stephan Jost about the museum in general and its programs for the military in particular.  Before discussing the Blue Star museum program, I thought getting some background on the Honolulu Museum of Art itself would be a good place to begin our conversation.

Stephen Jost: The Honolulu Museum of Art is actually a relatively complex institution. We have a main museum, which is in, kind of, the historic part of town. And is a beautiful historic building with lots of courtyards. And it's indoor/outdoor. It's probably about the...I don't know, about the 40th largest museum in the country. So it's a mid-sized museum. We also have another museum up in the hills above Honolulu called Spalding House, which has gorgeous galleries and beautiful gardens, several acres. And then, we have a 280-seat theater, called the Doris Duke Theatre. Doris Duke was very involved with the museum during her life. And then we have a gallery space downtown at First Hawaiian Center, which is the main bank here on the island. And then, finally, we run an art school, which is kind of a community-based art school with about a thousand students at any given time. So we go in lots of directions, simultaneously. But I think we serve our public pretty well.

Jo Reed: How many people come to your museum? It's like a university of museums.

Stephen Jost: Yeah, it's a whole complex. If you count, kind of, all in, we're at about a quarter million people a year come to the museum. So we get a lot of people. We get a lot of people.

Jo Reed: Is it a challenge to both be an institution that tourists want to go to? Because I would imagine you would want to attract tourists, and at the same time, serve your local community?

Stephen Jost: There's always that dilemma and how do you communicate with tourists, versus how do you communicate with membership. The other thing that makes it even more complex is that our tourist base is very international. So, you know, roughly half is what we call eastbound and half is westbound. And so when you're talking about the tourists from Asia, which is about half the group, you're talking about Japanese, Korean, Chinese, now progressively more. So there's many different audiences that are coming. For the tourists from the mainland, kind of Canadian and American tourists, we figure that about one out of every five visitors to Oahu is passionately interested in art and culture. You know, where they will definitely, you know, cross the street and get on a bus or get a cab to come to the museum. So we do pretty well there. About our local audience, and I think most people on the mainland don't realize this, that Oahu is very, very diverse. We're just under 20 percent of European descent. The largest group of folks on the island are Filipino.  So, basically, the European descent, Filipino, and then, the Japanese and then, the Chinese. And then, of course, very, very important is the Polynesian and Native Hawaiian, in particular, community. Which is about, I don't know, about ten, 15 percent. So it's one of the most diverse places. And all of those communities have different interests. And there's different ways to communicate with them. So we're used to communicating with people who are different.

Jo Reed: You came to the Honolulu Museum of Art from Vermont?

Stephen Jost: Yeah, exactly...

Jo Reed:  That's quite a change...

Stephen Jost: ...which is 98.5 percent white, you know. It is. I mean, it's really different demographically. But what is similar is that both places have very strong local community fabric, shall we say. So whether you're dealing with a small town in Vermont, or whether you're trying to communicate with a particular neighborhood in Honolulu, it's not radically different. It's still about great grassroots strength. I mean, that's really, the key is having your base be grassroots.

Jo Reed: Okay. Here's the question. What's your background? How do you prepare to become a museum director? It's not something you think of, a kid being ten and saying, "Boy, I can't wait to run the Metropolitan Museum of Art."

Stephen Jost: Sure. Yeah, and there's not that many of us, you know. There's probably about 200 major art museums in the country. And that's just the art museum section. But I credit almost everything to kind of my undergraduate experience. I went to Hampshire College, which is a Liberal Arts school in Western Massachusetts, in Amherst. And at Hampshire, every student has to design their own major. There's no grades. There's no required courses. It's really about - define a problem and figure out a solution to it. I should say it's not for everybody. But if you're an independent kid, if you think out of the box, if you're self-motivated, it's an amazing, amazing school. And at Hampshire, I decided my first year I wanted to be a museum director. It was just kind of-- I've never been ambiguous about that. It's been just really obvious to me.

Jo Reed: What drew you to it?

Stephen Jost: I love art. I love works of art. But I tend to have a pretty social personality. If I'm not going out 28 days a month I'm feeling like I'm, you know, socially starved. So it's kind of a great combination of being very social, really being about art, and then, also I, you know, really believe in civic institutions. I believe that universities or Girl Scout troops, or museums, or whatever the organization is, really strengthens the kind of community fabric. And, basically, in my opinion, that's the difference between a wonderful healthy culture and one that is kind of pretty miserable and awful. So I kind of feel like I've dedicated my life to institution building, particularly, for the public benefit.

Jo Reed: Explain to listeners who might not really know what it is that a museum director does.

Stephen Jost: Sure. Well, museums have multiple kind of missions. And well, they're all important, but one mission is simply to protect and preserve the cultural patrimony of humanity. So, you know, somebody's got to take care of the Monet. Somebody has to take care of that incredibly rare piece of fabric from, you know, 300 years ago. So there's this kind of stewarding a collection. And that's an incredibly important part of what we do. Because if we don't, this material won't exist. It all falls apart really quickly. So there's a whole kind of conservation and stewardship of material culture, of art. The other part is a real education side of it, which is that our goal, through exhibitions and education program, is to educate the public about culture. The Honolulu Museum of Art was founded in 1927, which is relatively early for Hawaii, in terms of institutions being founded. And the goal of the founder, Anna Rice Cooke, was to make sure that we show great art from all the different cultures that live here. So that we can learn about different cultures through the best of those cultures and not the worst of those cultures. So there was kind of this very strong social mission. And then, I also like to think of a museum that kind of mirrors and reflects society as it changes. So, you know, there's times when you want something, something cultural that will be lost if it's not kind of protected, say, traditional cultural practices. Or a new cultural phenomena, something really hip, cutting edge, innovative, that you also want to showcase and kind of bring up. An example of that is, in Honolulu, tattooing is amazing. The tattoo artists are really world-class. And so we did an exhibition calledTattoo Honolulu and it kind of focuses on something that historically isn't in an art museum. But was unbelievably popular with our public, particularly, people who had never been to the museum. So the day to day life of a museum director, there is a lot of fundraising, a lot of consensus building. We have a staff of about 150 people. Getting them to all walk in the same direction and kind of make sure we're focused on our public. So there is definitely that administrative aspect to it, as well.

Jo Reed: What was exciting to you about coming to Honolulu? Weather aside.

Stephen Jost: Yeah, we had actually never been to Hawaii. My family is Swiss. And so, kind of, the orientation of my family-- I grew up in Michigan-- is very kind of towards Europe. It is, in many ways, what America will look like in 50 years. Honolulu is simply 50 years ahead, demographically. And when you come here, you'll realize we've got a great-- something really wonderful to look forward in 50 years. The museum had some struggles and some opportunities. There were some financial issues that I found interesting. I can be a numbers nerd and kind of really like the financial challenges of it. So that was appealing to me. But another really major thing was that we merged two museums. Right when I got here, we merged the Contemporary Museum of Honolulu and the Honolulu Academy of Arts. And together, we became the Honolulu Museum of Art. And the chance to merge two art institutions was a challenge. It took a lot of people and a lot of great teamwork to make it happen. But it's also one of those rare opportunities that I knew wouldn't happen again in my career, probably. So I just kind of jumped at that.

Jo Reed: I know that one of your goals is to broaden the audience of museum-goers. How are you going about doing that?

Stephen Jost: There are a lot of different strategies. So it's not just one thing that makes it successful. So the way we look at exhibitions, for example, is that we divide them into three categories. One category are exhibitions that bring in new audiences.Tattoo Honolulu, lots of working class folks on this island, who have tattoos, I'd say over half of the people on the island have a tattoo, but haven't really thought about it in terms of kind of the art and the history and the culture around it. So the Tattoo Honolulu show brought in a lot of new people. Actually, we had a huge success with men and women from the military bases, as well, with that exhibition. A second kind of exhibition kind of reaffirms your existing audience. You know, so for us, our main membership audience loves traditional Asian art. A Japanese print show is very, very popular. And our public is very knowledgeable about that type of material here. In Vermont, less so. But here it's very strong. And then, the third type of exhibition is what I call the "nerdy exhibitions," the exhibitions where the curators go very intellectual. It goes very deep, where, you know, the labels, you know, can be a thousand words long. And that's great. So you want all three types of exhibitions to function simultaneously. Because you want to make sure that if somebody comes in and wants to have a very cerebral, very intellectual experience, that we provide it. On the other hand, you also want something that hooks the first-time visitor. We also do something called "Art After Dark," which is, basically, we turn the museum into an incredible, an art history night club, say. And we get, you know, 1,800, 2,000 people once a month for that. We have "Bank of Hawaii Free Sunday," which is another 2,000 people come in. So there's lots and lots of strategies to make it successful. And then, education, particularly at the grade school level, is key. We have almost 20,000 school kids coming into our main museum every year. We serve about 63,000 total school kids a year. So, you know, it's kind of amazing. We're serving more school kids than major museums, like L.A. County or MoMA in New York. But we have a strong commitment to serving kids. It's kind of one of the things we do. And when they have a good experience, they come back later. They do.

Jo Reed: Well, you mentioned the show about tattoos being a very strong one with the military and Honolulu, of course, has a very large military presence.

Stephen Jost: It's about 20 percent of our economy is military.

Jo Reed: So I would imagine that would be one of the communities you would think about serving when you talk about a grassroots community.

Stephen Jost: Yeah, and the military community has-- it's complicated, but it has some unique profiles. And so there's some unique strategies to how to engage that community. I think there's a couple things that we've done, for example, we've had the Blue Star program, which basically makes sure that the financial threshold for coming into the museum is zero. Basically, "Come on in. It's free for you if you're active duty or in that family." But then, you have to make sure that when they come there's something engaging for them, right? Because if they come and they're bored, you know, they're not going to come back. A couple of other things that are interesting about the military community here is that the Island of Oahu is a relatively small African-American community. But the military is about-- I don't know, about a quarter African American. So we've started things like the "African American Film Festival," which is, you know, a significant part of the audience - there are families and people who are military. So, sometimes it's not obvious. The way you get to the military community might be through an African American film program. We did an exhibition called, Courage and Strength, which was five artists who photograph men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, very powerful show. What was interesting is it was very meaningful for visitors who were from military families - very, I mean, we joked it should've been sponsored by Kleenex. It was a tough show, emotionally. But what we were surprised at is the tattoo show was the bigger draw for the military families. They wanted to see the tattoo show. And then, they bumped into the exhibition, Courage and Strength, and then both those shows together really just kind of solidified the relationship, which was good. 

I think the thing also is that the military community is very transient. You know, often people are here for two years. So if they can have a positive experience here, my hope is that if they get stationed someplace else, they will have a positive experience and think about going to the museum and particularly, if that might be abroad, if they're, you know, transferred to Japan or wherever that visiting a museum is part of their cultural. Just kind of part of one of the things the family does. So I like to think about it that we're not just doing it for us, but we're doing it for changing kind of behaviors within a family for the long-term.

Jo Reed: Are you able to gage what the response of the military in your area has been to the whole Blue Star Museum Initiative? Have you seen a rise in people from the military coming in? Or is it more dependent on what it is you're showing?

Stephen Jost: It's both. And then, the question is so yeah, so we've seen more people. But they're also staying and they're more engaged. And you start to see that where, say, suddenly spouses of people in the military call up to volunteer. We've had unbelievably good employees who have been stationed spouses who've been stationed here for two years. And they bring an incredible skillset. Often, they're way over qualified for the job that they're doing. But they want to work and get to know the local community. And for us that's great. Even if they can only make a two-year commitment, it's been really successful. And they're thrilled to be working and they're thrilled to be engaged. And if a spouse is working at the museum, it just makes the family life a lot healthier and a lot more dynamic. And so it's a win-win. It really is.

Jo Reed: Have you seen the kids involved in the arts ed programs that you have?

Stephen Jost: Yeah. So we do a whole bunch of different ones. We've got, first of all, this "Bank of Hawaii Family Sundays," a free day where the kids come. And it's art making and kind of the kids take over the museum. You know, it's just packed. And that's great. But it's also a way that the military kids can start to integrate with the other local kids, right? And if it's every month and it's free, it becomes a habit. We also see the kids in our art school. Less than we would like, but we see some of that. Because often, the commitment is maybe a semester and that can be a little too long. Because if it takes a year to figure out there's an art school and then, you enroll the kid a semester and then the family moves. It's the transient thing. We also do something called "Art to Go," which is where we basically send art teachers to schools. Particularly, middle schools, elementary schools....middle schools. And what those are about is the art teacher goes ten times to that school. So we also send kids on schools that are on public schools on military bases. And so that our art teachers go there. And it's not just a one shot deal. It's ten classes in a row. And those kids are often selected by the school. So they either tend to be really highly performing kids or they're kids who are kind of trying to find a niche and are struggling. And then, having an extra art class after school, you know, builds community and builds confidence. The program I think that we're most proud of actually is something that we do, which is called "Warriors in Transition." And we partner with Tripler, which is the major Army hospital here. And we invite 200 men and women who are in treatment for P.T.S.D. and they come to the museum before hours. And then, we do kind of a program where there's professional staff from the hospital, plus our staff. And a lot of it is about using art to help process experiences that have been difficult, if not brutal. And it's kind of a safe space. We tend to do it before museum hours open. And then, we also-- so that's kind of a "see art" component, we call it. So if you're looking at art, we call it "see art." And then, they often go across the street and have a "make art" component. Where there is a hands-on, you know, making clay or painting or something. And so for somebody who's in treatment for P.T.S.D. the chance to kind of engage and have a conversation about a work of art with people who've had a similar experience and medical staff. And then, kind of go and make art. It's a good one, too. Because somebody might be quite articulate in a work of art, but not be so great at expressing themselves through making a material object. Or vice versa, somebody can be totally silent during the looking at art part. But actually be, you know, really great at painting or really find ceramics peaceful. Actually, they often find it very relaxing and a way they can focus. So it's a great program. And I think a couple of other museums are starting to do it. But we're at over 200 people coming through a year on that.

Jo Reed: That's really interesting. And you can see how art can even enable conversations that need to be had. But there's a way in which art becomes the conduit, through which a conversation can happen.

Stephen Jost:  Yeah, and it's interesting. For example, the exhibition, Courage and Strength, so five photographers who are photographing men and women. And Jay Jensen was the curator, did an incredibly good job. And we also kind of met with some military people during the process of the development of the show. Just because, you know, I don't have a military background at all. Jay does not either. And we actually met with a retired General, a four-star General...it was interesting, where his primary concern was that whatever the artist shows or creates that it has to read true for enlisted people. And what we found is the artist did that. Where people who were in the "Warrior in Transition" program, when they saw this exhibition, Courage and Strength, they really zoomed in on "yeah, these are images that are real. These are experiences that-- this looks right." Because you can also get images produced from the war that are, what I like to call, "Life Magazine" images. They're really beautiful. They're compelling. They're emotional. But they might not actually really reflect the daily experience of somebody who's enlisted. And so we really kind of went to artists who focused on that. Many of the artists had been embedded. And, you know, one artist, Tim Hetherington, was actually in the Middle East and then, started to report in Libya, and actually died in Libya. So just there that one of the five artists actually was killed in Libya, kind of made it more real, I think, for the visitor. And also, you know, the artists were sacrificing, as well. It wasn't just an observer kind of position, but also to create great art in a war zone is incredibly risky. And that was pretty-- it was pretty touching. But there were lots of back and forth conversations.

Jo Reed: And I would also imagine that art can be very valuable to family members who are also in transition when their father, their mother comes home. And suddenly, they have to deal with a person whom they love very much, but they haven't seen in quite some time. But who's also been through not just a difficult time, but a time that it's almost impossible for the people at home to comprehend.

Stephen Jost: Yeah, and sometimes, it's as simple as, say, if there's a family and they've been coming every month to "Bank of Hawaii Family Sunday," great. And Mom or Dad comes home and then, Mom or Dad joins that and they make together some art project. Just spending quality focus time together working on an art project in a public setting where there's other people, and the feeling of the whole thing is great. You know, that's worth a lot. That's kind of quality, quality experience. And then, you multiply that two, you know, a thousand kids and a thousand adults. You're starting to impact society at that point. The other thing is we sometimes see that the museum becomes a date place for couples. You know, without the kids. Sometimes, you know, you just want a quiet place to look at a beautiful Monet or a Van Gogh or a great figure of a Buddhist sculpture or something like that. There has been quite a bit interest by the military people in our Islamic collections. And we partner with Doris Duke Foundation, which owns some place called Shangri La, which is this incredible Islamic kind of style estate on five acres in Blackpoint, a really just gorgeous area of our island, beautiful gardens, et cetera. All Islamic art and architecture in it, but it's a fabulous house, actually. And I think a lot of times, people are coming back and then trying to make sense of the culture they were just in.  "Okay, What did all this mean? What is the culture?" We just, at Doris Duke, at the Shangri La, they just opened a Damascus room. Well, you know, all heck is breaking loose in Damascus. And you can learn about the history and the culture if you go on that tour. So there is interest there.

Jo Reed: And, again, the families, if you have a father or a mother who is Iraq or Afghanistan, I'm sure there's an appeal to see Islamic art, as well. To see what they're immersed in over there.

Stephen Jost: And I think when you learn about Islamic art, it's kind of the great antidote to simple thinking. I think there is, at times-- and this, you know, happens during times of crisis or times of war. This idea that, "Well, you know, they're all terrorists." And kind of the conversation stops there. And when you learn about Islamic culture and art, you realize that it is very, very, very complicated. And what's happening in Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic country, versus what's happening in Morocco, which is a very, very moderate Islamic country, are interesting. And you can kind of understand that it's difficult to make generalizations. And that each culture engages in a religion and makes it their own, in some ways, which is exactly what happens with Christianity. You know, Christianity in Northern Europe,  in Scandinavia, looks pretty different than Christianity in South Africa or Christianity in Sao Paulo. And that's a good thing. Just to help nuance people's sensibility. To understand that things are complicated and these wars are very complicated.

Jo Reed: And you're gearing up for another summer of Blue Star Museums?

Stephen Jost: Two exhibitions will go up this summer. One is kind of on the art of the Samurai, which is,  basically, a warrior class in Japan, and unbelievable beautiful works. But, you know, there are Samurai swords and things like that. I think boys will be dragging their dads to the museum and they'll be dragging their moms to the museum. And then, the other exhibition is Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams in Hawaii. So both Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams, separately, came to Hawaii and created really amazing work. I think we'll have about ten of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings. She only did about 20 here, so about ten of them will be on view. And then, about 40 photographs by Ansel Adams. So I think that'll be just broadly popular because people know Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams. So I suspect it'll be a good summer.

Jo Reed: And what's next?

Stephen Jost: You know, we have other exhibitions coming up, Artists of Hawaii is coming up. We've got some Chinese painting shows coming up, et cetera. But really it's about making sure that we communicate what we do and making sure people are having an extraordinary time. Whether that's just having a nice salad at the café, or whether that's really learning about something in-depth, it's just a full range. One of the things we're focusing on is what we're calling the quality of the visitor experience. That when you walk in the door you're met with a sense of aloha and that there are friendly people everywhere. And that it's a place that's cool to learn, to enjoy and learn about art and culture. So we have a lot we can do better. But I think we're on the right track.

Jo Reed: That was Stephan Jost, director of the Honolulu Museum of Art.

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To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.  For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Stephan Jost discusses how the Honolulu Museum of Art works to serve its military community. [25:56]