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The Da Vinci codex versus the museum code

For years, the Hammer has walked a fine ethical line, relying on money from the sale of a famed cultural object.

January 15, 2007|Christopher Reynolds and Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

In less than 17 years of institutional life, as the Hammer Museum has grown from orphanhood into contemporary art stardom, director Ann Philbin has won a reputation as a remarkably successful turnaround artist.

Since her arrival in 1999, the museum has grown into a cutting-edge art space from a vanity institution beset with troubles, beginning with the death of founder Armand Hammer 15 days after its November 1990 opening.

But even as the museum prepares for the Tuesday opening of a show to celebrate acquisitions of the last few years, the Hammer's finances remain heavily dependent upon a work that's been gone for 12 years and still fuels ethics debates.

To help bankroll the institution's exhibitions and programs, the Hammer board of directors and Philbin have been relying on interest income from the sale of Leonardo Da Vinci's Codex Leicester to Microsoft founder Bill Gates for $30.8 million in 1994 -- a move that, at first glance, conflicts with the code of ethics that major U.S. museums have endorsed for decades.

The Codex Leicester, a 72-page notebook of scientific musings and sketches, was one of Armand Hammer's proudest purchases -- in fact, he unsuccessfully tried to rename it the Codex Hammer. But when the patron's death at 92 left the Westwood institution in disarray and UCLA stepped up to take over its operations in 1994, campus and museum leaders decided to sell the codex to raise money to fight legal battles that might arise from Hammer's messy estate.

Philbin says the Hammer Museum's chaotic beginnings exempt it from de-accession spending guidelines, and many museum professionals agree, including the Assn. of Art Museum Directors itself and Selma Holo, director of the International Museum Institute at USC. And all agree that the institution carries a singularly thorny legacy.

The Hammer's quandary, Holo said, is "a unique situation, to my knowledge, in that an object of world-class cultural significance -- which is only debatably art -- is a part of an art museum's collection. Should you sell it? And how restricted should you be in using the proceeds? This raises fascinating questions, challenges and possibilities for a museum."

Hammer, a physician turned entrepreneur who rose to control Occidental Petroleum Corp., built his art collection in part by using funds from that company. For more than a decade, he pledged the collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, then he reneged and opened his own museum instead, using an estimated $96 million in Occidental funds to put up the Wilshire Boulevard building.

The idea of selling the Codex Leicester was controversial from the start. Though many museums sell off works from time to time and the codex struck some as a document more scientific than artistic, de-accession has long been a knotty issue in the profession.

State and federal laws do not address such sales, but leaders of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors have long maintained that museums that sell off artworks should spend the income, and the interest it generates, only on acquiring further artworks.

Though the codex sale seemed to cross that line, the Hammer's boosters argued that the museum's tortured birth made the move necessary. Henry Hopkins, who took over as director of the museum in 1994, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that year that if no legal challenges arose between then and 2002, the codex income and accumulated interest together "could represent about $40 million in accession funds."

But the text of the agreement between the museum and the university, Philbin said, has always allowed more latitude than that. In fact, Philbin said, when she arrived, the institution was spending some or all of the codex interest revenue every year on exhibitions and programs and other expenses -- and none of it on buying art.

Philbin and the board kept that strategy in place, she said, and in 2001, with the release of the principal coming up and no legal challenges imminent, Philbin put the situation before the leaders of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors.

"I went to them and said, 'Look, here's this money. We are totally dependent on it.' The museum had absolutely no donor base at the time," she said. "When I first got here, we solely used that money for our exhibitions and programs."

Association Executive Director Millicent Gaudieri said the board decided that Hammer's unique circumstances did exempt it from the usual restrictions on de-accession spending. This was in part because of the institution's chaotic first years, Gaudieri said, and in part because the codex, for all its value as an artifact of science and history, "wasn't a Renoir."

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