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Undiscovered? Not for long

As Hammer Projects curator, James Elaine shines a spotlight on talented young artists, many of whom haven't had a museum show.

November 10, 2002|Hunter Drohojowska-Philp | Special to The Times

Sitting on the patio of the UCLA Hammer Museum, James Elaine hunches forward in his chair, his pale blue eyes turning serious as he says, "This is not a career choice. This is my passion."

Elaine is curator of Hammer Projects at the Westwood museum, and since his 1999 arrival he has established this exhibition program as one of the most adventuresome in Southern California. Hammer Projects is dedicated to exhibiting the work of young artists, many of whom have never had a museum show.

Elaine, 51, is a striking presence with wiry gray hair and prone to wearing exotic cowboy boots. "I am an artist," he explains with a slight Texas drawl. "I think I have a different perspective from an academic. I think of artists as my peers. I'm comfortable in their studios. It's something I love."

In the past three years, Elaine has arranged shows for 28 artists under the age of 40. "I don't think there is another museum in L.A. doing what we are doing the way we are doing it," he says. "We made a conscious decision that it was important for the Hammer in creating its own identity to give ourselves up to younger artists and to bring an audience here who had never set foot in the building before."

The Hammer houses the Old Master and 19th century paintings and drawings assembled by the late founder of Occidental Petroleum, Armand Hammer, as well as the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, with some 40,000 works on paper dating from the Renaissance to the present.

Hammer Projects represents a philosophical decision by the museum director and curators to integrate the often segregated worlds of contemporary and historical visual art. For example, over the summer, the late paintings of Modernist Milton Avery were shown in the main gallery while the comic book-inspired mural of Aaron Noble adorned the lobby wall. Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin says, "These are areas I'm comfortable in, from the historical work to the up-to-the-minute contemporary."

And the lobby-wall-as-gallery is another philosophical decision -- the result of turning an architectural liability into an asset. In 1990, Edward Larrabee Barnes had designed an extremely formal museum to show Hammer's personal collection. From the main entrance, a capacious marble-floored atrium with a vast staircase leads to a patio where another staircase leads to the galleries. A visitor has to traverse three tiers of architecture before seeing a work of art. Philbin and Elaine were taken aback by the building's austerity. Standing in the glacial lobby, Philbin turned to Elaine and said, "We've got to get some art in here."

They began by commissioning artists to do murals on the soaring interior walls, which can be seen through street-level windows that face Wilshire Boulevard. For small solo shows, they added an "entrance" gallery and converted an upstairs space into the so-called vault gallery, named for its convex ceiling.

Elaine's decisions are made with the input of Philbin, senior curator Russell Ferguson and assistant curator Claudine Ise. "We are a team," says Elaine, "representing different perspectives and tastes. It's a good way to define and broaden ourselves."

"We see ourselves as creating a model for a nimble, responsive program that is the right scale for what we are trying to do," Philbin adds. Compared with a major exhibition, which can cost more than $500,000, Hammer Projects shows are budgeted between $20,000 and $35,000.

It's a great value, Philbin says. "I've been told that some people feel our museum does too many diverse things and doesn't have a clear identity. But what we give up in the way of a marketable identity, we gain back in excitement and unpredictability. Museums usually can't behave this way, but we are going to try and do it anyway."

As director of New York City's Drawing Center, Philbin worked with Elaine from 1989 to 1999. When she came to the Hammer in 1999, she asked Elaine to join her and to create a series for emerging artists. "Unlike New York," she says, "there are not very many noncommercial venues for exposure. I thought it was appropriate for the museum to offer this, especially if you consider that we are attached to UCLA, a research university. We extend that thinking into our realm by giving artists a chance to do things in a laboratory kind of environment."

Rhode Island artist Kara Walker was the first artist to show in the Hammer Projects series. Although she had received a MacArthur grant and had numerous museum exhibitions to her credit, her selection represented a certain symmetry for Elaine and Philbin. Ten years earlier, when Walker was still unknown, they had been the first to exhibit her cutout paper silhouettes of African American characters at the Drawing Center.

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