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


Details of the operation of the trust that may determine the future cultural success of the Hammer Museum were obtained from court documents and interviews with a number of close Hammer associates and lawyers familiar with the situation. The sources included Alec Courtelis, a Miami real estate developer and Arabian horse breeder. Courtelis was one of Hammer's closest associates during the last 10 years of Hammer's life but remained in the shadows while the flamboyant Hammer was alive.

Significantly, Courtelis' vision for the museum--the product, he said, of a close decade-long friendship with Hammer--seems far different from Garrett's. Courtelis described the Hammer museum as an institution that would seek to capitalize on its proximity to UCLA, with a strong educational component and an equally vital link to the local Westwood community. "I would like to see it become a real landmark and participate in the community," Courtelis said. "I can see a major synergy" with UCLA.

Exactly what Armand Hammer wanted for the museum is open to some question, Courtelis conceded. Probing Hammer's wishes for what would happen to his museum and his fortune when he died "was not very popular with the doctor" when Hammer was alive, Courtelis recalled.

The Hammer Museum does not require money from Hammer's estate to stay open. Its operating budget needs were provided for separately by the purchase of a $36-million annuity by Occidental Petroleum Corp. The annuity provides annual income of about $5.5 million--more than enough to operate the museum at its current expense levels.

But questions remain about how the museum's art collection can expand and diversify. Hammer had made no public statement about how he intended to provide for the maturing of the controversial museum after his death. Details of the trust establish that the museum is not necessarily guaranteed any money for acquisitions and other activities--but that Armand Hammer designated his grandson as the person who will have ultimate veto power over the artistic and creative direction of the Armand Hammer Museum.

Courtelis was named by Hammer to the board of the Armand Hammer World College of the American West, in Montezuma, N.M., which is the other Hammer charity that, according to Courtelis and other people familiar with Hammer's planning for the trust, will be the other charitable organization receiving the lion's share of Hammer's money.

Courtelis said Michael Hammer is expected to be formally named chairman of the museum's board within the next 90 days. Garrett identified Michael Hammer as his direct supervisor and court documents show that Armand Hammer designated Michael Hammer as both executor of his estate and the administrator of the Armand Hammer Living Trust.

The trust, established while Hammer was still alive, received virtually all of Hammer's financial assets. Details of the trust's structure are not subject to public scrutiny. Courtelis said that, in the year before Hammer died, the 92-year-old oil entrepreneur told him that he wanted to direct nearly the entire benefit of his fortune toward the college in New Mexico and the Westwood museum. Arthur Groman, a longtime Hammer lawyer and a member of the firm handling his estate and trust, declined to comment on the trust, but said Courtelis would have been in a position to become aware of Hammer's intent.

Garrett, first director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, drew parallels between the Hammer and Getty museums in their formative days. Both, he said, were derided by critics and dependent on the estates of their benefactors--the dimensions of which were uncertain immediately after their deaths.

But arts experts say the parallel breaks down because oil magnate Getty, whose museum ultimately became the chief beneficiary of a fortune of more than $3 billion, set up the museum to provide for maximum flexibility for the people who would run it after he died. Hammer, on the other hand, conveyed his art collection to the Hammer museum with strict conditions that prohibit the museum, "in perpetuity," from selling any of the work, and also specify the percentages of paintings and sculptures that must be on display at any one time.

The strictures, Garrett acknowledged, may turn out to inhibit--not promote--curatorial style.

In sum, Garrett said, the Hammer's future direction is so unsettled that virtually anything is possible--from an exhibition of advertising and motion picture graphics produced by the noted Los Angeles graphics designer Saul Bass even to shows of surf boards and bicycles.

The two latter concepts, Garrett said, would be intended to lure denizens of the Southern California beach culture into the Hammer in hopes that they will stumble, almost unwittingly, into galleries containing works by Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Gogh.

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