The Honolulu Academy of Arts was chartered in 1922 and opened to the public on April 8, 1927. It was the vision of Anna Rice Cooke, a woman born into a prominent missionary family on O‘ahu in 1853. Growing up in a home that appreciated the arts, she went on to marry Charles Montague Cooke, also of a prominent missionary family, and the two settled in Honolulu. In 1882, they built a home on Beretania Street, on the site that would become home to the museum.
As Charles Cooke prospered, he and his wife began to assemble an art collection, starting with “parlor pieces” from the shop of furniture maker Yuen Kwock Fong Inn who had ceramics and textile pieces sent from his brother in China. Fong Inn eventually became one of Honolulu’s leading art importers.
When the Cookes’ art collection outgrew their home and the Cooke Art Gallery at Punahou School, Anna Rice Cooke decided to create Hawai‘i’s first visual arts museum, which would reflect the islands’ multicultural make-up, for the children of Hawai‘i. In 1920, she and her daughter Alice (Mrs. Phillip Spalding), her daughter-in-law Dagmar (Mrs. Richard Cooke), and Catharine Cox, an art and drama teacher, began to catalogue and research the collection as a first step.
With little formal training, these women obtained a charter for the museum from the Territory of Hawai‘i in 1922. The Cookes donated their Beretania Street land for the museum, along with an endowment of $25,000, and the family home was torn down to make way for the new institution. They hired New York architect Bertram Goodhue to design the plans. Goodhue died before the project was completed, and his colleague Hardie Phillip finished the job. Over the years, the museum’s architectural style, which incorporates Hawaiian, Chinese, and Spanish influences, has been imitated in many buildings throughout the state.
“That our children of many nationalities and races, born far from the centers of art, may receive an intimation of their own cultural legacy and wake to the ideals embodied in the arts of their neighbors….that Hawaiians, Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Northern Europeans, South Europeans, and all other people living here, contacting through the channel of art those deep intuitions common to all, may perceive a foundation on which a new culture, enriched by all the old strains may be built in these islands.”
—Anna Rice Cooke’s dedication statement, which she read at the opening of the Honolulu Academy of Arts on April 8, 1927
Since it opened, the museum has grown steadily, both in acquisitions and in stature, becoming one of the finest museums in the United States. Additions to the original building include an expansion to the library (1956), education wings (1931, 1961), a gift shop (1965), a cafe (1969), a contemporary gallery, administrative offices and 292-seat theater (1977), an art center for studio classes and expanded educational programming (1990), and a new wing housing the shop and café, as well as dedicated gallery space for historic and contemporary art of Hawai‘i (2001).
The museum’s permanent collection has grown from approximately 875 works to more than 50,000 pieces spanning 5,000 years, with significant holdings in Asian art, American and European painting and decorative arts, 19th- and 20th-century art, an extensive collection of works on paper, Asian textiles, and traditional works from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.
The museum continues to reflect Mrs. Cooke’s vision by being dedicated to the collection, preservation, interpretation, and teaching of the visual arts, and the presentation of exhibitions, performances, films, and public programs that serve Hawai‘i’s diverse communities.
In 1961, Thurston Twigg-Smith opened the Honolulu Advertiser Gallery in the Advertiser building, which he owned. The gallery, which became the Contemporary Art Center in 1977, featured work from Twigg-Smith’s collection and work by local artists. The Twigg-Smith family subsequently donated Spalding House, which was originally built by Honolulu Academy of Arts founder Anna Rice Cooke, to create The Contemporary Museum, a private, nonprofit museum for contemporary art in Honolulu. TCM opened to the public in October 1988.
In 2011, The Contemporary Museum gifted its assets and collection to the Honolulu Academy of Arts and in 2012, the combined museum changed its name to the Honolulu Museum of Art or HoMA. As a key step in strengthening HoMA’s ability to achieve its long-term mission of expanding the study, preservation and creation of art in Hawai‘i through its main campus on South Beretania Street, the organization’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously in 2019 to put the Spalding House property in Makiki Heights for sale.