Confused Picture at Hammer Museum : Litigation, Lack of Direction Cloud Future of Recently Opened Westwood Facility

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Less than two months after the death of Armand Hammer and less than two weeks after the closing of the first exhibition at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Westwood, the museum is mired in uncertainty--over its direction and even its next show.

The late chief executive of Occidental Petroleum Corp. planned the museum that bears his name as a monument to himself, a home for his art collection and a glitzy cultural attraction.

The museum opened Nov. 28 with a powerful exhibition of work by the Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich. The show, which originated at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, closed at the Hammer on Jan. 13 and travels next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Hammer's director said that the well-received exhibition will probably be impossible for the museum to approach in the foreseeable future.

And the uncertainties surrounding the museum go much further than concern over what it will put on its walls next.

Hammer established a confidentially administered trust fund to spread proceeds of a surprisingly modest fortune--estimated at anywhere from less than $100 million to just under $180 million--among two favorite Hammer charities, including the museum that bears his name.

A review by The Times of circumstances surrounding the trust indicates that, in the last year of his life, the late Occidental Petroleum Corp. chairman designated his grandson, Michael Hammer, 35, as the person who will take the reins of the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center.

Court records and other public sources give no indication that Michael Hammer has museum or arts credentials. The younger Hammer declined to comment or be interviewed.

Within the last few days, however, Stephen Garrett, the Hammer's director, discussed the confusing situation at the museum in a wide-ranging interview with The Times.

"We have got, give or take a few things, a pretty satisfactory museum building," Garrett said. "We've got a ($36-million) endowment fund (established by Occidental). We have got a collection. Some may say it's very good. Some may say it's very bad. Some may say it's very mixed up.

"It is true to say that there is no acquisition fund set up by Hammer and there is no policy, either that he spoke of or that, subsequent to his death, has been established."

The museum at Wilshire and Westwood boulevards was designed by the famed architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. The low-slung, three-story museum in the heart of Westwood is built around a courtyard and is functionally an addition to the existing 16-story Occidental Petroleum headquarters.

The museum's art resources, assembled by Hammer--92 when he died Dec. 10--over several decades, have been derided by arts experts and scholars. Garrett defended the collection as one "that is very appealing to the public (but) not very appealing to most experts and scholars."

That the collection is at best sporadic in quality is a reality with which Garrett said he is prepared to grapple. "We've been given a number of paintings worth (give or take)$450 million," he said. "The fact that there may be some not very good paintings and the fact that the number of . . . very good paintings may be fairly limited should not inhibit us from making good use of those."

Interviews with top officials of the Hammer and others familiar with the museum show that the younger Hammer has so far not divulged--even to Garrett or the museum's curator, Alla Hall--what kind of cultural institution will take root in Westwood during the next few years. The museum, Garrett said, is not entirely sure even what its next temporary exhibition will be.

An exhibit of lithographs by the early 20th-Century American artist George Bellows is likely to open at the museum during the next few weeks, Garrett said. In the last two years of his life, Hammer acquired 129 lithographs--but no paintings--by Bellows, whose earthy paintings of sporting scenes and other Realist subjects established him as a key leader of the Ash Can School just after the turn of the century.

Garrett conceded that the tentative Bellows show stands virtually no chance of rivaling the Malevich opening. The Russian exhibition drew slightly more than 30,000 visitors, he said.

More than any other American museum in recent memory, the Hammer is also an institution trying to function in a fog of litigation. Court challenges are in progress over everything from whether Occidental Petroleum acted appropriately in financing the museum's $60-million construction cost to who owns Armand Hammer's art.

Court records and other documents constitute almost a litigation score card:

* The Delaware Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in an appeal by dissident Occidental shareholders who attempted unsuccessfully last year to challenge the oil company's financial involvement in the museum. The justices gave no indication they would rule soon in the appeal, in which the dissident shareholders have charged the museum is little more than an egocentric monument to Hammer. Occidental has countered that the shareholders are acting as "surrogates" of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Hammer built his museum after pulling out of a commitment to will his art collection to LACMA.

* A judge in Los Angeles County Superior Court has set a hearing next month on a challenge by Armand Hammer's son, Julian, and Julian Hammer's daughter--one of two people specifically disinherited in Hammer's will. Julian Hammer is attempting to block appointment of Michael Hammer as executor of Armand Hammer's estate. It was unclear what effect court action in the case would have on the Hammer trust, which is separate. Michael Hammer is Julian Hammer's son.

* Within a month after Hammer's death, USC sent a formal request to Occidental Petroleum asking for return of a painting by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens that was among a collection Hammer donated to USC in 1965. The oil magnate borrowed two Rubens works back from the university and hung them in his Occidental office. Hammer ignored several requests by USC to return the paintings, according to USC officials, and just before his death was negotiating to buy back the entire collection.

Sources familiar with developments in the buy-back attempt said USC's Fisher Gallery remains interested in selling the Hammer collection--perhaps to the Hammer Museum or the separately incorporated Armand Hammer Foundation. The fate of the disputed Rubens works remains uncertain. USC officials have discussed the possibility of filing their own lawsuit to recover the paintings, these sources said.

* Litigation continues in a lawsuit challenging ownership of the Hammer art collection filed by Joan Weiss, the niece and sole heir of Armand Hammer's late wife, Frances, who died in 1989. Last week, attorneys for Weiss filed court documents alleging that Armand Hammer engaged in a prolonged illicit sexual relationship with Hilary Gibson, the Hammer museum's chief financial officer.

In newly disclosed court documents obtained Monday by The Times, lawyers for Weiss and the Armand Hammer estate have agreed to impound contents of Hammer apartments in New York City and Moscow pending final disposition of the acrimonious litigation, in which Weiss contends Armand Hammer and his lawyers duped Frances Hammer into signing a series of waivers giving up community property rights to his art collection. A final victory by Weiss could mean half--or more--of the museum's collection would have to be surrendered under terms of California communityproperty law.

Earlier action in the case required the Los Angeles Police Department to respond to the Westside residence of Armand Hammer and his late wife, Frances, the night Armand Hammer died to mediate a dispute between Weiss and Michael Hammer, who, court documents charged, was attempting to improperly remove belongings from the residence. The house was owned by Frances Hammer, whose will permitted her husband to reside there until his death, with possession transferring to Weiss immediately thereafter.

It is in this unsettled atmosphere that Garrett and the small staff of the Armand Hammer Museum must operate.

Garrett conceded that he does not have a free hand in mapping the future course of the museum. "We're still very much emerging from Hammer being alive and well," he said. "And when you talk about having a free hand or what sort of exhibition policy I wish to have, these are things that have to be evolved initially with Michael."

With the museum's future dependent in large degree on Armand Hammer's monetary legacy, attention has turned in the last few weeks to details of his finances. Hammer was dropped from Forbes magazine rankings of the wealthiest Americans in 1987--a year after the publication estimated his fortune at $180 million. In his later years, Hammer reportedly made numerous charitable donations--among them some commitments that have not yet been fully paid off, including large donations to UCLA and the Salk Institute in La Jolla.

Most experts familiar with the Hammer fortune estimate that it has diminished substantially, and sources aware of some of its details have said within the last several days that the legacy may total less than $100 million now.

Details of the operation of the trust that may determine the future cultural success of the Hammer Museum were obtained from court documents and interviews with a number of close Hammer associates and lawyers familiar with the situation. The sources included Alec Courtelis, a Miami real estate developer and Arabian horse breeder. Courtelis was one of Hammer's closest associates during the last 10 years of Hammer's life but remained in the shadows while the flamboyant Hammer was alive.

Significantly, Courtelis' vision for the museum--the product, he said, of a close decade-long friendship with Hammer--seems far different from Garrett's. Courtelis described the Hammer museum as an institution that would seek to capitalize on its proximity to UCLA, with a strong educational component and an equally vital link to the local Westwood community. "I would like to see it become a real landmark and participate in the community," Courtelis said. "I can see a major synergy" with UCLA.

Exactly what Armand Hammer wanted for the museum is open to some question, Courtelis conceded. Probing Hammer's wishes for what would happen to his museum and his fortune when he died "was not very popular with the doctor" when Hammer was alive, Courtelis recalled.

The Hammer Museum does not require money from Hammer's estate to stay open. Its operating budget needs were provided for separately by the purchase of a $36-million annuity by Occidental Petroleum Corp. The annuity provides annual income of about $5.5 million--more than enough to operate the museum at its current expense levels.

But questions remain about how the museum's art collection can expand and diversify. Hammer had made no public statement about how he intended to provide for the maturing of the controversial museum after his death. Details of the trust establish that the museum is not necessarily guaranteed any money for acquisitions and other activities--but that Armand Hammer designated his grandson as the person who will have ultimate veto power over the artistic and creative direction of the Armand Hammer Museum.

Courtelis was named by Hammer to the board of the Armand Hammer World College of the American West, in Montezuma, N.M., which is the other Hammer charity that, according to Courtelis and other people familiar with Hammer's planning for the trust, will be the other charitable organization receiving the lion's share of Hammer's money.

Courtelis said Michael Hammer is expected to be formally named chairman of the museum's board within the next 90 days. Garrett identified Michael Hammer as his direct supervisor and court documents show that Armand Hammer designated Michael Hammer as both executor of his estate and the administrator of the Armand Hammer Living Trust.

The trust, established while Hammer was still alive, received virtually all of Hammer's financial assets. Details of the trust's structure are not subject to public scrutiny. Courtelis said that, in the year before Hammer died, the 92-year-old oil entrepreneur told him that he wanted to direct nearly the entire benefit of his fortune toward the college in New Mexico and the Westwood museum. Arthur Groman, a longtime Hammer lawyer and a member of the firm handling his estate and trust, declined to comment on the trust, but said Courtelis would have been in a position to become aware of Hammer's intent.

Garrett, first director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, drew parallels between the Hammer and Getty museums in their formative days. Both, he said, were derided by critics and dependent on the estates of their benefactors--the dimensions of which were uncertain immediately after their deaths.

But arts experts say the parallel breaks down because oil magnate Getty, whose museum ultimately became the chief beneficiary of a fortune of more than $3 billion, set up the museum to provide for maximum flexibility for the people who would run it after he died. Hammer, on the other hand, conveyed his art collection to the Hammer museum with strict conditions that prohibit the museum, "in perpetuity," from selling any of the work, and also specify the percentages of paintings and sculptures that must be on display at any one time.

The strictures, Garrett acknowledged, may turn out to inhibit--not promote--curatorial style.

In sum, Garrett said, the Hammer's future direction is so unsettled that virtually anything is possible--from an exhibition of advertising and motion picture graphics produced by the noted Los Angeles graphics designer Saul Bass even to shows of surf boards and bicycles.

The two latter concepts, Garrett said, would be intended to lure denizens of the Southern California beach culture into the Hammer in hopes that they will stumble, almost unwittingly, into galleries containing works by Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Gogh.

Bass said that while examples of his designs and graphics are in a number of museum collections--including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington--he has never been the subject of a one-man museum show.

But, said Bass in a telephone interview, Garrett did not discuss the possibility of an exhibit with him during a recent lunch. Bass noted that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has scheduled an exhibit of his work to open next month at the academy's newly relocated Center for Motion Picture Study in Beverly Hills.

Garrett confronts his dilemma with a mixture of concern and relish. "Hammer laid down no guidelines for what kind of museum he expected this to be," he said. "There is no doubt in my mind that the site and the building and, to some degree, the collection, provide the basis for creating a very worthwhile small museum.

"But exactly how that is going to happen and how we are going to achieve that, I don't know."

Contributing to this story were Times Staff Writer Christopher Knight and assistant librarian Joyce Sherwood.

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