T he Hammer Museum at UCLA in Los Angeles has, in less than 30 years, become one of the city’s best-loved institutions. So successful is its contemporary art programme that it is in need of more space. In 2017, the Hammer announced its plans, designed by architect and long-term partner of the museum Michael Maltzan, to extend its exhibition space by 60% and provide vital back-of-house facilities. In typical style, however, the Hammer’s ambitions to grow under director Ann Philbin are not confined to the building. As part of this project, they are creating a new Artist Fund to support the museum’s exhibition programme and work with emerging artists. A section in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction in May will contribute to this, with works created especially for the sale by leading contemporary artists including Mark Bradford, Charles Gaines and Barbara Kruger.
For the Hammer, this is just a continuation of their work. “For the last 20 years we’ve had a commitment to emerging and under-recognised artists and to amplifying voices that historically haven’t always been heard,” says Philbin.
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Almost from the outset, the Hammer had big dreams. “The transformation of the museum began with a vision and masterplan that Michael [Maltzan] and I worked out together not long after I came to the Hammer in 1999,” according to Philbin. She adds, wryly, that “he was an ‘emerging’ architect back then”, just as the Hammer “was an ‘emerging’ museum”. The plan they concocted could be executed in phases, some of which have already come to pass: such as the Billy Wilder Theater, the central courtyard and the John V. Tunney Bridge. These recent changes were essentially tweaking what already existed. Now that UCLA has bought the adjoining office tower Philbin faces what she refers to as a “gamechanger” – the Hammer is about to have two more floors to play with.
The expansion will come with some obvious benefits. The museum has 45,000 works on paper in the Grunwald Center Collection, which Philbin calls “one of the finest collections in the country”, as well as the Hammer Contemporary Collection. They will now have the ability to display more of these works, more often.
This is the first time that the Hammer has put on an auction like this, and it does not come entirely easily to Philbin. “I’ve always felt that my job is to support artists, and not vice versa,” she says. But given the scale of what the Hammer is hoping to achieve, it seems justifiable. “Right now we’re in the middle of our first major campaign, and half of the $180 million we are raising will support exhibitions and programmes. So this became a moment for a lot of artists to rally around the Hammer – and I’m so humbled that they’re doing so.”
"These artists are part of the extended Hammer family, and we have been collaborating with some of them for decades."
Philbin won’t be drawn on whether she has a favourite work in the auction – “Nice try,” she replies – yet it is clear that the relationships between the museum and the artists who have donated their works go beyond the merely transactional. “One of the things I pride myself on is our commitment to artists,” says Philbin. “It goes beyond the presenting or collecting of their work. Many of these artists are part of the extended Hammer family, and we have been collaborating with some of them for decades.”
This claim is not just lip service. “In many cases, we offered them their first museum exhibitions in Los Angeles: Mark Bradford, Mark Grotjahn, Kevin Beasley, Jonas Wood and Kaari Upson are examples of that. Barbara Kruger, Lari Pittman and Catherine Opie are current and former board members and are also UCLA faculty. Others are simply friends who believe in the work that the Hammer is doing and want to support it.”
Philbin does not underestimate the cost to the artists. “Believe me, asking artists to be involved in this is no small favour. They are constantly asked to give valuable works to worthy causes and, unlike donations from collectors, they don’t receive any tax credit for it. My gratitude to each of them is immense.”
For Philbin, the role of the museum is big. “In many ways, museums ultimately define the culture of their time for future audiences,” she says. “We have to stay in touch with the currents of society and offer platforms for the changing needs of artists. We have to represent the range of voices in contemporary culture. We are here to support and encourage a vibrant, expansive and diverse culture that’s worth preserving and protecting in the first place.” Hopefully the auction in May will go some way to continuing that act of preservation.