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Commentary : The March to Boutique Museums : Occidental Chairman Joins Getty, Simon, Others in Putting Their Names on the Marquee

January 22, 1988|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

Dr. Armand Hammer surprised the art world Thursday by announcing that, instead of keeping his promise to donate his well-known art collection to the County Museum of Art, he will keep it. It appears that Hammer has been swept up in the current collectors' fad for building private art museums. It appears he will establish his own boutique museum--the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center--in Westwood.

Collectors of the stature of Hammer, Norton Simon, J. Paul Getty or Joseph H. Hirshhorn hold a certain intimidating thrall over communities where they have ignited hope that perhaps--one day--the treasures they have amassed will become a permanent part of the cultural landscape.

There is no evidence to suggest there was anything disingenuous in Hammer's announcement. He wants to have his own museum and so what? It is a devastating blow to a County Museum of Art that banked so much of its aspiration on having the collection as a bulwark of its historical treasures, but Hammer has been generous to the museum, giving millions for everything from buildings to escalators, and it has recovered from disappointments before.

For years, it avidly courted Norton Simon's collections and when the industrialist decided to establish a private showplace in the ailing Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, it seemed cataclysmic. Now the years have passed, residents and visitors enjoy Simon's exquisitely selected masterworks as much in Pasadena as they would in Hancock Park. Thus, they will find Hammer's works as nourishing in Westwood. The collection will serve local pride by still being in town. So our sincere regrets to LACMA and hooray for L.A. Everything is going to be fine.

But is it? Remember that building or no building, Norton Simon's collection still has no permanent home. Last year he opened negotiations with UCLA with a view to bequeathing the collection to the university. It seems that, wealthy as he is, Simon is not in a position to privately endow his museum in perpetuity. The rub is that great collectors who are any less fabulously wealthy than Getty need the community as much as it needs them. Running a museum is a beggaringly expensive proposition and stiffens every year. Not long ago, L.A. collector Edward Broida went to New York to establish his own museum only to throw in the towel--at least temporarily--when the undertaking proved unexpectedly complex and costly.

Thus, while there is no reason to suspect Hammer's motives, there is no reason to avoid saying that no sooner had the news hit the fan than there were little gaggles of art gossips in every corner wondering what the industrialist was "really" up to. Can he really ensure the existence of a museum containing fine works by artists from Rembrandt to Van Gogh, or is the proposed museum but a move on an invisible chess board? Is the name of the game really A Better Deal?

Apparently not on the face of it. Hammer insists that he will provide whatever it takes to endow the museum and the only reason to doubt that lies in the hands of the Fates of Fortune who are capricious but not completely unpredictable.

Art watchers around here have gotten used to losing major collections--from Walter Arensberg's to the lion's share of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo's. They remember when Joseph H. Hirshhorn was shopping around for a home for his big scatter-gun collection of modern art. Local culture barons moved heaven and then earth to land the collection. Beverly Hills' Greystone Mansion was proposed as its home, as it was again recently in Frederick Weisman's quest for a Grail to hold his contemporary art.

But nothing L.A. could do for Hirshhorn could finally compete with the seductions of the nation's capital. Imagine how charmed the tough, colorful clothing merchant must have felt under the benign flattery of senator and President. The museum wound up on the Mall, in a doughnut-shaped bunker a stone's throw from the National Gallery, forever cozy in the well-endowed arms of the Smithsonian Institution. Now there was a Deal.

All of which is to say that the collector's game is never over until it is. The boxers spar until they realize they must waltz because each has something the other wants.

But, speculation aside and assuming that Hammer can pay the freight, is a Hammer Museum a good idea?

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