PAU | THE PAIA GALLERY HERE TO SHAKE UP MAUIʻS HOMOGENOUS ART SCENE Chelsea Kinch is not here to sell turtle paintings to tourists.
The 31-year-old from Rhode Island, who has had roots on Maui since 2015, opened her gallery, Pacific Artists Union, PAU, in Paia in February 2021, on the heels of Hawaii’s worst year for tourism since 1975.
Kinch said she was “craving a sense of community and a safe space where people who live here, who are talented, could have a place to come together that wasn’t about turtles and palm trees and sunsets, that was about more contemporary-focused art.” By the looks of PAU’s hit Friday night openings, teeming with locals, Kinch has created just that.
PAU’s now bi-monthly openings have showcased 25 Maui artists since February, many of them little-known on the island, where the majority of exhibitions are curated and priced with tourists in mind. As the Covid-19 pandemic reached Maui, bringing the tourism industry to its knees, retail spaces across Maui were suddenly vacant—and suddenly affordable. Kinch decided to do a popup at recently vacated 105 Baldwin Ave, “and it really snowballed from there,” she said.
As they walked in the door of the February 19th opening show featuring local photographer Evan Fischer, attendees repeatedly thanked Kinch for opening PAU. “Everybody who walked through the door said ‘thank you,’” Kinch recalled. “When does that happen? When do you open up an establishment to do business and people come in and thank you relentlessly for what you’re doing? It was clear we needed this.”
People offered to help from marketing, social media, website building, and photoshoots, to construction and new lights. For Kinch, the overwhelmingly positive response to the opening affirmed her belief that a gallery like PAU would find all the support it needed in the local community. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is like, way bigger than me,’” she said.
Kano Watanabe, 21, who moved to Maui from Japan when she was eight, had her debut art show at PAU in March, showcasing acrylic paintings on wood that she called “the purest expression of my soul”.
Watanabe said that she had never anticipated being asked to show her art in a gallery, let alone on Maui. “I thought maybe I could bring my art to a farmers market, but I definitely didn’t think I’d be invited to do a show and that so many people would reach out to me about my art after the show — or that I would sell my first piece.”
Since her opening Watanabe has been invited to do virtual shows with other artists, but she said she isn’t holding her breath for a show at any other galleries on Maui. “I don’t know anywhere else on Maui that’s like us,” she remarked. “And I think that is what is so exciting—that we are not painting for tourists, this is art that we’ve made for ourselves or for our friends through pure, unique self-expression.”
As Kinch delved into Maui’s art climate, she became increasingly frustrated with the lack of options for up-and-coming artists like Watanabe and contemporary artists like sculptor Josh Dahl, one of the first artists to show at PAU.
“I was discouraged by Art Maui and the juried exhibitions where the same people were getting in every year and a lot of young, newer artists were being turned away, and I thought, ‘fuck it, I’ll go rogue,’” she recalled.
Kinch went rogue in more ways than one—planning and opening an art gallery on a tourism-reliant island in the midst of a pandemic while unemployment was running out.
Maui experienced some of the highest unemployment rates in the country during the first year of the pandemic, with unemployment nearing 33% in April 2020, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. It has rebounded to 10%, but hotels are having a hard time hiring back sufficient staff as the island’s visitor arrival numbers snap back, according to Hana Maui Resort general manager John Benson.
Perhaps there are simply gaps in the hiring process, but Kinch said she has seen people in her own circle change their career trajectory while on unemployment—fine tuning their craft, from jewelry to knitwear, and turning it into a business while unemployment paid the bills. “It gave them the funds or the space and time to direct their energy elsewhere and realize that maybe they didn’t need to rely on this job that wasn’t fulfilling them,” she said.
Watanabe and Kinch said that the early days of the pandemic only deepened their connection to their art, and to their community, while underscoring the unsustainability of Maui’s reliance on tourism.
“And then I watched everyone plant a garden, which was so cool, and I thought, ‘the government has to now be forward-thinking about how we can move towards other industries or how we can better support people who live here. I felt the community mindset more than I ever had, and was really thinking about how we can take care of one another, and how I can support people who live here.”