Who is Mark Blackburn?

Making sense of the wealthy donor who pulled his support of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa art department

Tyler Greenhill

Above: Bonaparte Before the Sphinx (1886) by Jean-Léon Gérôme; also known as “Oedipus.” In the wake of Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798, the archeological treasures found there stimulated the European imagination and helped transfer the colonial narrative into the realm of art as European powers began extracting the ancient art and artifacts of pharaonic Egypt with the misguided enthusiasm of any modern day orientalist.

On November 13, 2016, more than 1,100 people marched in the Love Trumps Hate rally through Waikīkī. Marchers made signs and voiced support for many issues, including Hawaiian sovereignty, labor, as well as immigrant, LGBTQ and women’s rights. The purpose of the march was to show solidarity with minority groups whose civil rights are threatened by many of the proposed policies of President-elect Trump. Many of the marchers were young people, and the event itself was organized by a mostly student-led group, the Young Progressives Demanding Action (formerly Hawaiʻi Students for Bernie). Young people, particularly in the university setting, have repeatedly been a solid bloc of support in historic civil rights struggles and, for many, the campus is their first political organizing location. So it was only natural that students from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UHM) represented a large portion of the rally attendees.

During the lead up to the march, UHM students held a casual sign-painting event on campus to prep for the rally. These events—the march itself and the pre-rally sign painting event—triggered a wealthy donor to the Department of Art and Art History to withdraw $14,000 of funding he had given to the department and to call on UHM to discipline or remove the chair of the department, Professor Gaye Chan, for alleged abuse of power and ethics violations in helping to organize the event. The news went as far as the New York Times (though the article appears to have been since removed).

The donor, Mark Blackburn, identified himself to the media as a Trump supporter, also stating: “How would it make you feel if you wrote all these checks and you went out of your way to champion these students and champion this department and this is the way you’re respected?” Blackburn described the sign-painting event as “a call to arms asking students to come to the art department to make signs for this protest.”

In response, the University notably took a firm stance in defense of the free speech of both the students and the art department. Meanwhile, local writer Lee Cataluna pointed to the disingenuous nature of Blackburn’s donation to the art department: “If [a gift] comes with expectations, then it’s a payment of services,” she writes.

This sign-painting episode is a helpful reminder of the inseparable relationship between politics and art. We are reminded that politics also happens beyond what one normally thinks of as the political arena: not only are capitol buildings, courtrooms, business offices, campaign events and protests political, but so too is art, education and culture more broadly.

Blackburn’s reaction to the event introduces an interesting discussion as to the role of patronage, and what a patron can and cannot reasonably expect in exchange for his or her money. It also reveals a certain expectation of domination (in this case, domination of the rights of others to free expression) in return for the accumulation and subsequent leveraging of wealth within the community. The more I read about this sign-making episode, the more I wanted to know, just who exactly is this Mark Blackburn?

Collecting Culture

After hearing this story in the news, and having actually attended the march in question where there was neither bearing of arms nor violence, I was left questioning Blackburn’s knee-jerk reaction to the sign-painting event. Why would someone be so quick to speak publicly against a group of students who represent and support some of Hawaiʻi’s most oppressed minority groups; people that feel threatened by the United States’ immediate political future? Why would someone be so quick to pull funding over a free-speech issue? Does Blackburn fail to realize that donating money to the art department on the condition that any political expression must be in-line with his own beliefs is, itself, a highly political act? Doesn’t he realize that all art is political?

From his few appearances in the local mainstream media, we know that Blackburn is white, male, a President-elect Trump supporter, wealthy and, apparently, interested in art (at least to the point that he would donate to the art department and open Gallery HNL in 2015 to support student art). We know he and his wife live in a Black Point home, collect Polynesian art, and he once created a book to highlight the collection. We also know that he is someone who is quick to speak and take action against against those who disagree with his political views.

After sleuthing through the web for contact information, I reached out to Blackburn via email, seeking comment on the intention of the funding he provided the university, his opinion on the political function of art, and whether or not he considered the possibility that UHM students might produce work that counters his political views. Blackburn’s response offers important insight into how he understands his role as an art collector and the role of collecting in general:

[My wife and I] have spent a lifetime honoring indigenous peoples with a very special love for the Polynesian culture. We have amassed a serious collection of objects, both secular and nonsecular, that involved a tremendous amount of resources, both financially and otherwise, to obtain these remarkable objects. If collectors like myself were not around then many of these precious objects would have been lost for all humankind due to the environment, religious conversions, etc. etc. We are just a temporary custodian [sic] of these objects that will someday all end up in a major museum where they can be cherished by everyone.

So, art collectors are apparently “temporary custodians” doing all of humanity a favor by saving precious objects from being lost or destroyed and then displaying them. I suppose collectors are not collectors at all but, rather, humanitarians. Blackburn expands on this notion of art collectors as humanitarians who graciously loan the objects and artworks they’ve amassed to museums and other institutions for public benefit:

We have loaned to major museums around the world wide [sic] over the last couple of decades and will continue to so. In facts we have some very important material on loan right now with a major U.S. museum. [. . .] let me stress that, in the end, the entire collection will go to a museum of our choice for everyone to enjoy and study.

Instantly, contradictions and tensions arise in Blackburn’s idea of the role of collectors such as himself. Somehow objects are to be, simultaneously, privately collected and publicly accessible. Art or objects that are often of spiritual, cultural and historical significance, in this instance to Polynesia, are fair game to be bought, sold, traded and kept by private collectors, just so long as they’re trotted out for public consumption every now and again. This contradiction reveals the Western idea of collecting foreign or indigenous artifacts and art to be an extension of colonialism. To Western collectors, foreign and indigenous culture can be collected, displayed in museums, possessed and spoken for.

A 2011 Hana Hou! article, “The Collector,” that profiles Blackburn and his extensive private Polynesian art collection also raises some eyebrows regarding his approach to collecting. In their Black Point home, Blackburn and his wife house one of the greatest private collections of Polynesian art in the world, a catalog enabled by his “hugely successful Oriental carpet business in Pennsylvania.”

As collectors are wont to do, Blackburn happily tells reporter Julia Steele tales of collecting, such as when, in 1986, he drove long-distance to buy a wood club gifted to Captain James Cook in Tonga. He describes the club, which he paid $21,000 for, as “the greatest object ever created in Tonga.” Instead of focusing on the skill required to make the club, its cultural and historical significance to Tonga, or the misplaced trust and extension of friendship from Polynesia to the West that the object represents, Blackburn turns the focus of the story back on himself and his own collecting experience.

In the article, Blackburn repeatedly refers to Polynesian people in the past tense, as if these people don’t exist today: “Polynesians were the greatest navigators,” “there was tremendous interaction between all of these areas,” or “they had one of the most remarkable cultures,” (my italics). 

Blackburn’s understanding of the importance or impetus for repatriation or access to items in his collection seems worthy of questioning. Steele mentions most of the Polynesian art market “was taken out of Polynesia by Western explorers, traders and missionaries.” But there is insufficient thought given to people like Blackburn and how they are, or are not, simply a 21st century version of those colonial traders. According to Blackburn himself, he somehow escapes the label of “trader” because he shares: “somebody who does not share, that’s somebody materially trading in culture.” But is not Blackburn’s collection still private? Is he not literally “materially trading in culture” when he removes art from the communities to which it belongs to be catalogued in his home or in museum collections around the country?

While Blackburn’s passion for Polynesian culture is obvious, his relationship with his immense collection is troubling. He says he does not buy Polynesian art “for investment; [he buys] it for the feeling and passion it evokes.” And when he acquires a new piece, he says he feels as if it “came home.” Blackburn’s passion seems to narrow his focus on his own collection and the act of collecting, rather than on the cultures that produced the objects in the first place. So narrow is his focus, in fact, that he does not see the incredible irony in calling his private collection the objects’ true “home.” Thus, instead of objects of significance to Polynesians being easily accessible to their respective cultures, and rather than allowing the objects themselves to take precedence or to have their stories shared through indigenous Polynesian curators and experts, these objects are kept in the confines of Blackburn’s Kahala mansion, where their stories are often paved over by tales of his collecting.

Except, of course, for the times that Blackburn so graciously allows the public an opportunity to peek at bits of his collection. The most notable instance of Blackburn’s generous sharing is the book he produced, called Polynesia: The Mark and Carolyn Blackburn Collection of Polynesian Art (2010). For the not-so-accessible cost of $100 dollars, one can view the wondrous objects—albeit once-removed in photographs—Blackburn has spent so much “time, effort and money” into collecting. The book is visually spectacular, worthy of a large selection of art. But, as is wonderfully discussed in a November, 2010 Honolulu Weekly book review titled, “Naïve Art,” the text and thought that accompanies the visuals in Polynesia is certainly lacking.   

Other than a forward by Blackburn himself, Polynesia features the writing of Adrienne Kaeppler, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Curator of Oceania. While Kaeppler’s writing displays her extensive historical knowledge of the objects featured in the book, the information she provides is presented in the vein of a Western antiquarian. Her writing in Polynesia lacks critical understandings of the objects featured, the cultures to which the objects belong, art collecting, the function of museums and colonialism. In her introduction, she interrogates none of these topics critically, instead giving readers the usual near-worthless, dry histories of names and dates. Kaeppler’s lack of critical discussion is startling considering her long and deep entrenchment in the field. 

Blackburn’s forward in Polynesia similarly lacks any critical thought. His love for “all things Polynesian” started with his enchantment with Captain Cook’s account of his voyages. Blackburn praises European discoverers and their crews for their “skill and seamanship,” and “courage and fortitude,” and for how these colonial explorers brought their “own mana to the collection” (his italics). To his passion for all things Polynesian, Blackburn even attributes meeting his wife and his adopted son (who is Tahitian). But just like in the Hana Hou! article, Blackburn is again content with telling his story of collecting. At the end of the forward, he thanks “all the Polynesian artists and craftspeople who produced the amazing objects depicted in this book,” which are all part of his private collection. 

Reading Polynesia must be what it felt like to be Edward Said when he poured over countless Western texts and other resources for the purposes of his landmark study Orientalism (Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books. New York: Vintage, 1979. 3. Print). Said defines orientalism as “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Blackburn’s way of speaking over the objects in his collection and their representative Polynesian cultures, his desire to possess them and his forceful insertion as designated “custodian” of them, all exemplify what orientalism is like in our current time and place in the Pacific. 

While Blackburn’s collection of Polynesian fine art is substantial, his recent public actions display a minimal understanding of colonial processes, privilege and the relationship between politics and art. As a collector of Polynesian artifacts and art, Blackburn speaks over Polynesians and separates them from objects of significance to their respective cultures, replicating colonial practices that separate indigenous peoples from their language and culture and carrying them into the 21st century.

By pulling his funding from the UHM art department, Blackburn shows his willingness to silence the speech of minority groups he disagrees with, while simultaneously trying to shape the politics of the university. By complaining about the politicization of student art, Blackburn completely misses the fact that all art is, in some way, political in either context or content. He fails to realize that no art, educator, institution or opinion can be apolitical, because art does not exist in a vacuum. Art influences the way one thinks or feels, and is always produced in a certain time, place and political climate, and the interaction between an object or work and these factors is what makes art relevant and important to society.

For elites like Blackburn, the world seems to exist purely for their enriching, their empowering and their collecting, while the voices and determinations of minorities, students or indigenous people do not seem to matter. If Blackburn truly loved the objects he collects and cared for the wellbeing of the people whose cultures they come from, he would educate himself about the role he is currently playing in furthering the permutations of colonialism. He might even seek to ally himself with Polynesians in their struggles to demilitarize or for sovereignty.

Until then, while Blackburn sits in his Black Point home, hoarding his collection of wonders from across Polynesia and paying little heed to his kuleana as a settler in Hawaiʻi, artists and the communities for which they work will move on without his funding, continuing their struggles for liberation one brushstroke at a time.

Lastly, in our email correspondence, Blackburn posed a mildly interesting question: “If [the UH professor who organized the sign painting] had done the same thing with a pro Trump event, do you seriously think that a [sic] outcry would have not happened?”

All I know for sure is that Blackburn claims he pulled his funding because a professor was politicizing her position at UHM. So the real question is: If there had been a pro-Trump event held by professors instead, would Blackburn have reacted the same way and withdrawn his support?