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The Hammer: Part of the Burgeoning Art Scene in L.A.

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Small museums have their virtues, especially for travelers who have only a few hours or days to take in the sights between business meetings or family reunions. These days, LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), MOCA (The Museum of Contemporary Art) and The Getty are must-see stops for art lovers. Less well-known, but worth a visit, especially if you are in the UCLA-Westwood-Century City part of Los Angeles (commonly referred to as “The West Side”), is The Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Culture, now known as The Hammer. Operated by UCLA, whose gorgeous campus lies a few blocks away, it has had a strange and torturous history but one that, in the end, has resulted in a dramatically-housed museum that is as well known for its cultural activities as its exhibitions.

Views of The Hammer Building

The museum was created to house the private art collection of Armand Hammer, the late CEO of Occidental Petroleum Corporation. Originally, Hammer’s art was to be part of LACMA but displeased with how the museum planned to handle his collection, Hammer withdrew from his original agreement and built his museum, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, next to Occidental Petroleum’s headquarters. He also managed to persuade Occidental to fund the lavish project that, with its Carrara-marble exterior and beautiful interior courtyard, cost close to $80 million. Fifteen days after the museum opened, in November 1990, Armand Hammer died. In 1994, after entering into an operating agreement with the Regents of the University of California, the museum sold one of its most famous – and valuable – possessions, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex,” to Bill Gates in order to fund future acquisitions. The sale made headlines around the world.

Today, however, with Ann Philbin, formerly head of New York’s The Drawing Center, as director, the museum has blossomed as an art and cultural center. In 2006, it opened the Billy Wilder Theater, and offers lectures, readings film screenings and, most notably, a dialogue series, “Hammer Conversations,” that has attracted such writers as Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders and David Mamet. (The series is syndicated through iTunes.)

Fantin Latour, “Peonies in a White Vase”

Toulouse-Lautrec Study for “In The Salon on The Rue des Moulins”

Three rooms on the second floor house Hammer’s collection. For those of us used to the Met, MoMA, the Guggenheim and the Whitney, the pickings are slim. Yet, I enjoyed contemplating a few choice pieces of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art – a Van Gogh, a Sargent, a Vuilliard — as well as a Rembrandt, a Rubens, a Corot and a Titian. The museum also owns the largest collection of works by the French satirist Honoré Daumier outside of Paris, and a small part of their wonderful collection is permanently on view.

Thomas Eakins, “Portrait of a Cardinal”

Titian, “Man in Armor”

Daumier Busts

Most of the museum’s space is now devoted to single-artist exhibitions, such as “Zarina: Paper Like Skin,” opening September 30th, and thematic contemporary art, produced by its curators or in conjunction with other art museums. Its next major show, “Graphic Design – Now In Production,” will run from September 30th to January 6th, and will explore how graphic design has broadened its reach over the past decade, expanding from a specialized profession to a widely used tool.

Looking Down on the Courtyard

Another reason to stop by The Hammer is to have a glass of wine, a dinner or brunch in the museum’s newly renovated courtyard. Only in L.A. can you find such a year-round outdoor oasis of calm and beauty where you can meet a friend, read a book or simply absorb the air and light. With it’s large, canvas umbrellas, it’s an urban version of dining out in the South of France. I did not sample the wares but the venerable Hollywood eatery, Ammo, has just taken over the courtyard restaurant and is featuring a farm-to-table menu. I look forward to checking it out when I next visit L.A.

Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

The Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Culture in Los Angeles
10899 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Main Phone: 310.443.7000
The Museum is located at the northeast corner of Westwood and Wilshire Boulevards in Westwood Village, 3 blocks east of the 405 freeway’s Wilshire Boulevard exit.
Museum Hours and Admissions: Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Regular Admission, $10 Adults, $5 Seniors (65+) Free on Thursdays for all visitors

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