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Insights & Stories

Leading Women: Halona Norton-Westbrook and the Future of Art

Reading time: 8 Minutes

October 8th, 2020

When Halona Norton-Westbrook became the new director of the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA) in January 2020, she had two major goals on her mind: First, preserve what was working at the museum and what people love—the history, the culture, the exhibits—and second, find ways to improve operations and move the museum forward.

Since then, she's added a third goal: Figure out how to reimagine the museum experience entirely in the wake of a global pandemic.

Halona had only just settled into her director's chair when COVID-19 hit, leading to extended closures of nonessential businesses in Hawaii—including HoMA from mid-March to mid-July and then again from late August to late-September.

A challenge, to be sure, but Halona was energized. “It's important that the museum can be an oasis for the community where people feel welcome, especially during different times.”

“From the very beginning, the Honolulu Museum of Art had three components that always defined the organization,” she says. "One was having an art collection of incredible quality, another was education and the third was accessibility and connecting with the community.”

With all this to offer, the museum could be a resource—but how to pull it off?

Changing Times

When the stay-at-home orders came, there were many uncertainties. What happens to all the current and upcoming exhibitions? How can HoMA reach visitors if people aren't even allowed inside the building? What will museums look like in a post-COVID world?

Months later, Halona and her team have begun answering those questions with a new initiative called #MuseumfromHome.

“Since I arrived, [HoMA Director of Learning and Engagement] Aaron Padilla and I have been talking about finding ways to unlock the stories behind the collection. With COVID, we've had to think differently about our resources. We have a very strong collection of artwork and a thoughtful staff who have been able to help capture stories and amp up our digital content for new ways people can interact with the museum,” she says.

It's now possible to view and interact with HoMA's collection from the comfort and safety of home, with virtual exhibitions of art, video spotlight interviews with Hawaii artists, creative prompts for creating your own art, mini-podcasts with story-telling from museum staff members, and educational materials for teaching children about art.

These #MuseumfromHome capabilities offer a way for HoMA to reach a broader audience than ever before and, as the museum reopens to the public, will even be able to enhance the in-person gallery experience.

Guests visiting the Honolulu Museum can now scan QR codes located throughout the galleries with their smartphones, which will bring up web pages with additional info about various exhibit items. This content includes informative articles on specific art pieces, audio interviews with curators and artists, and video demonstrations of art being made.

HoMA began the #MuseumfromHome initiative with content from 10 of its galleries; the goal is to eventually have multimedia digital content available from all 29 galleries, and to provide similar programming for the museum's live events, such as its monthly outdoor music and art party, Art After Dark, as well as Family Sunday.

“The Honolulu Museum of Art opened in 1927 and the goals are still to provide learning opportunities and share amazing art objects with the community,” says Halona. “But now, almost a century later and especially amid the coronavirus, the challenge becomes: How to sustain that vibrancy so it still resonates today?”

The Road to Hawaii

It's a simple question with not-so-simple answers. Luckily, Halona has the chops necessary to find solutions. She's a graduate of Mills College in California (majoring in both American history and studio art) and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where she received a master's degree in art history. Halona went on to earn a Ph.D. in art history and museology (the study of museum leadership) from the University of Manchester; and she also graduated from Claremont's Getty Leadership Institute, a museum management program for future museum leaders.

Her professional career began with the Toledo Museum of Art in 2013. Initially, she was a fellow in the museum's Andrew W. Mellon Leadership program, designed to train up-and-coming museum professionals, before becoming the director of collections and associate curator of modern and contemporary art. By the time she left the Toledo Museum at the end of 2019 for HoMA, she had risen to the role of director of curatorial affairs and curator of modern and contemporary art.

“For me, everything is a team effort. What I'm most proud of [at the Toledo Museum] are the things my colleagues and I were able to accomplish—like a massive capital campaign where we raised $40 million to help the institution's endowment,” Halona says. “We also reinvented and reinvigorated how we approached exhibitions and displays, to be more welcoming and inclusive but with the same level of intellectual depth and integrity.”

At 38, Halona is one of the youngest directors in the history of HoMA. She is also only the third female director (out of 11 directors total) in the organization's 92-year history.

“If I could offer any advice to future female leaders, one thing I learned in my career is that you don't always need to be worried about being nice,” she says. “Sometimes, I think it can be difficult for women because we're raised to be nice all the time. What's important is to be fair.”

Looking Ahead

After becoming director of HoMA, one of Halona's first steps was, ironically, to take a step back, and listen to others. “There's often an inclination to bring on directors with a strong vision for what to do as soon as they're hired. That can be good, but there's also value in listening first, then building a plan that uniquely works for this place instead of just doing what people presume in the abstract,” she says.

It's an instinct that's turned out to be perfect for one of the most unexpected, uncertain years in the museum's history.

“One of the silver linings of the situation we find ourselves in with COVID is that it gives us all a little more time to think, and it has actually helped bring a lot of things into focus, in terms of what we should be refining or improving,” says Halona.

“Our biggest priority right now is safety. Looking ahead, there'll also be a period of having fewer outside traveling exhibitions just as a matter of practicality. But that means we'll have more time for exhibitions of works from our permanent collection and to share more of those stories, especially through digital platforms now as well.”

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