The Hammer Museum’s striking rise

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 Société 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.

The money was released to the museum in 2002 as a new endowment, but a controversy raged about how the interest should be used -- strictly for art acquisitions, in keeping with the prevailing ethical code, or also to pay for other museum needs? Philbin took the matter to the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, which granted an exemption to the usual restrictions, partly because of the museum’s tumultuous beginnings. The museum now uses half the interest -- about $1 million a year -- to buy art and the other half for exhibitions and programs.

Philbin faced a much thornier problem that came to light in 2007, when the museum and the Armand Hammer Foundation announced they would part company and divide the $305-million art collection amassed by Hammer and owned by the foundation.

The founder’s grandson, Michael A. Hammer, had raised questions about changes in the museum’s original name and nonconformance to requirements for displaying Armand Hammer’s collection. The breaches made the museum vulnerable to a “reversionary clause” that allowed the foundation to reclaim the collection and some endowment funds.

The new agreement revoked the ominous clause and gave the museum 103 works valued at $250 million -- including trademark paintings by Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and John Singer Sargent -- and a separate collection of 7,500 works by 19th century French satirist Honoré Daumier and his contemporaries valued at $8 million. The foundation got 92 paintings valued at $55 million, which are available as loans to museums.

Those time-consuming problems derailed a $25-million building renovation plan, designed by architect Michael Maltzan of Los Angeles, graphic designer Bruce Mau of Toronto and landscape and interior designer Petra Blaisse of Amsterdam.

“I was miserable when it happened,” Philbin says of the upset, “but now that we have inhabited the building, I am thrilled because we can see that it was the wrong plan for us.” Courtyard space that would have been lost has proved essential to outdoor concerts and other events, she says. But the theater was completed and Maltzan is working on plans to move the bookstore to the street level and expand gallery space. And in 2020, the museum will use its bond portfolio, currently valued at about $55 million, to purchase the building that houses the museum and Occidental’s 16-story headquarters.

That makes the Hammer’s future look quite rosy, but Philbin is focused on what’s at hand.

A native of Boston who grew up near Washington, D.C., she worked in New York as a researcher, curator, commercial gallery director and arts event organizer before taking charge of the Drawing Center, in 1990, and transforming it into an adventurous showcase and vibrant community forum.

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.”