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The Hammer cleanup

Last week's deal helps one museum move on. What about LACMA?

January 22, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

ENVIRONMENTALISTS know that cleaning up a toxic spill can take a very long time. Now, art museum watchers know it too.

Nineteen years and one day ago, the late chairman of Occidental Petroleum Corp., Armand Hammer, created the cultural equivalent of an oil spill. He turned his back on nearly two decades of pledges to bequeath his mostly modest art collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, announcing a plan to open his own art museum instead. Six years and about $100 million later, an urgent salvage operation was underway. UCLA assumed management of a troubled national laughingstock that Time magazine had aptly dubbed America's Vainest Museum.

Friday, the cleanup took another big step forward. News broke that the museum would divide the Hammer art collection in two. Of 195 works, 103 will remain with the museum. The other 92 will be turned over to the Armand Hammer Foundation, from whence they all came.

Still, the hard work of reparation is not over. The UCLA Hammer Museum is on a path toward robust fitness, but another art museum continues to suffer the consequences of Hammer's mendacity. LACMA was left in the lurch in 1988, when its promise-spouting trustee turned heel.

With last week's surprise announcement, however, a chance to repair that damage also opened up. UCLA should be magnanimous, putting Hammer's painting collection on permanent loan to LACMA, where it belongs.

In the split, the paintings that stay include the relatively small handful of A-list works. It's topped by Vincent van Gogh's imposing 1889 picture of the "Hospital at Saint-Remy," the asylum with the iris garden shown in the Getty Museum's famous Van Gogh landscape. It includes Gustave Moreau's pungent 1876 masterpiece of hallucinatory Symbolist painting, "Salome Dancing Before Herod," and John Singer Sargent's florid 1881 portrait, "Dr. Pozzi at Home," painted at the tender age of 25 and channeling Velazquez and Frans Hals. There are others too.

Those that will go include the aesthetic junk, of which Hammer had a lot. Many of the artists' names would stump a professional. Sixteen other, noteworthy pieces are required to be placed on loan to established art museums.

In total, the giveback is appraised at $55 million. It includes pleasant, minor works by Camille Corot, James Ensor, George Inness and Gilbert Stuart. Inexplicably, it also includes a terrific, fretful Chaim Soutine portrait, "The Valet," worth plenty. The foundation's motivation for wanting the split remains unknown; since its net worth has dropped sharply since 2001, however, a desire for a big bump in assets may be one explanation. Don't be surprised if all but the 16 excluded works are sold, including the marvelous Soutine.

At least the foundation, headed by Michael A. Hammer, Armand's grandson, will also be leaving the museum. It was part of an unwieldy troika that oversaw the Hammer -- the third is building landlord Occidental -- according to tangled provisions in the onerous 1994 takeover agreement with UCLA. A bunch of mostly crummy paintings and drawings exchanged for mostly the cream of the art crop, plus a healthy measure of institutional independence, seems like a fair trade to me.

Making amends with LACMA would cap it.

Hammer became a LACMA trustee in 1968, three short years after the fledgling museum opened on Wilshire Boulevard, and remained on the board for nearly two decades. Given LACMA's ambitious aim of building a collection to encompass all periods of global art, resources had to be carefully allotted. The task ahead was formidable.

LACMA got some money and a few paintings from Hammer. But when a trustee also steps forward to say, in effect, "Don't spend scarce museum resources on Van Gogh; spend it on something else you need, because I promise someday you'll have my Van Goghs," museum management pays attention. Decisions get made around trustees' art and promises.

Hammer repeated his pledge to every microphone, TV camera and scribe that he could find, starting in 1971. He relished the limelight, playing the role of big-time art philanthropist to slick business advantage. Twice, in 1975 and 1980, he even put detailed assurances in letters to LACMA leadership.

And at the end he blithely bugged out, building America's vainest museum instead. The betrayal stunned the city.

So LACMA today has no great Van Gogh painting -- and no Chardin still-life, Eakins portrait, magnificent Moreau, nor much depth in Impressionism, etc. Given the scarcity and expense, odds are it never will. Various collection lapses, holes and deformations may be laid at Hammer's egregious feet.

The loss to UCLA from a LACMA loan would be negligible, because the collection was never of sufficient scope to sustain its own museum. Fewer than 40 of the 103 retained works are paintings. (Forty-three are Theodore Gericault lithographs.) Half of those paintings are of minor quality or modest size. They'll look nice decorating museum offices.

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