Art at the Capitol: legislators get artsy

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Above: "Lava Cliffs," by Reuben Tam

Fifty years ago, construction began on the Hawaii Capitol that would transform the 24-acre historic site into the iconic five-story building that stands there today. With its open atrium, high ceilings and ring of columns erupting from a reflecting pool, the building is symbolic of the islands and stands as a work of art in its own right.

That's why, on the 50th anniversary of the start of its construction, the Capitol building itself will be a major part of the focus for this year's State Legislature Annual "Art at the Capitol" exhibit. The exhibit is being presented in conjunction with the Hawaii State Art Museum's First Friday festivities on Friday, March 6, from 4:30 to 7 p.m. A program on the third floor in Conference Room 329 will kick off the event.

More than 500 works of art by local artists, placed in the offices of legislators and executive offices, will be open to the public for viewing during the event. Fifty-seven offices in both the House and the Senate, including the Public Access Room and the Office of the Governor, are participating.

Hawaii State Archives

"The people are invited into their Capitol to visit the offices, chat with legislators, and learn a little more about the personality of the occupant through the art they chose to display" says Senator Brian Taniguchi (Manoa, Makiki, Punchbowl, Papakolea), who has led efforts for the Art at the Capitol event. "People can wander the halls listening to live chamber music and later stroll over to downtown Honolulu and celebrate First Friday activities."

"It's important to let your mind wander to places not usually visited during one's busy day," says Rep. Isaac Choy (Manoa, Punahou, University, Moiliili) who coordinates efforts from the House for Art at the Capitol. "Art is a great distraction to get away and just imagine."

However, it's the Capitol itself that will be the featured "work of art." Along with viewing the art collection, visitors may watch a short documentary featuring interviews with Governor George Ariyoshi, retired Judge James Burns (son of Governor John Burns), Uncle Joe Tassill (Capitol tour guide), and architect Frank Haines. The film will provide insight into the history of the Capitol building.

Commissioned in 1959, construction on the Capitol did not actually start until November 1965 and was completed four years later on March 15, 1969. The original estimated cost was $24 million, but was reduced to $14.5 million after public outcry at the original price tag.

Hawaii State Archives

The Hawaii Capitol was designed to reflect the historic and cultural significance and natural beauty of the islands. The number eight was incorporated into the building as a metaphor for the eight major islands of the Hawaiian archipelago. There are eight columns at the front and back of the building, groups of eight columns on the balcony surrounding the fourth floor, and eight panels on the doors leading to the Governor's and Lieutenant Governor's office.

The Capitol is surrounded by water symbolic of the Pacific Ocean, with columns, representing palm trees, rising from the reflecting pool. The curved, sloping walls of the House and Senate chambers were inspired by the volcanoes that gave birth to the islands.

But it's the building's open air design with its expansive entryways and open courtyard that has proven to be more than symbolic. The building itself is a dynamic piece of art and architecture, where function and design work hand in hand to encourage gatherings, dialogue and interaction—a perfect setting for Hawaii's seat of government on an island known as "the gathering place."

Hawaii State Archives

Guests will also enjoy entertainment featuring live music from the Hawaii Youth Symphony Quartet, and have the chance to mingle with both lawmakers and artists.

For a preview of some of the art in the offices, a video series called "What's on your wall?," can be found on the Art at the Capitol YouTube and Facebook accounts.

Art at the Capitol began seven years ago as Senator Brian Taniguchi's initiative to allow the public to view art acquired by the "Art in Public Places" program, which obtains and displays artwork in the Capitol offices.

With more than 900 pieces of artwork in the Capitol, the idea was conceived following a conversation with a Hawaii State Art Museum docent about having legislators open their doors to the public to view the art collection—the people's art. During its inaugural year, the Senate opened its doors after hours for the Art at the Capitol event.

With an overwhelming amount of positive response to the event, the House of Representatives joined Art at the Capitol the following year. In 2012, the Governor's and Lieutenant Governor's Offices participated in the event, making it the first time that all five floors of the building were open for Art at the Capitol.

Works of art are placed in public areas of the Capitol as part of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts' "Art in Public Places" program, which seeks to enhance the environmental quality of state public buildings and spaces for the enjoyment and enrichment of the public; cultivate the public's awareness, understanding and appreciation of visual arts; contribute toward the development and recognition of a professional artistic community; and acquire, preserve, and display works of art expressive of the character of the Hawaiian Islands, the multicultural heritage of its people, and the various creative interests of its artists. The program was established in 1967 and was the first of its kind in the nation.

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