Kauai manufacturing comes from creative places

Recently one morning at the UPS store in Lihue, by 10 a.m., a Kauai art gallery had already dropped off six paintings for shipping when a gallery owner from Poipu walked in carrying a large vase to send to a customer on the Mainland.

This is just the slightest hint of an aspect of Kauai — more important, the island’s manufacturing and export economy — that is scarcely recognized. It’s hidden within the overall total of visitor spending, the big number that the Hawaii Tourism Authority watches as carefully as stockbrokers scan quarterly earnings reports.

It is popular to observe that Kauai produces very little in terms of non-agricultural products. Kauai Coffee, of course, is hugely successful. But it’s far more agriculture than manufacturing. Koloa Rum gets a little closer to the mark, but it’s still predominantly an agricultural product.

I will readily concede that I have a dog in this fight. I’m a furniture maker. It’s my third career lifetime. I make one-off tables, desks, shelves, jewelry boxes, cutting boards and other products. All include sustainably-harvested native Kauai woods and materials I salvage from forklift pallets and shipping crates.

The pallet and crate part is relevant because a great deal in terms of goods is shipped to Kauai, but very little in terms of goods is shipped out. You don’t need to look much further than the tall piles of pallets that are fixtures of business parking lots and loading docks. They are marooned on Kauai.

Arts and crafts — and by that I mean everything from jewelry making, to painting, to sculpture, to photography and, yes, to furniture — are clearly a large, but unrecognized, part of the Kauai economic engine. But it’s very difficult to get a handle on this in terms of numbers, because artists on the island work generally alone or in couple relationships, in small studios with no signage and sell their work at galleries (of which there are dozens on island), at farmers markets and at events like the art nights that are held at a growing number of locations, including Kilauea, Hanapepe, Princeville and Kapaa.

There are no official statistics on sales and no way to estimate the total economic role the arts play here, but here are a couple of hints I found along a frustrating dead-end research route to pin down the Kauai arts economy more precisely:

w Art shipments account for an estimated 20 percent of the business of the Lihue UPS store, by the estimate of its owner.

w The same informed guess estimate is that the shipping revenues for Kauai-made art dispatched by companies as diverse as UPS, FedEx, Aloha Air Cargo and Kauai Freight may be in the vicinity of $750,000 per year.

w The 40 artists who set up their tables at the most recent Kilauea Art Night were handed survey forms to help quantify the economics of the event. Astonishingly, the numbers showed artists took in $350 to $400 per event. That number may be slightly skewed because it includes food trucks that participate.

w Total revenues for each art night may run between $15,000 and $16,000. An average of 600 to 1,000 people turn out for each one — normally slightly skewed toward residents, with visitors accounting for about 40 percent of people attending. Though, again, hard numbers are impossible to get, it’s clear that Kilauea Art Night’s business volume pales in comparison to the more established Hanapepe Art Night and the more tourist-focused Kapaa Art Walk.

The Kauai Society of Artists includes 100 to 120 members, of whom an estimated 25 percent are accurately called professionals. Bear in mind that the artist community clearly includes hundreds of people. It might even be thousands.

What they produce — “manufacture” is clearly an accurate term — puts food on the table for people who work at package delivery companies, Home Depot, Ace Hardware and other places on island from which artist supplies can be purchased.

The Kauai County Office of Economic Development sponsors a program called Kauai Made — www.kauaimade.net — that includes several dozen people and companies that produce merchandise locally. The program, however, is little known among artists, who tend to avoid organizations whenever possible.

Because of our small size, the community of Kauai artists does not enjoy the advantages of organized craft guilds that benefit, among others, visual artists on Maui and woodworkers on Hawaii Island.

This issue came up in 2013, when the Office of Economic Development funded a report titled “Kauai Culture and Arts Facility Visioning and Collaboration Building.” The report focused on whether there is a need (there is) for a central brick-and-mortar arts facility, but its most intriguing paragraph was under the subhead: “Lack of ‘Community.’”

“There are few opportunities for (arts) groups to work collaboratively,” the report concluded.

As one participant (in the survey that led to the report) said, “We don’t have a culture and arts community on Kauai. To have this, we have to work toward a cohesive ‘we.’”

And there you have it. Artists produce physical products every bit as much as General Motors makes cars. They buy materials and, in many cases, machinery to manufacture this art. Those goods are sold — to both visitors and locals — and when they go off island, they get shipped and the money spent to purchase them stays here.

There is lots more government and organizations like the Kauai Chamber of Commerce (disclosure: I’m a member) could do to help transition people’s concept of the arts on Kauai from a detached, ethereal bunch of people working behind closed doors to a vibrant and critical part of the Kauai economy.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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