By Finn-Olaf Jones | July 1, 2015 | People
How has the little Hammer Museum—all grown up at 25—emerged as the very symbol of LA’s dynamic, progressive arts scene? Meet Ann Philbin.
The courtyard at the Hammer Museum is lined by an only-in-LA mix of students, skateboarders, artists, office workers, senior citizens, and oddballs amid a cluster of trees and lawn furniture rising above the concrete. They’re all trying to get into the final screening of artist Matthew Barney’s five-film cult classic The Cremaster Cycle. Those already blessed with the free tickets are tucking into hummus and eggplant caviar or other delicacies at Ammo, the Scando-sleek restaurant slid into one side of the courtyard.
It’s another one of those typically atypical Hammer Museum nights that have made the place a nexus of LA’s arts community.
“Fifteen years ago, this courtyard was empty and dreary and the theater was just a hole in the ground,” says Ann Philbin, the Hammer’s director, gesturing around the modernist courtyard shaded by a newly installed, gleamingly white, Michael Maltzan–designed bridge traversing the upper level. One alcove used to be a popular spot for passersby to take a leak.
Now, there’s a constant buzz around a place that was once widely derided as late LA energy mogul Armand Hammer’s “mausoleum.” One night, there’s a multimedia concert by composers Osvaldo Golijov and Kaija Saariaho, and another night, an architectural lecture by Diane Keaton on renovating LA’s iconic buildings. It’s a place where the esoteric, fun, and controversial seem to occur in tandem every day.
“I didn’t know about the Hammer before Annie, and that alone says a lot,” notes Philippe Vergne, who was recruited last year from New York to be the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “Now, she’s turned it into a forum for LA’s living artists and has become a catalyst for all of the city’s curators, including me. I consider her to be the grande dame of LA’s art community.”
Armie Hammer, the actor (he played both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), who is also the great-grandson of the Hammer’s founder and one of the museum’s honorary directors, agrees. “The Hammer went from being a place to showcase my great-grandfather’s collection to being a place to boldly show emerging art. There was a complete tonal shift when Annie came in with her vitality and eye for the new.”
A broken foot and a bout of flu haven’t slowed that vitality as Philbin comes rolling into Ammo with a special scooter for her leg, causing everyone from the waiter to half a dozen diners to stop what they’re doing and nod to her. This is definitely her realm. Although she still speaks with the light brogue of her native Boston, she’s got the beach-blown, sun-freckled features of a local, which she has been since 1999, when she took over as the Hammer’s director. Even with the encumbering foot brace, she has a ready-to-surf playfulness and physical intensity. “I thought I would only stay here for a maximum of five years, but I fell in love with this city around year two,” she says.
The daughter of a lawyer who served in the JFK administration, Philbin originally wanted to be an artist after graduating from the University of New Hampshire. “But I preferred other people’s art to my own, so I decided to be a curator, and I went to graduate school [at NYU],” she says.
A stint as an AIDS activist and a fundraiser in the arts community followed, until Philbin came across a tiny ad in a paper advertising an open curator position for a small New York City museum called The Drawing Center. She got the job in 1990 and immediately started bringing in artists, filmmakers, and musicians for readings, screenings, and concerts, transforming the dormant spot into a vibrant community center. “An artist who taught at UCLA, Lari Pittman, was on the search committee [for a new Hammer Museum director] and he knew my work at The Drawing Center,” remembers Philbin. “They kept writing me letters but I kept on throwing them out because, quite honestly, I’d never heard of [what was then called] the Armand Hammer Museum of Art.”
At the time, the museum was largely an annex adjoining the lobby of Occidental Petroleum, whose president was Armand Hammer—a legendary entrepreneur who personally cut business deals with everyone from Lenin to Nixon while acquiring an impressive collection of Impressionists and Old Masters. The loot had been pledged to LACMA, but Hammer changed his mind two years before his death in 1990. Back then, his treasures were languishing on the upstairs floor of a faux-Renaissance building fronting Wilshire, mired in litigation until 1994, when UCLA—whose campus is two blocks away—stepped into the fray to manage the place as an offshoot of the university.
During an LA visit to scout talent for The Drawing Center, Philbin stopped by the museum and her inner artist awoke. “The first thing I saw when I walked into this courtyard was its potential. I knew I could make it a great gathering space, but I also have a bit of a con- struction jones, so I saw all the things that I wanted to do to ‘fix’ it—like get rid of all the arches.”
Much to everyone’s surprise, including her own, she at long last interviewed for the job and became the fledgling museum’s director.
The arches were straightened, and a team of four additional curators were hired and given unprecedented freedom and budgets to choose what they wanted to exhibit. “One of the understandings that UCLA established was that the museum’s staff would have complete curatorial control over its programming,” remembers Philbin. “As soon as I arrived, we established the Hammer Projects series, which focuses on emerging and underrepresented artists.” The small exhibit spaces and the university aegis proved to be conducive for experimentation. “We became known as a porous and accessible place—a place where artists can penetrate the walls of the art cathedral.”
If the Hammer is a cathedral, the stage of the 300- seat Billy Wilder Theater is its altar, funded with a $5 million grant from the famed director’s widow. “The Wilder Theater is the heart and soul of the museum,” says Philbin. “We built our community through that.”
It’s indeed the Wilder that has attracted the crowd tonight, waiting in line for the free Cremaster tickets as it will for an upcoming forum about the militariza- tion of America’s police force, a poetry reading by V. Penelope Pelizzon, and other servings in the vast all- you-can-eat thought buffet of weekly Hammer events. It’s telling that when the museum started its free-ticket policy last year, overall attendance rose by 25 percent, while attendance in the Hammer’s surrounding galleries rose by 60 percent. People come to the Wilder and stick around for what’s new in the galleries honeycombing the Hammer.
During her tenure, Philbin has managed to nearly quadruple the museum’s annual budget to $18.5 mil- lion—much of that fueled by the annual fundraising Gala in the Garden, a highlight of LA’s social calen- dar that takes place on October 10 this year. “You see a graffiti artist standing next to the mayor standing next to a billionaire,” enthuses Armie Hammer. “But it’s small enough that it’s a fun, intimate evening.”
The Hammer’s rising budget reflects the changes in LA’s art scene in general. More and more artists and galleries are moving here, bringing the city closer to the center of gravity for the contemporary art world. “LA is mutating into a hugely interesting city because there are more creative individuals per capita than anywhere else in the world. You can feel that enormous energy,” notes Philbin. “Before, this was not a place where you could sell art, but now it’s become important for galleries to have a presence here as well.”
And as LA’s contemporary art scene expands, so will the Hammer. There has been some speculation that now that Occidental Petroleum is moving to Houston, the museum might take over some space there or construct a new building along Wilshire. So far, Philbin is keeping mum about the rumors, but no one doubts she will continue to use the Hammer, which is one of the few Los Angeles museums to charge no admission fee, to break the mold of LA’s art world. “I’m looking for game-changers,” says Philbin. “Our audience trusts us and knows that whatever we have on view will be something worth seeing—a surprise or discovery of some kind—and often something that will blow your mind.” 10899 Wilshire Blvd., LA, 310-443-7000
Photography By: Aaron Smith; Tiffany Koury (theater); Stefanie Keenan/getty images for Hammer Museum