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The Hammer Museum gets together with artists, outside the box

The museum's administrators try to shake up their thinking by inviting artists to freewheeling confabs called artist councils. The Hammer's upgraded website is one result.

April 19, 2009|Susan Emerling

The Hammer Museum not long ago held the final meeting of its second artist council, a group of a dozen artists from around the world who'd been brought together to address some of the museum's more vexing logistical and philosophical problems. In the wrap-up discussion, there was near unanimous appreciation for the open dialogue between the artists and museum administrators, but there was also a healthy dose of dissent and even indignation.

Kerry James Marshall, an artist whose work focuses on African American history and is living in Chicago, was exasperated by the council's supposedly big idea -- turning the wayfinding and welcoming functions of visitor services over to artists -- that emerged from two weekends that the group spent together over the past year. According to Marshall, the idea "was too tame, too much of the same old thing that museums do."

His vehemence caught the group by surprise, and Teddy Cruz, an architect who had spent the weekend arguing that the Hammer needed to become more a place where art is made than just a place where it is displayed, laid a compromise-forging hand on Marshall's shoulder and tried to reposition the proposal in more theoretical terms. But Marshall wasn't budging, and throughout the ensuing back-and-forth between the artists, the Hammer's director, Ann Philbin, sat with a staggered look on her face.

Finally, she interjected, "I assure you that the notion of the Hammer turning visitor services over to artists is a scary proposal for the museum." And then, precisely because Marshall was the kind of artist who could be counted on to challenge the status quo, Philbin turned to her staff and said, "Budget Kerry into every artist council." The group, including Marshall, erupted in laughter.

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Advice from experts

The Hammer assembled its first artist council in 2007. Funded by a grant from the James Irvine Foundation, it brought together 12 artists at different stages of their careers from different parts of the world. The artists spent three weekends together in closed-door sessions with curators and administrators. They ranged from emerging artists such as Ruben Ochoa, whose work addresses social and architectural issues in urban Los Angeles, to veteran visual artists Barbara Kruger and Lari Pittman. "Nobody thinks outside the box better than artists do," said Philbin. "So that's where we've gone for new ideas."

On the logistical side, the Hammer wanted advice on how to deal with standard museum practices like interpretation of artworks and outreach to the community; on the philosophical side, they wanted to know how artists and institutions like the Hammer could be part of a larger cultural conversation.

Though many museums have artists on their boards of directors and other committees, the Hammer, when researching the premise of the artist council, found no other museum that was engaging artists in quite this way. Photographer Catherine Opie, who was on that first artist council and who has served on the Hammer's board of overseers, recalled, "A lot of times, an institution forgets they can have a discourse with an artist beyond showing their work hung on a wall."

Although it is a medium-sized museum with contemporary and historical programs and collections, the Hammer is in many respects akin to spaces like LACE in Hollywood and Artists Space in New York that were founded in the 1970s as alternatives to big, institutional museums, which were more focused on objects than on artists and new art forms, such as video and performance art. Philbin, like many of the curators who have served under her watch, began her career in this environment. "All of us came from the alterative space movement," she recalled. "The whole notion of alternate spaces was to be artist-centric, and that has been the touchstone for me at the Hammer."

Nonetheless, the conversation started slowly. Narrowly focused topics presented less than scintillating avenues for discussion. For example, how should the museum handle its didactic wall texts? (The artists wanted to eliminate them; the museum argued to keep them.) However, the conversation soon branched out in unexpected directions, with an unanticipated ferocity.

Opie, who teaches in UCLA's MFA program, urged the Hammer to provide access to public programs beyond the walls of the museum. "The Hammer has unbelievably rich programming," recalled Opie, but it was accessible only to people who could visit the museum regularly. Making the programming available on demand to a virtual audience was unanimously endorsed by the other artists, particularly those such as Shahzia Sikander, Doris Salcedo and Dinh Q. Le, who had lived in Lahore, Pakistan; Bogota, Colombia; and Vietnam, respectively.

The idea of a better website wasn't new to the Hammer, but it also wasn't on top of its long list of funding priorities. "It was maybe No. 10 on our list," recalled Philbin. "But the artists said, 'You need a new website now.' " So the Hammer obliged.

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