Letters for Thursday, October 20, 2011

• Art Night’s a-changing

Art Night’s a-changing

Art galleries in Hanapepe are in the process of reclaiming Art Night for its original intentions: arts and culture.

Background perspectives: In 1994, several local old-timers told me Hanapepe was a dying town that would never recover. There were over 10 vacant or derelict buildings. The street was littered with trash. If tourists came to town they quickly left or avoided Hanapepe entirely.

Hanapepe had received many historical setbacks: Firstly, the main port of Kaua‘i was moved from Port Allen to Nawiliwili closing many businesses. Secondly, Hanapepe Road became a side road when Kaumuali‘i Hwy. bypassed the town. That dried up more businesses. Thirdly, the ‘Ele‘ele Shopping Center was built, making Hanapepe irrelevant. Fourthly, Hurricane Iniki destroyed much of the town just two years before I got there.

I looked at the derelict buildings and the remaining dying shops where drunks wandered. There were several art galleries barely hanging on. The galleries and the historic nature of the town were the only things going for it.

It was daunting to start a business here, and it took either a touch of insanity, or a lot of courage. I started my gallery, in 1997, just to try for a few months.

Soon it became apparent that the town needed a draw to bring in visitors. We saw only 1/15 of visitors on island (now maybe 1/8). Hanapepe was more presentable after dark. So I started brainstorming the idea of Art Night once weekly. Other galleries became interested and we brainstormed. With Art Night, Hanapepe became “ The Art Capital of Kauai.” We still are.

The Mission of Art Night: art, culture, quality, fine art galleries run by the artists themselves, authenticity, a focus on Kaua‘i, art openings, local events like hula and slack key, acoustic live music and a refinement of presentation. We built up this focus over many years… now 14 years.

The Hanapepe Economic Alliance, founded two years earlier, had a mission to restore the town, based on the Spencer-Mason Plan (cost $175,000).

I was elected president of HEA for its most formative six years. Galleries invested thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars into planting ornamentals, shade trees, building up the town, advertising it weekly on TV, magazines and hotels.

Art Night’s success was hard won, inch-by-inch. Those three hours, with as many visitors as the rest of the week, are the most successful and concentrated times for focused sales.

Several galleries depend on them just to survive. If the focus of Art Night is diverted out into the streets, some galleries could fold.

The economy is doubly bad for Hanapepe galleries: a national economic downturn combined with visitor dollars being siphoned off by street merchants before entering a gallery. Vendors are (let’s face it) taking advantage of years of dedication, investments and perseverance of the galleries.

Street vendors unfortunately downgrade the quality of Art Night and the new attractiveness of Hanapepe. New visitors are often duped into thinking that the street vendors are what Art Night is all about, and spend their budget on street ware. New businesses, who also benefit from Hanapepe’s rebirth, inappropriately encourage vendors.

Before Art Night starts, vendors occupy parking places designated for visitors. They have no overhead, don’t advertise or beautify the town and leave after the three most focused hours of the week. They are skimming the cream while downgrading the cultural event. Therefore they can easily underbid the galleries. One gallery was told by a visitor “the activity on the street has become so shabby, I cannot recommend Art Night to my Mainland friends anymore.” Weekly, visitors walk into fine art galleries with food and drink bought on the street, demonstrating the mismatch between galleries and vendors.

If this trend continues, galleries will not be able to support advertising Hanapepe or cleaning up the town and it will slide back into oblivion. Some gallery owners must now take separate jobs and stay open less than 15 hours a week.

For the sake of the town we must take back Art Night. It must remain a culture and art-related program of the highest quality. The established businesses are de facto sponsoring the vendors (whether they like it or not). Now we insist on change.

Any group that puts time, effort and money into a cultural event should have the jurisdiction over the invitation of vendors. My vote: no vendors at all to misrepresent Art Night for a one year moratorium. We want and deserve a clean cultural event.

I propose a county-wide ordinance, for all cultural events, that allows event sponsors to decide whether or not to invite vendors.

I believe that as the vendors understand the history of Art Night, they will take the initiative to find a different and more appropriate venue, time and location to conduct their businesses.

Then, for the first time, they will be able to earn their own rewards from their own initiatives, not from other people’s investments and dauntless perseverance.

To be fair, most vendors and newer businesses probably did not know the history, investments, time and effort that brought Hanapepe back to life.

Arius Hopman, Hanapepe


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