Six years ago Ann Philbin ended a nine-year run at New York’s Drawing Center
to shake the dust off the Hammer, a vanity museum opened by oil magnate Armand
Hammer in 1990. Hammer’s death just one month after his museum opened left it
in the lurch, and it took nearly a decade to clear away the miles of red tape
that made it difficult to do much of anything there. By the time Philbin arrived,
however, the stage was set for something interesting to happen, and she seized
the moment. In a remarkably brief period she’s transformed the Hammer into a hip
institution with an international reputation for supporting emerging artists.
As if that weren’t enough, Philbin managed to lure Lee Bontecou out of retirement
for a phenomenally successful retrospective, then persuaded highly regarded curator
Gary Garrels to leave MoMA for a post at the Hammer. What’s next?
L.A. WEEKLY: What did you hope to accomplish in coming to the
ANN PHILBIN: When the Hammer contacted me about applying for the job,
I had no interest in leaving the Drawing Center, but Lari Pittman persuaded me
to check out the place, and the minute I got here I had one of those eureka moments.
I remember thinking, “I know exactly what this should be — it should be a cultural
center.” As everyone knows, there were lots of bad feelings about the founding
of this institution, but I was lucky in that I followed Henry Hopkins — the former
director and a beloved figure in the L.A. art world — who neutralized much of
that negative feeling. By the time I arrived, people were at least willing to
consider it as something viable, but Henry had to work his magic before that could
On arriving, what did you discover you had to deal with that you hadn’t
[Laughs] I couldn’t even begin to tell you that. Let’s just say the Hammer is an unusual institution, in that its governance is comprised of three different entities: UCLA, the Hammer Foundation and Occidental Petroleum — a university, a foundation and a corporation. I arrived here ready to go, but it took a long time to learn how to work with this structure, and things I hoped to accomplish in three years took five.
How has running a museum changed in the last 20 years?
It’s changed in countless ways, but the fund-raising piece of it has become the biggest nut to crack.
What percentage of your time is devoted to fund-raising?
A lot — maybe 60 percent. I’m lucky, though, because of the scale of my institution. Because we’re smaller we can be nimble and quick on our feet, which is not generally common in museums. For instance, two weeks ago we got a call from a group looking for a place to host a panel that included Rem Koolhaas. It had to happen 10 days from when we got the call, and it did. And, with no promotion other than e-mail, it drew 550 people.
What’s the status and focus of your collecting?
We’ve created a board of overseers, and we’ll have funds to begin collecting within the year. We’re still developing our collections policy, but we’ll probably focus on works on paper — which includes photography, video and new media. Painting and sculpture won’t be a priority because there’s no point in competing with LACMA and MOCA, nor do we have the space or the funds to do that. We want to augment what already exists in the city in terms of public collections. The Getty has a fabulous photography collection, but we think we can enhance what they have by focusing on certain kinds of contemporary work.
How would you characterize the level of collegiality among L.A. museums?
There’s a healthy competition, but we’re also supportive of one another. The Hammer had a fund-raiser recently, for instance, and many board and staff members from MOCA, LACMA and the Getty were there. There’s a lot of cross-pollination — in fact, we’re collaborating on an exhibition with MOCA right now, “Masters of American Comics,” opening November 20.
What form does this “healthy competition” take, and what is its result?
A kind of competition is always at the core of striving for excellence, and I believe all of us — especially the institutions who deal with contemporary art — are challenging each other this way. The cultural landscape of this city is rapidly mutating, and we are all continually raising the bar for each other. It’s a great moment for culture in L.A.
What’s been the Hammer’s most successful exhibition?
The Lee Bontecou retrospective, by far. People were deeply touched by that exhibition, which we co-organized with the MCA in Chicago. Not only did it bring long deserved acclaim to the artist, but it also put us on the map in terms of international visibility. And we were enormously proud that it went to MoMA, which rarely takes exhibitions from other institutions — never mind from a university museum in L.A.!
What’s the most significant difference between the art worlds in New York
In New York you’re constantly running into friends on the street who tell you about some great show they’ve seen. Because of the geography, the art community here can’t help but be fractured. I’d also say that while art is big business in New York, that’s still not the case here. L.A. has some world-class galleries, and collectors will fly in to see shows at places like Blum & Poe, Regen Projects and Acme, but it’s still a more relaxed environment.
What does L.A. have on New York?
L.A. is generally a healthier place for artists in terms of economics, real estate and the general creative environment. That’s why the students from the many excellent art schools here no longer leave town the minute they graduate. The community just keeps getting larger and deeper.
Do museums have a responsibility to research and promote the art history
of the region they directly serve?
It’s not the job of every museum, but we’ve defined it as one of our jobs.
Really? The only L.A. historical shows I can recall at the Hammer were the
exhibitions of work by Lee Mullican and Robert Overby. Are more historical shows
in the works?
Yes. We’re organizing an exhibition on [the architect] John Lautner, who I consider one of California’s significant artists. L.A. has been especially central to the shaping of architectural practice, and there has been much overlap and cross-pollination between architects and artists here. Lautner’s work was hugely influential in ways that may have been largely overlooked. He deserves a closer look.
What do you have on your walls at home?
Many drawings, most of which I collected while I was at the Drawing Center: Sol Lewitt, Kara Walker, Bob Gober, Siobhan Liddell, Mark Grotjahn, Victor Hugo and lots of emerging artists you’ve probably never heard of. And I have a collection of black-and-white photography, the latest probably being three images from Larry Clark’s Tulsa, and the earliest being a Bellocq. I also have three works by August Sander.
How do you keep abreast of what’s going on?
I force myself to make time to go to galleries, but it’s getting harder — my calendar is full of notes saying “last day of!” I think it’s important to see the art fairs — in fact, I just returned from the Istanbul Biennale — but I’m fortunate that my curators love to travel. We make sure at least one of us is at all the major art fairs, and we keep each other posted on what we see.
Has art become sufficiently globalized that you see the same work at art
fairs around the world?
Not really. That was beginning to happen a few years ago, but there’s already been a reaction against that. I was familiar with maybe a quarter of the artists in the Istanbul Biennale, and that’s not very many.
So, regional art isn’t dead?
Not yet. There are corners of the world that still have regional art, but L.A. is no longer one of them. We’re the fourth cultural capital of the world — there’s New York, London, Berlin and L.A. We’re not off the beaten track anymore, and that’s great. It’s why I came here.