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The Hammer Museum's striking rise

The Westwood museum has become a hive of contemporary art and ideas, and Ann Philbin has been at the center of it all.

October 18, 2009|Suzanne Muchnic

In 1998, Ann Philbin, director of the Drawing Center in New York, received a couple of letters from UCLA inviting her to apply for the top position at a fledgling museum near the university's campus.

"I threw the letters in the garbage," she says. "I had never heard of UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center." But at the urging of artist Lari Pittman, she agreed to check it out on her next trip to Los Angeles.

"When I walked in, I had one of those eureka moments where I thought, 'Uh-oh, I know exactly what this should be,' " Philbin says. "So I agreed to go to an interview. I was offered the job and, much to my surprise, I took it. I thought I would stay for five or six years. Ten years later, I never think about going back to New York."

Philbin, whose energy, personal magnetism and art world connections create a perpetual buzz, has a lot to show for her efforts at what is now called, simply, the Hammer Museum. It has an impressive record of critically acclaimed exhibitions, emerging artists' projects and eclectic public programs. The long-planned auditorium was finally finished in 2006 and has become a forum for lectures, panel discussions, poetry readings and films. A new cafe attracts neighborhood noshers. The central courtyard is a place to go for summer concerts and jazz.

For the art community, the once-sleepy Hammer has become a hot spot for contemporary art and ideas and a venue for serious exploration of overlooked historical subjects. Edgy exhibitions such as "Thing: New Sculpture From Los Angeles" have alternated with "The Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America" and "Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner." "Heat Waves in a Swamp," a show of Charles Burchfield's visionary landscapes curated by artist Robert Gober, opened a couple of weeks ago. Coming next weekend is "The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis."

"Annie has effected a major transformation of the institution," says Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, ticking off evidence of change: "very distinguished programming, the events that are staged there and the team that she has assembled. It takes a team to make any institution great, and she has always had a great team."

Philbin exemplifies a "paradigm shift" in the museum world, Phillips says. "It's not the size of the institution that's important, but what you do with the opportunities you have. I think a lot of women directors in particular have recognized that. Medium-sized or even smaller institutions can have a big impact. You have flexibility, responsiveness, the ability to experiment and freedom from bureaucracy -- all very positive things."

Michael Govan, who left New York in 2006 to direct the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, often says he followed Philbin to L.A. "She showed the potential for Los Angeles to expand into new interests, new ideas," he says, "and she is still an inspiration. Annie is more than a museum director. She is a real force in the city. She is out there speaking for culture, speaking for contemporary art in a big way."

What Philbin encountered on her first visit was an institution born amid controversy and still seeking an identity. What she envisioned was its future.

"As ugly as this building was and in some ways still is, in terms of its awkwardness," she says, "it screamed: community center, cultural center, gathering place. And that's how we function. We are a real gathering place. Even though we have an international reputation for our programs and exhibitions, we are equally proud of the fact that we are a beloved neighborhood museum."

Getting there hasn't been easy. In a move that broke an oft-stated promise, Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum Corp., announced in 1988 that he would build his own showcase instead of giving his art collection to LACMA. He used the company's funds to erect a museum next to its Westwood headquarters and opened it in late 1990 -- shortly before he died.

UCLA involvement

In its early days, the museum was run by the Armand Hammer Foundation with Stephen Garrett as director, but talks with university officials began in 1991. Negotiations ended with an agreement in 1994, putting UCLA in charge of management and programming without committing new funds. Operating money came from a bond portfolio, UCLA's existing art budgets, private donations and revenue from the museum.

Henry T. Hopkins, a veteran museum administrator and UCLA professor who died recently, directed the museum from 1994 to 1998. He presided over a period when the museum gained respect mainly as a venue for traveling exhibitions but got harsh criticism for selling a major asset, a scientific manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci known as the Codex Leicester, to establish a reserve fund for potential legal challenges to Hammer's estate. Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corp., bought the Codex at auction for $30.8 million.

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