The Honolulu Academy of Arts was founded in 1927 by 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 Yeun 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, 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 Mrs. Isaac 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 revival mission style has been imitated in many buildings throughout the state.
Since it opened, the museum has grown steadily, both in acquisitions and in stature, to become one of the finest museums in the United States. Additions to the original building include a library (1956), an education wing (1960), a gift shop (1965), a cafe (1969), a contemporary gallery, administrative offices and 280-seat theater (1977), and an art center for studio classes and expanded educational programming (1989).
The museum’s permanent collection has grown from 500 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.
From Anna Rice Cooke’s vision has grown one of the most beautiful and extraordinary museums in the world with state-of-the-art facilities for displaying its internationally renowned art collection. It is the state’s leading arts institution and the city’s center for visual and performing arts. The Academy’s mission 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, performing arts, and public programs specifically relevant to Hawai‘i’s ethnically diverse community.
In 1961, Thurston Twigg-Smith opened an art gallery—the Contemporary Art Center—within the Honolulu Advertiser building, which he owned. The gallery featured work from Twigg-Smith's collection and work by local artists. In 1988, the Twigg-Smith family donated Spalding House, which was built by Honolulu Academy of Arts founder Anna Rice Cooke, to create The Contemporary Museum, a private, nonprofit museum for contemporary art in Honolulu.
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.