Ann Philbin: Risk-taking, made-in-L.A. arts leader



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The Los Angeles art world is still reeling — eight months after the fact — from the news that Ann Philbin, longtime director of the Hammer Museum at UCLA, is retiring at the end of this year. Philbin — who has steered the museum for 25 years — leaves a transformative legacy.

When Philbin, 72, took the reins in 1999, the Hammer was a regional university museum with fewer than 50 full-time employees and a $6-million annual operating budget. It’s now a globally recognized destination for contemporary art with more than 100 full-time employees, a $30-million annual budget and star-studded annual fundraising galas. It’s known for its strong point of view, a risk-taking and feminist-minded institution committed to supporting underrepresented artists of all stripes.

The museum’s “Made in L.A.” biennial, which presented its sixth iteration in October, has become a staple of the West Coast art scene. Along with the Hammer Projects series, it has shined an international spotlight on the city as a leading art hub, illuminating new experimental artists working across painting, sculpture, installation, multimedia, performance and other mediums.

In March 2023, the Hammer debuted a sweeping expansion and renovation project — Philbin’s longtime vision — that had been two decades in the making and cost $90 million. A consummate fundraiser, Philbin successfully realized the $180-million capital campaign for the project, designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture. The Hammer now has 60% more gallery space, an outdoor sculpture terrace and a more visible entrance on the corner of Wilshire and Westwood boulevards. That’s after having debuted renovated third-floor galleries in 2017, a new courtyard performance space in 2018, a new restaurant in 2021 and a works-on-paper gallery and study room for its Grunwald Center Collection in 2022 — among other things.

Today, nearly every major museum in the L.A. area is run by a woman. There’s Johanna Burton at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Joanne Heyler at the Broad, Sandra JacksonDumont at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Kathleen Fleming at the Getty Foundation, Jacqueline Stewart at the Academy Museum, Heidi Zuckerman at the Orange County Museum of Art, Cameron Shaw at the California African American Museum and Lori Bettison-Varga at the Natural History Museum.

But two decades ago, Philbin ran the Hammer in a male-dominated art world. It’s impossible to overstate Philbin’s influence on the museum — and the city. She and the Hammer are one.



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