Hammer Museum loses chief curator Gary Garrels

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Gary Garrels, the highly sought-after curator who has helped raise the profile of the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and beyond, is jumping ship.

The Hammer snagged Garrels, 56, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York three years ago. But now he is moving to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as senior curator of painting and sculpture. He will start his new job in September, succeeding Madeleine Grynsztejn, who left in March to direct the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

During his stint as chief curator at the Hammer, Garrels’ combination of scholarly acumen and an affinity for new art enlarged its reputation as more than a continuation of the legacy of the late oil executive Armand Hammer, who founded it in 1990 mostly as a repository for his own collection of Old Master, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and 19th century drawings.


Garrels debuted as a curator at the museum last May with “Eden’s Edge: Fifteen L.A. Artists,” an edgy, surprising survey that mixed established figures with upstarts. Garrels also launched the Hammer Contemporary Collection, amassing nearly 1,000 works.

In the latest chapter of a 26-year career that has taken Garrels to leading showcases for Modern and contemporary art across the country -- and secured his reputation as a thoughtful scholar and creative force -- he will return to familiar territory. He was senior curator of painting and sculpture at SFMoMA from 1993 to 2000, before his five-year stint at New York’s MoMA.

Neal Benezra, who directs the San Francisco institution but arrived there two years after Garrels left, said Thursday that he was delighted with the curator’s decision to return to the Bay Area.

“I was very keen to find a senior person who had a broad historical range in collecting and organizing exhibitions -- somebody who is as comfortable hanging a room of Matisses or Rothkos as with identifying new, young, upcoming artists,” Benezra said. “Gary has that in spades. He has a great track record.”

Garrels’ familiarity with San Francisco arts patrons and the museum’s collection will also be a big asset, Benezra said, as SFMoMA gears up for its 75th anniversary in 2010, including an effort to expand its art holdings.

When Garrels joined the Hammer, he left a prestigious stronghold of Modern art on the East Coast for a much smaller and younger West Coast operation but one that had put itself on the art world’s map under the leadership of director Ann Philbin. At the time, Garrels praised the Hammer as “a very vibrant, dynamic institution” that would give him “a chance to open up my thinking, work out experimental ideas.”


In a telephone interview Thursday, Garrels said he had “grown enormously as a curator by being at the Hammer and in Los Angeles. I won’t be losing touch with what’s going on here.”

His impending departure is “a confluence of many factors,” he said, including “a strong effort” from trustees of the San Francisco museum to bring him back.

“I have retained very close ties with SFMoMA over the years, and I feel like it’s a museum with very strong leadership,” he said. “It also has a collection that I worked hard to build over the seven years I was there, and I still feel very close to it. That was definitely part of the decision.”

Philbin, who was traveling, sent an e-mail saying, “Gary helped transform the Hammer in the three years he was with us -- building our contemporary collection and making us a much stronger institution. He will be missed, but I know this is the right thing for him. He is really going home in a way.”

At SFMoMA, Garrels will head a department with five curators. His responsibilities will include planning major exhibitions, initiating new scholarship, building the collection and working with artists, collectors and curatorial colleagues around the world.

Educated in sociology at Princeton University and in art history at Boston University, Garrels established himself as a curator while serving as director of programs at the Dia Art Foundation in New York from 1987 to 1991. While there, he organized a broad slate of solo shows featuring works by contemporary artists, including Joseph Beuys, John Chamberlain, Jenny Holzer and Maria Nordman. From 1991 to 1993, he was senior curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where one of his projects was “Photography in Contemporary German Art: 1960 to the Present,” a critically acclaimed exhibition that toured internationally.


During his tenure in San Francisco, Garrels organized many exhibitions devoted to prominent figures, such as Sol LeWitt, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. But he also focused on younger artists on the rise, including Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker and Andrea Zittel.

At MoMA, from 2000 to 2005, Garrels was head of the department of drawings and a curator in the department of painting and sculpture. Among his major projects were retrospective exhibitions of works by Brice Marden and Dieter Roth. Garrels is also credited with transforming the New York museum’s drawings collection with the addition of many Latin American works and a gift of more than 2,600 drawings from the Judith Rothschild Foundation.

His final two exhibitions at the Hammer will open in November. One is “Oranges and Sardines: Conversations on Abstract Painting With Mark Grotjahn, Wade Guyton, Mary Heilman, Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl and Christopher Wool.” The other, organized with Cynthia Burlingham, director of UCLA’s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts and a deputy director of the Hammer, is a survey of 500 years of portraiture from the Grunwald’s collection and the Hammer’s contemporary holdings.

suzanne.muchnic@latimes .com