HoMA is Where the Art is
The love of art is alive and well with Halona Norton-Westbrook, the 11th director of Honolulu Museum of Art since its inception nearly 100 years ago.
To say that Halona Norton-Westbrook’s first 11 months on the job were unconventional would be an understatement.
Shortly after taking over as director and CEO of Honolulu Museum of Art in January, Norton-Westbrook could only watch the unusual happen as the city’s beloved museum — along with scores of institutions and businesses around the state — shut its doors to the public.
To her credit, though, she refused to sit around and wait for reopening. Instead, she — along with HoMA’s staff and board of directors — got busy by using the downtime to hone the organization’s mission, including laying the groundwork for how it could evolve over the long term.
“We thought about how best to meet the needs of our community, and also thinking about how we do everything we can to make this the safest experience for them,” shares Norton-Westbrook, who previously was with The Toledo Museum of Art as director of collections, and associate curator of modern and contemporary art. “This is a renewed opportunity to focus on that because we are passionate about what we do and want to share our love of art with the community.”
It’s why the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders hit especially hard, and yet the forward-thinking museum put on temporary virtual tours and exhibits to keep art alive and available for locals. In fact, some online displays can still be found at honolulumuseum.org/ collections.
“We’re a museum that’s almost 100 years old,” says Norton-Westbrook, the museum’s 11th director since it opened to the public on April 8, 1927. “We need to be a reflection of the time we live in.”
This ability to adapt and change is something Norton-Westbrook is particularly proud of and one of the reasons why she has fallen in love with the institution and Hawai‘i.
Norton-Westbrook’s ties to the islands go back decades, as her grandparents and parents made their home in Mānoa in the 1970s.
“My parents really have a love of Hawai‘i that I grew up with,” Norton-Westbrook remembers.
So, when the chance to take a position with HoMA came about, she jumped at the opportunity to apply.
“I have felt so welcomed and embraced by everyone,” she says. “It’s just an absolutely great experience to go through, even with COVID, and I’m so thankful for that.”
Honolulu Museum of Art reopened last month, and Norton-Westbrook is excited to welcome everyone to experience the best it has to offer, including several ongoing and new exhibits (see story at right).
The institution is adhering to all safety guidelines, while still making the overall experience one the whole family will savor, from grabbing a bite to eat in the café, snacking in the courtyard, and soaking up the atmosphere in the indoor and outdoor spaces.
“There’s a balance in making it safe and enjoyable, an experience that people know and love,” she adds.
One thing Norton-Westbrook is particularly excited about is unlocking the stories of the museum’s current collections.
“This is one of the premier art museums in the U.S.,” she says. “We have all these wonderful things in our collections and objects we want to tell the history of. Every artwork on display is just an absolute gem.”
This love of art and antiquity has been a big part of Norton-Westbrook’s life since she was a child, and she remembers choosing drawing and painting over any other activity, and how learning new things about places, people and events helped her understand the world better.
The two came together in a beautiful way when Norton-Westbrook started at Mills College, choosing a double major of American history and studio art as her focus of study.
“From there, that really set me on my career path,” she says.
She went on to earn a master’s in art history from Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and then her doctorate degree in museology (the study of museum leadership) and art history from University of Manchester, where she got to dive into the history and evolution of art museums and collections.
“I was so excited about this opportunity at Honolulu Museum of Art because it’s a wonderful museum,” shares Norton-Westbrook, who also graduated from Claremont’s Getty Leadership Institute’s executive program for future museum leaders. “It has an amazing collection and this really long history and connection to the community.”
It all goes back to the museum’s overall mission to make art accessible to everyone. This means creating opportunities for education and relaxation, and investing more in its art school to start kids on an early path of loving art.
“We want people from all different backgrounds and ages to feel welcome, whether they have an advanced knowledge of art or are experiencing it for the first time,” says Norton-Westbrook.
Honolulu Museum of Art is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays. Reserve tickets online at honolulumuseum.org or at the door. Pau Hana Fridays — free for kama‘āina — run through the rest of 2020 from 4 to 9 p.m. Call 532-8700 for more information.