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Hammer Time


By Randi Schmelzer

Published Oct 1, 2009 8:00 AM

Ten years ago, The Hammer Museum was a rich man's collection. Today, the Hammer is a glittering, rising star on the global cultural scene, an institution prized by artists as a hub for Los Angeles' creative community, and ground zero for startlingly original, fascinating ans diverse programs and exhibitions. The difference? Ann Philbin, former director of New York's The Drawing Center, who switched coasts in 1999 and never looked back. As she celebrates her first decade at the helm, Philbin talks about what the Hammer has accomplished — and what is yet to come.

Q. How did you become involved in art?

A. I grew up thinking that art would be a big part of my life because my mother was a Sunday painter, and I was always the kid who got pulled out of class to design the big construction-paper murals at school. I can still vividly remember the winter scene with the people skating on the pond and their scarves flying in the air — and I got to miss math class. Anyway, I ultimately majored in fine art in undergraduate school, and then moved to New York to become an artist. My first job was at the Frick Museum in the art library, but I soon discovered that I was more interested in organizing exhibitions of my friends' work than I was in working in my own studio.

Q. The Hammer has evolved so much under your guidance. Which achievement makes you proudest?

A. First of all, it shocks me that it's been 10 years — I guess I've been having fun. I'm very proud of the fact that we have gone from being a regional museum with a spotty reputation to an internationally respected, world-class institution with incredibly diverse offerings. But the Hammer has also become a real community cultural center for the Westside of Los Angeles, a place where people could gather to engage with the arts, literature, music and ideas, and dialogue about current events and pressing issues. That is not an easy thing to pull off in a city like L.A.


Photo by Lauren Dukoff.

Q. From 1990-'99, you were director at The Drawing Center in New York. How did that experience influence your efforts to transform the Hammer?

A. The Drawing Center at that time was a downtown hub for dialogue and discourse, but it just seemed like a natural extension of our work as a cultural institution. It was the artists and the creative community that was dying in droves from AIDS, so it seemed logical that we would be responsive to the needs of that community [by serving as a meeting place for activist groups]. It was an amazing gathering of creative women who turned their talents — and wicked senses of humor — toward activism.

Q. That sounds like the spark behind the Hammer's public programs, which seem as important as your exhibits in encouraging a creating community.

A. Audiences expect even more from institutions now — compelling exhibitions are not enough. If museums are to remain relevant and thrive, they must stay current with their audiences' concerns. Our job is really about cultural engagement, so whether we are hosting the UCLA art history graduate student symposium, a reading by Yiyun Li, a Hammer Conversation between Wallis Shawn and Bruce Wagner, or a Hammer Forum about Proposition 8, our audiences find opportunities to be part of cultural, social and political dialogues across a wide range of topics.

Q. One of your first big moves was something called Hammer Projects. Tell us about why it was so important.

A. I instituted Hammer Projects with curator James Elaine the first year I came here. When I arrived in Los Angeles, there really wasn't a museum that was regularly paying attention to the city's thriving emerging artistic community, so it seemed like a niche that needed filling. Hammer Projects is essentially an exhibition series for emerging artists, and in many ways, it has become a signature part of our identity as an institution, a program that we have become known for by artists around the world. There are at least three or four Projects in the museum at all times — they take place in four different spaces of the museum, so we have roughly 12-15 Hammer Projects a year. This fall we are publishing a big, beautiful, comprehensive book to celebrate the first decade of Hammer Projects.

Q. Another big focus is encouraging artists to become more actively involved with the museum.

A. Artists are tastemakers and trendsetters, and I realized right away that we needed to capture their attention first and foremost. This city has the largest concentration of creative individuals in the world — visual artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, animators, poets, actors — and the Hammer is a much-needed hub for these folks. When artists discover and support something, everyone else eventually follows — it's kind of a law of the universe. Capturing the artists is where you get your street cred, so to speak.

Q. So how do you capture artists?

A. We have put artists on our Board of Overseers — mostly professors from UCLA's phenomenal art department — and we involve in them in decision-making around all kinds of issues. They actually have real input and we follow their advice. Three years ago, we created an Artist Council, which has been amazing because it has really demonstrated what remarkable problem-solvers artists are.

Q. In June, the Hammer received a $1 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation's Arts Innovation Fund. What projects will this allow the museum to explore?

A. There are three things the Irvine grant allows us to do. The first is continue to fund our Artist Council. Secondly, it sustains our artist residency program, in which we invite artists from all over the world to come live and work in L.A. for a period of time. The third component is entirely new, big — and a little bit scary: We're inviting artists to rethink and revamp our Visitors' Services and Education programs.

Q. Revamp?

A. Beginning this fall, artists will work with our curatorial staff to create a new kind of interactive museum, featuring an artist-driven Visitor Engagement and Education Program that encourages daily contact among visitors, artists and staff, and activates the museum spaces, exhibitions and Hammer website in imaginative ways. Artists, hired to work with us to oversee these programs for periods of six months to a year, will explore and address all aspects of a visit to the Hammer — from basic amenities, to greeting visitors, to how we can promote more education in the galleries, to the creative and unexpected activation of spaces around the museum. We've already selected our first artist, a young man named Mark Allen who runs an art space called Machine Project in Echo Park.

Q. And the scary part?

A. We're also charging Mark, and the artists that follow, with creating more transparency between Hammer staff and visitors by exposing some of the inner workings of the institution — metaphorically turning the museum inside out. For example, there might be a curators' lunch, or lunch with our development team, so the public can engage with us and ask questions about how and why we do what we do. Or Mark might say, 'Annie, in 15 minutes I'm bringing some of our visitors back to your office and I want you to tell them what you're doing today.'

Q. How do UCLA students fit into the mix?

A. Besides opening eyes, art opens minds, inspires tolerance, celebrates difference and embraces the unknown. These are all important ingredients for success in any field. It's very important to us that all 40,000 students at UCLA have access to culture and art whether they are studying to be artists, engineers, nurses, or philosophers. But this is still a challenge for us and we want to make that connection even greater and deeper.

Q. Lots of people have this vague idea that Art is Important: They look at a sculpture or photograph, and think it should mean something, but don't know why.

A. I really do believe it opens minds and hearts. I experience wonder on a regular basis. How lucky am I to have a job like that?