Commentary : The March to Boutique Museums : Occidental Chairman Joins Getty, Simon, Others in Putting Their Names on the Marquee

Times Art Critic

Dr. Armand Hammer surprised the art world Thursday by announcing that, instead of keeping his promise to donate his well-known art collection to the County Museum of Art, he will keep it. It appears that Hammer has been swept up in the current collectors' fad for building private art museums. It appears he will establish his own boutique museum--the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center--in Westwood.

Collectors of the stature of Hammer, Norton Simon, J. Paul Getty or Joseph H. Hirshhorn hold a certain intimidating thrall over communities where they have ignited hope that perhaps--one day--the treasures they have amassed will become a permanent part of the cultural landscape.

There is no evidence to suggest there was anything disingenuous in Hammer's announcement. He wants to have his own museum and so what? It is a devastating blow to a County Museum of Art that banked so much of its aspiration on having the collection as a bulwark of its historical treasures, but Hammer has been generous to the museum, giving millions for everything from buildings to escalators, and it has recovered from disappointments before.

For years, it avidly courted Norton Simon's collections and when the industrialist decided to establish a private showplace in the ailing Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, it seemed cataclysmic. Now the years have passed, residents and visitors enjoy Simon's exquisitely selected masterworks as much in Pasadena as they would in Hancock Park. Thus, they will find Hammer's works as nourishing in Westwood. The collection will serve local pride by still being in town. So our sincere regrets to LACMA and hooray for L.A. Everything is going to be fine.

But is it? Remember that building or no building, Norton Simon's collection still has no permanent home. Last year he opened negotiations with UCLA with a view to bequeathing the collection to the university. It seems that, wealthy as he is, Simon is not in a position to privately endow his museum in perpetuity. The rub is that great collectors who are any less fabulously wealthy than Getty need the community as much as it needs them. Running a museum is a beggaringly expensive proposition and stiffens every year. Not long ago, L.A. collector Edward Broida went to New York to establish his own museum only to throw in the towel--at least temporarily--when the undertaking proved unexpectedly complex and costly.

Thus, while there is no reason to suspect Hammer's motives, there is no reason to avoid saying that no sooner had the news hit the fan than there were little gaggles of art gossips in every corner wondering what the industrialist was "really" up to. Can he really ensure the existence of a museum containing fine works by artists from Rembrandt to Van Gogh, or is the proposed museum but a move on an invisible chess board? Is the name of the game really A Better Deal?

Apparently not on the face of it. Hammer insists that he will provide whatever it takes to endow the museum and the only reason to doubt that lies in the hands of the Fates of Fortune who are capricious but not completely unpredictable.

Art watchers around here have gotten used to losing major collections--from Walter Arensberg's to the lion's share of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo's. They remember when Joseph H. Hirshhorn was shopping around for a home for his big scatter-gun collection of modern art. Local culture barons moved heaven and then earth to land the collection. Beverly Hills' Greystone Mansion was proposed as its home, as it was again recently in Frederick Weisman's quest for a Grail to hold his contemporary art.

But nothing L.A. could do for Hirshhorn could finally compete with the seductions of the nation's capital. Imagine how charmed the tough, colorful clothing merchant must have felt under the benign flattery of senator and President. The museum wound up on the Mall, in a doughnut-shaped bunker a stone's throw from the National Gallery, forever cozy in the well-endowed arms of the Smithsonian Institution. Now there was a Deal.

All of which is to say that the collector's game is never over until it is. The boxers spar until they realize they must waltz because each has something the other wants.

But, speculation aside and assuming that Hammer can pay the freight, is a Hammer Museum a good idea?

Conventional wisdom insists that the proper place for private art collections is in large public institutions where they can be cared for and made sensible by integration into other collections where they will have the best combination of aesthetic and historical meaning. Despite the self-evident good sense of this notion, we see more and more private individuals opening their own showplaces, from the Saatchi museum in London to the Terra in Chicago, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington and the Menil Collection in Houston. In L.A., we have Frederick Weisman still prowling for a permanent lair. Rumors murmur endlessly that every other noted collector is pining for his own little shrine.

The trend may be a symptom of changes in tax laws or the pervasive egotism of the '80s. Its perpetuation here could have serious consequences for the County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, but evidence suggests it is not always a bad idea. In Houston, aspects of the Menil Collection are integrated by Dominique di Menil's passion. Her attraction to the primitive and magical blend the ensemble into a work of art in itself. It would be a tragedy to dismantle the collection. The Simon Collection has such a strong backbone of sheer knowledge and connoisseurship that it can stand on its own. The Huntington Gallery, with its focus on quality and Anglo-American art, rests firmly on its own feet. New York's Frick Collection and Washington's Freer gallery provide older examples. In short, collections put together with either thematic or aesthetic unity do just fine free-standing, no matter what directors of big museums say.

But is the Hammer collection such a one?

Actually, the Hammer collection has gone through more incarnations than Shirley Maclaine. There was dabbling and dealing in the early Russian days. Brother Victor ran the Hammer galleries in New York for decades, but early Armand Hammer collections were the object of open critical derision. He responded by spending millions to upgrade the collection, and today no one is even smirking.

The figurehead work is Rembrandt's "Juno," a fine example that is at once earthy and magisterial. It is an obvious blockbuster. John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins are handsomely present, but there are works that send even the fussiest cognoscenti swooning. Henri Fantin-Latour's "Peonies in a Blue Vase" is wistful and endearing, Gustave Moreau's "Salome Dancing Before Herod" is the essence of the exotic beloved by the French Symbolists. The essential Van Gogh is present in "Hospital at Saint-Remy," and Bonnard's "Nude Against the Light" is too loving to be coldly erotic. Hammer's exhaustive collection of Daumier prints is coherent.

No, a Hammer Museum would not be a disaster or even a flop. But it is no insult to say the collection has a certain institutional impersonality, is necessarily spotty and lacks thematic focus. It is the kind of collection that profits from mixing its resonances with those of surrounding works. It is the kind of collection that serves itself best as part of a large institution.

Its alliance with the march to boutique museums suggests that everyone might think again about a story from the early days of the National Gallery. Andrew W. Mellon was the founder and principal donor to the gallery. It was his baby and he could have had his John Hancock in lights on the marquee. Instead he staunchly refused to have his name on the museum anywhere, calculating with aristocratic shrewdness and humility that no other collector or patron would want to contribute to a museum bearing one man's name.

In those days the American ideal was a melting-pot society where everybody was included in the mix. The big History of Art museum was a metaphor of that aspiration. The rise of the boutique museum feels like the Middle Ages, with each aristocrat walled inside his own castle, isolated, jealously guarding his treasures. It feels like the neo-feudalism of the last three decades with people bottled up in their own fiefdom of race, gender, politics or corporate duchy. Maybe they should be called bunker museums.

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