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Spring 2000

Swinging the Hammer
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Ann PhilbinAnn Philbin transformed a floundering SoHo gallery into one of Manhattan's smartest little museums. Now, the new doyenne of the L.A. art scene is turning UCLA's Hammer Museum into the city's hottest cultural center

By Peter Frank
Photography: Larry Hirshowitz

In the Los Angeles art world, Ann Philbin is the woman of the hour. Glowing profiles and interviews, from the staidLos Angeles Times to the hip Angeleno magazine, have portrayed the East Coast transplant as one of the shining stars in the cultural firmament. And no wonder. Having assumed the directorship of UCLA's still-forming Hammer Museum only one year ago, Philbin has begun to reveal her plans for revitalizing the promising but contention-ridden institution. And those plans turn the Hammer into a hub of art and cultural life more dynamic than anything its founder, its board or its current academic parent envisioned.

The UCLA Hammer Museum still bears the name of its patriarch. Famed (or infamous, depending on one's perspective) for his business exploits, Armand Hammer conceived of the museum as the repository for his art collection and, as such, a memorial to himself.

Hammer died weeks before the opening of his museum, which he built on the ground floor of Occidental Petroleum's headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard. And there it sat throughout the 1990s, housing Hammer's uneven collection of premodern art and hosting lively, scholarly, but too-often-ignored exhibitions in handsome, quiet, but somewhat awkward quarters designed by Edward Barnes. In 1994, having no idea what else to do with it, Occidental turned the museum over to UCLA.

The Hammer Museum was a godsend to the university. The Wight Art Gallery on campus, which housed the semi-autonomous Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, had outgrown its space as both a museum and teaching facility. Veteran curator and teacher Henry Hopkins saw the museum through its transitional phase, putting the Hammer back on the art world's radar by enlivening its programming and integrating its operational structure with that of the university. But Hopkins made it clear that his tenure was to be short, so by 1998 the university had to go head-hunting again.


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