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Confused Picture at Hammer Museum : Litigation, Lack of Direction Cloud Future of Recently Opened Westwood Facility

January 25, 1991|ALLAN PARACHINI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Less than two months after the death of Armand Hammer and less than two weeks after the closing of the first exhibition at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Westwood, the museum is mired in uncertainty--over its direction and even its next show.

The late chief executive of Occidental Petroleum Corp. planned the museum that bears his name as a monument to himself, a home for his art collection and a glitzy cultural attraction.

The museum opened Nov. 28 with a powerful exhibition of work by the Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich. The show, which originated at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, closed at the Hammer on Jan. 13 and travels next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Hammer's director said that the well-received exhibition will probably be impossible for the museum to approach in the foreseeable future.

And the uncertainties surrounding the museum go much further than concern over what it will put on its walls next.

Hammer established a confidentially administered trust fund to spread proceeds of a surprisingly modest fortune--estimated at anywhere from less than $100 million to just under $180 million--among two favorite Hammer charities, including the museum that bears his name.

A review by The Times of circumstances surrounding the trust indicates that, in the last year of his life, the late Occidental Petroleum Corp. chairman designated his grandson, Michael Hammer, 35, as the person who will take the reins of the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center.

Court records and other public sources give no indication that Michael Hammer has museum or arts credentials. The younger Hammer declined to comment or be interviewed.

Within the last few days, however, Stephen Garrett, the Hammer's director, discussed the confusing situation at the museum in a wide-ranging interview with The Times.

"We have got, give or take a few things, a pretty satisfactory museum building," Garrett said. "We've got a ($36-million) endowment fund (established by Occidental). We have got a collection. Some may say it's very good. Some may say it's very bad. Some may say it's very mixed up.

"It is true to say that there is no acquisition fund set up by Hammer and there is no policy, either that he spoke of or that, subsequent to his death, has been established."

The museum at Wilshire and Westwood boulevards was designed by the famed architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. The low-slung, three-story museum in the heart of Westwood is built around a courtyard and is functionally an addition to the existing 16-story Occidental Petroleum headquarters.

The museum's art resources, assembled by Hammer--92 when he died Dec. 10--over several decades, have been derided by arts experts and scholars. Garrett defended the collection as one "that is very appealing to the public (but) not very appealing to most experts and scholars."

That the collection is at best sporadic in quality is a reality with which Garrett said he is prepared to grapple. "We've been given a number of paintings worth (give or take)$450 million," he said. "The fact that there may be some not very good paintings and the fact that the number of . . . very good paintings may be fairly limited should not inhibit us from making good use of those."

Interviews with top officials of the Hammer and others familiar with the museum show that the younger Hammer has so far not divulged--even to Garrett or the museum's curator, Alla Hall--what kind of cultural institution will take root in Westwood during the next few years. The museum, Garrett said, is not entirely sure even what its next temporary exhibition will be.

An exhibit of lithographs by the early 20th-Century American artist George Bellows is likely to open at the museum during the next few weeks, Garrett said. In the last two years of his life, Hammer acquired 129 lithographs--but no paintings--by Bellows, whose earthy paintings of sporting scenes and other Realist subjects established him as a key leader of the Ash Can School just after the turn of the century.

Garrett conceded that the tentative Bellows show stands virtually no chance of rivaling the Malevich opening. The Russian exhibition drew slightly more than 30,000 visitors, he said.

More than any other American museum in recent memory, the Hammer is also an institution trying to function in a fog of litigation. Court challenges are in progress over everything from whether Occidental Petroleum acted appropriately in financing the museum's $60-million construction cost to who owns Armand Hammer's art.

Court records and other documents constitute almost a litigation score card:

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