That makes the Hammer's future look quite rosy, but Philbin is focused on what's at hand.
To stay nimble
At the Hammer, she oversees an institution with a staff of 100 and an annual operating budget of $14 million, 10% to 12% of which comes from the university. Despite the UCLA affiliation, the museum has more in common with independent art institutions such as the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York than museums that are principally funded by universities. Unlike some of its peers, the Hammer has survived the recession relatively unscathed because it was invested conservatively, Philbin says, adding that the museum is restructuring its portfolio.
The Hammer manages a complex group of art holdings, including collections amassed by Armand Hammer, and UCLA's Murphy Sculpture Garden and Grunwald Center, a 45,000-piece graphic arts trove. The newest addition is a rapidly growing collection of contemporary art with 1,000 pieces in place, strongest in works on paper and Southern California art.
"We are at a very interesting point right now," says Philbin, who exudes a sparkling intensity as she carries on an animated conversation. "We have come out of our teenage years. We are now a young adult. And with maturity comes responsibility."
But she doesn't want the museum to lose its "nimble" quality. "When Bob Gober calls and says, 'I have a proposition for you,' I can go to my curators and say, 'Guys, what do you think?' And they say, 'Fantastic,' and the show is happening a year and a half later. I don't think there are a lot of institutions our size that can behave that way. The university connection has been a very powerful thing. Because UCLA is a research and development university, we think of ourselves that way too. Risk is important to us. Failure can sometimes be part of the equation."
Allowing curators to venture out of their areas of expertise -- as Allegra Pesenti, a 19th century print scholar, has done in organizing an upcoming retrospective of drawings by British contemporary artist Rachel Whiteread -- can pay big dividends, Philbin says. The success of an innovative plan to put artists in charge of visitor services, with the help of a James Irvine Foundation grant, remains to be seen.
But staying on edge is part of the fun. And besides, she says, with the "hard stuff" done, it's time to make the most of possibilities ahead. "We have done so much, I wouldn't want to hand it over to someone else. We want to enjoy the fruits of our labors."