Tastemakers

Urban gentrification—New York’s SoHo is the classic example—tends to followa pattern: Artists in search of cheap space move into a moribund area, galleries and cognoscenti follow, and soon a once dilapidated district has wide-ranging cachet. This, in a way, was Philbin’s formula when she took over as director of UCLA’s Hammer Museum a decade ago and turned oil baron Armand Hammer’s cold and roundly despised vanity project into the hippest and most dynamic cultural institution in town. “We defined our primary audience as artists,” she says. “If you can capture their attention, everyone else comes along.”

And come they have. While you can still see the Corot or Daumier lithos that petro dollars bought, Philbin has refocused on contemporary art, especially artists from Southern California. Artists are practically in the administration: They participate in advisory councils, curate shows—and newer talents are shown in the lobby. This fall, sculptor Robert Gober will oversee an exhibit by under-recognized watercolorist Charles Burchfield, a friend of Edward Hopper. Just as important, Philbin has, as she puts it, turned the Hammer into “a gathering place for the thinking contemporary person. And anything of interest to such a person is within our purview.” The Hammer schedules readings, lectures, short-film fests and even political debates six evenings a week. An engaging and edifying night at the museum? Take that, Ben Stiller.

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