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The Exhibitionist

Without a creative vision, a museum is just a place to hang some pictures. In the nation’s hottest city for art, Ann Philbin has managed to transform the once-undernourished Hammer Museum into a compelling institution that’s equal parts smart and intimate

Photograph by Jill Greenberg

A colossal boulder has targeted Southern California. Twenty-one feet high, 340 tons of granite directed at the heart of the city for the Miracle Mile. Its early-November journey was one of slow determination: 14 miles a day, starting in Riverside County, traveling by night on the back of a specially designed 200-foot trailer with 200 wheels. The impact is expected to be immense. The stone forms the center of Levitated Mass, an exhibition debuting this month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A mass is what it is: a big rock, a huge logistical production, a gargantuan installation, a $5 million to $10 million price tag.

Ka-boom.

Meanwhile, across town at the Hammer Museum, at the matrix of Westwood and Wilshire, director Ann Philbin is pondering new uses for a closet beneath a stairway. Recently an accordionist offered one-minute pieces in it during a memorable show. A small room off the lobby has become a reconstructed evocation of the East L.A. bookstore Libros Shmibros.

Every inch gets used sooner or later. Indie rockers the Henry Clay People have played the Hammer, and so have Hamlet and Nels Cline. There have been sleepovers here and movies and receptions. In one direction you can find a panel discussion on art in L.A. or a lecture by Randall Kennedy on Obama’s blackness; in another, a Daumier print or an NSFW video presentation by Paul McCarthy. Between these polarities, you can meet somebody for lunch. The Hammer has become a civic space where Los Angeles goes not just to absorb culture but to breathe it out. You feel less like a customer than you do at other museums and more like a participant.

In the past decade or so Los Angeles has replanted its cultural footprint. At LACMA Michael Govan took over an institution that was facing financial woes and enduring a head trip conjured by powerful backer Eli Broad. Mr. Chill brought Tim Burton’s blockbuster, and the 24-hour film The Clock by Christian Marclay had people camping out in the dark of night. Downtown, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s money woes made LACMA’s seem inconsequential. Into that breach stepped Jeffrey Deitch last year. In short order Deitch has given the museum its best-attended show ever with last summer’s Art in the Streets, and he got Banksy to open the doors to the Geffen Contemporary on Monday nights.

Their success is the kind that generates headlines and big-buck benefactors. Theirs are the circuses that generate the bread. But at the Hammer the success Philbin has built since arriving in 1999 is of a different order. At the opening-night reception for the exhibition of works by inspirational if little-known artist Paul Thek, a DJ pumped the funky beats into the Hammer’s outdoor plaza as Philbin greeted artists and did the work of steering young museumgoers into the category of donors. She looked dutiful and glamorous in a pantsuit, her dark red hair framing a freckled face. But she did not wield the bulletproof mojo, the gleam of the top men at LACMA or MOCA. “Those guys just look so good in their suits. I’m jealous of that, for sure,” she says with a laugh. Those guys came to town with strapping auras. Philbin doesn’t think she has one of those. “Not to my mind,” she says. “I think I’m friendly. I think I’m nice. I think I’m accessible. I like to make it feel like a big Hammer family, and I do think that our audience experiences the museum as an intimate place.”

She’s built a uniquely Los Angeles institution, one that offers smart art exhibitions as well as lectures, films, and public forums. She’s created that place where people want to hang and see what happens next. The Hammer Museum is a normal thing that isn’t supposed to exist in Los Angeles. A town hall. “We don’t just care about art,” she says. “We care about, well, everything. My board members don’t ask me, ‘Why are we doing a panel on genocide in Sudan?’ We have a broader kind of mandate. We get to roam around the range a little bit. Any subject that is the purview of the university is the purview of our museum.” The roaming matters to her; Philbin wants folks who walk through the Hammer’s doors to feel they have a stake in what is going on inside.

“I really like art, and I’ve been involved with various institutions in town,” says actor Dana Delany. “But I feel like the Hammer is where it’s at right now. There’s just a special feeling when you go there. You feel that you are part of a creative city. And all of it is because of Annie.” 

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Small pictures by Raymond Pettibon and Louise Bourgeois, a cut-paper silhouette by Kara Walker, and an unusually sedate work by Milton Avery hang in Philbin’s rather small office. There’s a vase of peonies and some tulips up here where the traffic along Wilshire hisses like a faraway griddle.

People who know her call her Annie. In public she projects a carefree image, but as she sits in a plain wood-back chair at a table, she chews on ideas before finishing a sentence. The administrator grew up in a Boston Irish-Catholic family and moved to Washington, D.C., when her father, a lawyer, took a job in the Kennedy administration. She can remember playing on the White House carpet as a kid while her father worked. Regis Philbin is a cousin. Her mother was a nurse and director of a nursing home, and an avid amateur painter. “I think it made an impression on me how alive and happy she was when she was painting,” says Philbin. Art pointed her toward something bigger in the world.

Philbin earned degrees in painting and art history at the University of New Hampshire in 1976, followed by an M.A. in museum studies and arts administration at New York University. There were positions at commercial galleries and at the New Museum in Manhattan. Then in 1990 at age 38 Philbin signed on as director of the Drawing Center, a highly regarded, small—4,000 square feet—art space in SoHo.

It was a canny move to an uncanny place. The center focused on the quieter medium of drawing. Philbin continued mounting rigorous exhibitions of work from established artists like Willem de Kooning and Richard Serra, but she also pursued a philosophical question that anyone making drawings comes up against today: What is a drawing? Is it electrician’s tape arranged on a bare gallery wall? If “line” is the essence of drawing, what do we call works on paper that avoid anything like a line? Philbin opened that discussion beyond artists and threw it out for viewers to wrestle with. She presented exhibitions of tattoo art and comics and machines that could draw. Philbin didn’t seek to inject pop energies into a gallery; she was arguing that there was a line running from art made on the street through pop culture straight into the museum, a declaration that what we debate and value can be found along that line on any and all levels.

“I think Annie has a very deep intuition about how to make institutions vital places for the cities where they are located and for how to take the institution forward, what’s needed, what’s not there,” says sculptor Robert Gober.

The job at the Drawing Center came at a precipitous moment in the art world: The economy was in a tailspin, galleries were closing, and established institutions were taking a conservative turn, going with mainstream shows and less likely to take risks. Money mattered more than it had in a long time. In the words of the curators of the 1989 Whitney Biennial, “wealth is the only agreed-upon arbiter of value” in the art world. Julian Schnabel’s sales peaked, and he started making movies. A well-supported nonprofit like the Drawing Center, Philbin saw, could play an important role in introducing new artists to viewers, without the pressure to keep the turnstiles whirring. It could fill a role the larger institutions were backing away from.

She also started a series of monthly readings, and the Women’s Action Coalition held meetings there. David Wojnarowicz, a transgressive writer, artist, and activist, held his last reading at the Drawing Center before he died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. Philbin was making friends with young, politicized artists, often through political group meetings; she raised money for ACT UP, the direct-action group that organizes for people with AIDS. In an oral history of ACT UP, which had a sizable contingent of artists in its ranks, Philbin says, “I don’t think to this day that I’ve been around more artistic, more inspiring people than the people who mostly led and participated in that organization. It was an amazing time...a lot of things happened during that decade that were very defining and taught me how important it was to make what was important to an artist important to an institution.”

The main difference between her sense of engagement at the Drawing Center and at the Hammer, she says, is that “I don’t lie in the street anymore, but I am proud of the way the Hammer is not afraid to tackle difficult issues. We had Gloria Steinem here the other day in conversation with an Egyptian Muslim feminist, Mona Eltahawy. It was inspiring beyond belief, and the truth is, I am so happy to see—once again—how grassroots activism is changing the world.” Back in New York she demonstrated for ACT UP and other causes. “But I use my institution in the same way.” She pauses a moment and then adds, “I would lie in the streets, but I don’t have the time.”

Today she’s not running an institution quite so easily shaped by her vision as the Drawing Center was. UCLA and Occidental Petroleum both play a role in overseeing the Hammer—a university and a corporation independently weighing in on matters. Philbin has a public profile she never had in New York. All of which might lead one to think she would keep donor-rattling artists and issues out of sight. But that hasn’t happened, and Philbin says it won’t.

On the eve of the Iraq war, the Hammer scheduled a talk by Gore Vidal. A writer who delights in controversy was speaking at a particularly charged moment. When it was clear that the Hammer’s 295-seat auditorium wouldn’t be able to handle the crowd, Philbin called colleagues at UCLA Live and asked if they had a spare theater that night. Two thousand showed up at Royce Hall to hear Vidal, and many more listened from the lawn outside Royce. Looking out at the crowd from the stage, Vidal said, “I’ve never felt anything like this.”

In May the Hammer had a forum with Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam of Masjid al-Farah, a mosque 12 blocks from ground zero in Lower Manhattan. The Hammer has featured the authors of The Israel Lobby, a contentious best-seller that looks at how lobbyists working for Israel have shaped American foreign policy. The museum has received letters protesting such events, and Philbin says she’s made a point to reach out to some donors and talk about the issues.

She has to fund-raise plenty, but while Deitch and Govan are bagging billionaires, she’s looking for newcomers, often young people who haven’t necessarily contributed to a museum before. The Hammer has an annual operating budget of $15 million, up from the $6.5 million on hand annually when she took the job. (The agreement with UCLA is that the university kicks in roughly $2 million each year.) That’s a lot, but it is coming from a lot of folks, not a handful of one-percenters.

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With its two dozen art schools and five major art museums, Los Angeles stands on its own. It doesn’t look to New York for ideas or insight into the times. It has, however, been looking deeply and repetitively to New York for ways to lift its art institutions out of financial swamps. Jeffrey Deitch was a New York art dealer who was lured here to become director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in early 2010. Ask Deitch if, in the year he has lived in Los Angeles, anything about the city has surprised him, and he giggles into the phone, lets ten seconds pass, and then finally chuckles, “No.”

Really? Nothing he wasn’t ready for? Not the ruckus he created when MOCA wanted to put a mural featuring caskets covered with one dollar bills facing a monument honoring Japanese American soldiers? (MOCA paid for the mural, and then for its whitewashing, in the face of controversy in the fall of 2010.) Not even the problem of getting people into the museum surprises the director. He’s taken a huge step forward, bringing in 236,104 attendees to MOCA last year, an increase of almost 90,000 from 2009. He told the Los Angeles Times in March, “We would like to bring our attendance to the 500,000 level, and we’d like to do it quickly.”

Maybe it takes Wall Street bluster, the kind of market force that looks at Los Angeles as a problem to be solved; to bedazzle the moguls you need to mop up your books. Fortunately for Philbin, she inherited red tape, not red ink, and doesn’t need to sell the volume of tickets that MOCA and LACMA must to stay viable. The Hammer says it had approximately 175,000 attendees last year and was expecting about 200,000 this year. Philbin notes that box office is not what drives her; solid numbers and an active audience are good enough. She says this a lot. If she keeps saying it, she may end up sounding like she’s drawing a line of defense. But right now it sounds bracing and right.

“There are different art audiences,” she declares with a casualness that shows how ingrained the belief is. “Ours definitely is interested in discovery, in learning about something they didn’t know. We have a very literate audience—they already come with a pretty solid understanding of whatever it is. They want to go deeper.” You go to MOCA to see something, and to LACMA to experience a show. At the Hammer there’s an emulsion of ideas that sticks to everything. It’s a lifestyle haunt, like an Apple store or KCRW.

“We have a very large young audience, and I think they are different from your typical museum audiences,” Philbin says. “Because they are so technologically sophisticated, they want their culture delivered differently. Interestingly enough, they insist on engagement and really want a back-and-forth—a dialogue.”

The youth of the Hammer’s audience is in large part a product of the museum’s connection to UCLA. Besides the structural ties, there’s the geographic connection—it’s a place students can walk to after class. Philbin is bringing younger audiences to the museum and, at the same time, bringing local artists to the attention of museumgoers. When she talks about her goals, it’s not ticket numbers, she stresses, as much as it is the number of artists she talks to, includes in meetings, every week.

“Being a university-connected institution is a luxury for an art museum. First of all, there is a real understanding that research implies conditions where risk is part of the game,” says Philbin. “Being a laboratory and a classroom—for an art institution to have that as a mandate is a dream. By their very nature universities understand creativity in that way...we have the ability to focus on what we want—no matter how obscure—and without the pressure to produce blockbusters.”

Other institutions give Hollywood stars free passes to their events; at the Hammer it’s artists who get the special treatment. Soon after arriving, she began Hammer Projects, an ongoing series of overlapping exhibitions of emerging artists. Philbin puts artists first, believing that if what’s happening at the Hammer is true to them, it will interest the general public. “She runs a very clean machine there,” says Gober. “She has brain smarts but also a real intuition. Plus she’s a really fun gossip.” 

****

Armand Hammer was a tycoon who banked a stack of big paintings in the 1940s. He applied the tactics that put him ahead in business to the art world, and they paid off there, too. Hammer got a seat on the board of LACMA. He was crafty: When another rich man expressed his desire to give a trove of Daumier prints to the museum, Hammer bought the whole lot and donated it to LACMA himself—the better to curry favor with those who mattered.

Then he started talking about giving LACMA his entire collection. He talked and talked, and 17 years and many transactions with the county later, Hammer took his toys home in 1988, building for himself the museum he felt he and his collection were due. Sound familiar? Intended as a tribute to one man’s greatness, in truth the Armand Hammer Museum looked more like a sarcophagus than a shrine. Hidden from view at the city’s busiest intersection, the building was opened before it was finished, which maybe was just as well. What was completed was cut off from the city, and it was morbid. Time art critic Robert Hughes labeled the Hammer Museum “a striped marble lump by [architect] Edward Larrabee Barnes, which looks like a consulate in some Middle Eastern emirate.”

In its way, the Hammer is like a spoiled deb who had to take a few knocks and lose something valuable to learn what she had. Immediately after his death—Hammer’s last public appearance was at his museum’s opening—his vision started unraveling. Occidental Petroleum, the company he had run and forced to pay for his museum, was fighting with the museum’s board. Facing lawsuits from an heir, the board made plans to sell its biggest jewel, a science text written by Leonardo da Vinci, with sketches in the margins. When UCLA was brought in to oversee the museum and calm the waters in 1994, the sale proceeded, even after a court swatted down the heir’s lawsuit. Bill Gates bought what was most recently known as the Codex Hammer for $30.8 million. The institution had an endowment it’s been drawing from ever since, while Gates humbly changed the book’s name back to an earlier title (and made the Codex a screensaver).

Director Henry Hopkins came in with UCLA to massage the institution into the city that surrounded it. After six years he had done much to make the Hammer a place people wanted to visit. He honored the agreement to display Hammer’s Rembrandt, Rubens, and Daumiers, and he brought modern exhibitions that showed viewers art they hadn’t seen before. Then Philbin arrived in 1999.

Philbin met with the search committee but says she had no intention of taking the job. There were ongoing difficulties with Occidental, and she liked New York. But when she came out and saw the place—and more than that, saw Los Angeles—she changed her mind. Nobody goes L.A. like a transplanted New Yorker, and Philbin converted unconditionally. “The art community in L.A. demanded it. They made it very clear that I had to pay attention to what was happening here. It was obvious that if I didn’t—first I’d be missing a significant opportunity, and second they’d let me know it and rake me over the coals.”

Her start was rocky, and she spent all the time she had trying to grasp the relationship between the Hammer Foundation—which the mogul had crafted to oversee his collection—the university, and Occidental Petroleum. “It was confusing and complex. It needed to be defined from the inside out.” She was miserable for a good six months and thought about going back to New York City. “Everybody said to me it will take two-and-a-half to three years to fall for L.A. But that’s exactly what happened to me.... This is my city. I still need my New York fix, but I love this city.” She lives during the week in West Hollywood with her partner, Cynthia Wornham, who is a vice president of marketing and communications at the Natural History Museum. On weekends they escape to a surf pad in Malibu.

“I always say that I followed her here,” says Michael Govan, who became LACMA’s director in 2006. “Because it was she who made me aware of the cultural opportunities here in Los Angeles. She spoke so articulately about the growing arts scene in Los Angeles, and I think many people—including me—were encouraged by her success and by what she said was possible in Los Angeles.”

In 2007, a long-simmering conflict between the Hammer Foundation and Philbin was dragged into the open. The foundation was unhappy with how the museum was exhibiting Hammer’s Old Masters; they were unhappy with the way the “Armand” had slipped off the venue’s billing. They had a reasonable legal case built on precedents the oilman himself had written up, which they began to press. “Let’s just say the Hammer Foundation wanted to realign its relationship with the museum,” Philbin says slowly. “It took a couple of years and mediation.” New lines were drawn, the foundation ceded control, and these days Michael Hammer, Armand’s grandson, writes the museum checks. Heck, these days Armie Hammer, a great-grandson of the big Hammer and an actor—he played both of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network—makes appearances at museum events (he’s an honorary director).

If the Hammers have traveled a long road to accept the museum now bearing the family name, the museum has made the longer trip. On a recent weeknight there was a special one-time-only event scheduled. In conjunction with Now Dig This!, an exhibition of local African American art from the ’60s and ’70s, actor and performance artist Roger Guenveur Smith and musician Mark Anthony Thompson offered a show that peered through two decades of black music in Los Angeles.

There were black people—many, many black people—filling the auditorium of a place that never used to reach out to any audience. There were hallucinatory film images playing on a movie screen. There was the greatest song ever written in Los Angeles, “Louie Louie,” looped and roiling the packed auditorium. Armand Hammer would be spinning in the ground. The Winkelvoss twins, however, would probably understand.

RJ Smith is an L.A. writer whose first book, The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance, won a California Book Award in 2006. His biography, The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, will be published by Gotham Books in March 2012.

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