In Los Angeles, the Hammer Museum’s 20-Year Makeover Ends on a Subtle Note

In the grand scheme of big-budget, Southern California museum transformations—on the order of Peter Zumthor’s forthcoming LACMA building, for example, or Annabelle Selldorf’s recent addition to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego—architect Michael Maltzan’s interventions to the Hammer Museum are decidedly modest. After nearly a year of construction, the scaffolding came down at the end of March, revealing the addition of an outdoor sculpture terrace, the yet unfinished renovation of a former bank into a 5,600-square-foot gallery, and the reorientation of the entrance to face the busy intersection of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards, where embedded digital screens relay what’s going on inside.

To me, the change is surprisingly subtle; the refinished lobby features a larger, more centrally located information desk, but otherwise feels like the same airy rectangular architecture of recent memory. During the unveiling, however, Hammer director Ann Philbin disagreed.

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“It’s not subtle. It’s huge,” she told ARTnews. “To have that opening onto the street, and to have the transparency of those beautiful windows that look in at the art—to me, it’s a total gamechanger.”

The museum is now in the final phase of a gradual transformation that began more than 20 years ago, when Philbin commissioned a then-emerging Maltzan to rework the entirety of its home from the inside out. These latest renovations look at the space from the outside in, foregrounding opportunities for dramatic, large-scale works to really say to the surrounding Westwood neighborhood, Hey! We’ve got art in here. From the new sculpture terrace, Sanford Biggers’s monumental Oracle, 2021, a wise, seated figure cast in seven tons of bronze, will greet passing traffic on Wilshire and Glendon Avenue through 2024. And through late August, pedestrians can peer into the lobby windows to see Chiharu Shiota’s grand staircase installation, a meticulously woven network of 800 pounds of red yarn that feels simultaneously womb-like, cancerous, and riveting.

A white man and a white woman stand outside on a curved upper-level walkway.
Architect Michael Maltzan (left) and Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin.

It’s been Philbin’s longtime goal to raise the Hammer’s profile, not just within the art world but among the museum’s neighbors. Shortly after her arrival in 1999, an early informal audit showed that most pedestrians had no idea where the Hammer was, despite standing just outside its entrance. “The truth of the matter is that we used to be almost invisible,” she said. “People thought we were part of an office building.”

The Hammer is, in fact, an extension of what was Occidental Petroleum’s 16-story corporate tower, where oil magnate Armand Hammer once presided as chair. In 1990, to house Hammer’s collection of Impressionism and Old Masters, architect Edward Larrabee Barnes designed a nearly windowless block of black and white marble, accessible to this day through the tower’s ground floor. His architecture followed the centuries-old approach of treating museums as “temples,” according to Philbin—that is, rarified spaces for the contemplation of art. “It never said, museum, it never said welcome. It never said come in,” she said, also lamenting Larrabee Barnes’ cramped galleries of “bad ceilings” and “terrible lighting.”

In 1994, four years after Hammer’s death, the University of California, Los Angeles assumed care of his collection. In 2000, Maltzan drafted a master plan that reinvisioned the building as the “city’s living room,” which in short order included the addition of a theater and cafe in 2006, the completion of a sunny outdoor courtyard in 2012, and a 60-percent increase in total exhibition space. The process unfolded incrementally as fundraising would allow, with other external factors. The $10-million, 2017 overhaul of the third-floor exhibition spaces, for example, might never have happened if an unnamed artist, invited to mount a retrospective, hadn’t point blank told Philbin, “I don’t like your galleries.”

An art installation made of countless strands of red thread that are web-like and are installed over a stairwell and hallway.
Installation view of “Hammer Projects: Chiharu Shiota,” 2023, at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Billed as “the completion of two decades of transformation,” the Hammer’s street-level reinvention might be better described as the beginning of the end. There still remains the conversion of a former National City Bank location into a new gallery, an expansion made possible by UCLA’s $92.5-million purchase of the entire building in 2015. During the pandemic, funds to finish and connect the space to the Hammer’s lobby were diverted to the prevention of layoffs, leaving the staff intact, but the former bank in a state of patchy terrazzo flooring with missing ceiling tiles. According to Philbin, artist Rita McBridge saw this as the ideal “corporate ruin” for her Particulates installation, a vertical ring of green laser beams evocative of a bank heist, on view through November. While additional fundraising for construction is underway, visitors can view the piece by exiting the museum, then taking a bit of a wander before finding the entrance to the bank.

The transparent lobby has become the prevailing trend of museum makeovers in the last decade, presented as a major feature in the overhauls of Pérez Art Museum Miami in 2013, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2016, and many more. As institutions evolved to embrace a culture of inclusivity, the idea emerged that a bright, spacious entryway is less intimidating to the general public—and therefore gets more bodies through the door. Facades, however, don’t always do all that they say they will.

Despite the museum’s announcement of a new “dramatic presence across a full city block,” passing pedestrians and motorists are unlikely to detect much of a difference. Biggers’ sculpture, which debuted in the corporate enclave of Rockefeller Center in 2021, is only visible from the north side of Glendon, while the new bank gallery is hidden from the street behind black reflective windows. The sign above the door still does not say “museum,” but rather “Lynda and Stewart Resnick Cultural Center. (The entire building is now named after the owners of brands including Fiji Water and POM Wonderful, whose $30-million 2018 donation really helped jumpstart construction.)

An art installation of green beams of light that radiate from one wall to another.
Rita McBride, Particulates, 2017, installation view, at Hammer Museum, 2023.

All of this is to say that the museum still very much looks like part of an office building—there’s no hiding the 15 floors of glass and marble rising above it—but following the goals they set for the museum 20 years ago, Philbin and Maltzan have largely already achieved what they set out to do. The Hammer today is a pillar in LA’s artistic community, having platformed countless careers since the 2010 creation of the Made in L.A. biennial, and since 2005, assembled a robust collection of contemporary works that have long since departed from Armand Hammer’s narrow vision.

(The exhibition tied to the unveiling, “Together in Time,” presents a tightly packed cross-section of the museum’s contemporary holdings, not quite chronologically or thematically, but through the lens of recent market forces; think a a grid painting by Charles Gaines from 2019, the year after the 79-year-old artist joined the roster of Hauser & Wirth, or a 2019 portrait by Amoako Boafo, gifted by his local gallerists, Julie and Bennett Roberts.)

The real game changer was not the reorientation of the Hammer’s entrance, but its elimination of admission fees in 2014, which led to a 25 percent jump in attendance. Now, on any given day, the museum is full of people, often gathered in Maltzan’s airy courtyard as if it were indeed a living room. Some come to enjoy the exhibitions, while others are there for the free Wi-Fi or an idyllic place to have lunch—all of which is fine, according to Philbin. For potential museum-goers, it seems the most compelling factor is being able to afford the entrance, rather than what it looks like.


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