The Hammer Museum (re)opens in Los Angeles

After over 20 years of renovations led by architect Michael Maltzan, the cultural center is now more accessible to all

Hammer Museum in Los Angeles
The new face of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, which opened in 1990, was designed by architect Michael Maltzan.Eric Staudenmaier (Hammer Museum)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

The intersection of Westwood and Wilshire is one of the busiest places in West Los Angeles. Westwood Avenue is the preferred route to the main campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to the north. The famed Wilshire Avenue runs east-west, connecting Hollywood to the Pacific Ocean. A few steps from this crossroads is a 25-foot, seven-ton cast bronze sculpture: Oracle, by Los Angeles native Sanford Biggers. The statue depicts a seated African figure holding a torch as it waits for people wishing a consultation in exchange for an offering.

Oracle was commissioned in 2021 for the Rockefeller Center in New York but will be presented for the first time in this corner of Los Angeles until March 2024. The statue highlights the new face of the Hammer Museum, which opened 32 years ago but has just emerged from a series of transformative renovations that spanned two decades.

The statue welcomes visitors to the new Hammer Museum, a showcase for monumental artwork that hopes to draw many passersby from the busy intersection to the free museum. “The Hammer has completed its transformation from an inward-looking institution to a new mission where museums are connected to the artists, the community, the life and cultural future of this city,” said architect Michael Maltzan, the man responsible for fulfilling the vision of Ann Philbin, the institution’s director since 1999.

The Hammer Museum opened in 1990, just days before the death of the man who gave it its name and vast art collection: Armand Hammer. The son of a Russian émigré, Hammer was one of the industrial titans of the American West. He once met Lenin, who offered him an asbestos concession in Russia. The business failed, but the relationship flourished. The young entrepreneur asked Lenin if he could mine graphite in Russia and became a millionaire selling pencils. Hammer was an American businessman who profited enormously from his ties to the Soviet Union, thanks to his relationship with Brezhnev and Gorbachev.

'Oracle' opens the outdoor exhibition space at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles
‘Oracle’ is exhibited outdoors at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.ETIENNE LAURENT (EFE)

Hammer, who died when he was 92, had an art collection filled with great 19th-century European masters, including Vincent Van Gogh, Gustave Moreau, Paul Gaugin, Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne. It was valued at about $400 million at his death, prompting a litigious squabble among some of his heirs. Controversial actor Armie Hammer is his great-grandson and is listed as an honorary director of the museum alongside his brother Viktor.

The museum is housed in what used to be the Occidental Petroleum building, the oil company Hammer ran for 30 years and built into the eighth largest in the country. Maltzan’s renovation project eliminated the pinkish marble in the lobby and the corporate office feel created by the original architect, modernist Edward Larrabee, who gave Maltzan the go-ahead to turn the space into what it is today. “If a building’s function changes, its form needs to evolve as well,” said Maltzan, who unveiled a bridge last year that became a viral sensation.

The new reception area is covered with 800 pounds (360 kilos) of red thread woven into a spider’s web created by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota. The Network (2023), Shiota’s first large-scale piece, was created in three and a half weeks and represents the Eastern belief that children are invisibly tied to those around them by ribbons from their fingers. It is a nod to the museum’s vision of becoming a gathering and connection point for Los Angeles residents.

The ephemeral installation 'The Network', in the new lobby of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles
‘The Network’ in the new lobby of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.Jeff McLane (Photo by Jeff McLane)

The Resnick name will now share the spotlight with Hammer due to the $30 million donated by Lynda and Stewart Resnick, almost 20% of the funds raised by Philbin over 24 years. The Rensicks are a billionaire industrial agriculture family with many other business interests, including POM Wonderful, the brand of beverages and fruit extracts. Their donation put their name on the front of the museum.

The new Hammer isn’t exactly a relaunch because the museum never closed its doors except during the pandemic. But Maltzan’s design has completely transformed several of the spaces. During the 20-year renovation, the museum added the Billy Wilder Screening Room (2006), a central courtyard (2012), and the Leonard Nimoy and Susan Bay Studio (2015). In addition, the architect expanded the exhibition space by nearly 40,000 square feet (3,700 square meters), redistributing gallery space to enable the museum to grow. UCLA purchased the building in 2015 and will manage it for the next century.

Maltzan’s design shows off the power of a window. In one of the new exhibition spaces, 16 laser beams draw a light sculpture of what was once a bank. Particulates (2021) by Rita McBride retains the surveillance cameras and vault of a former bank branch office. “I like the context of corporate decline that the space gives to my piece,” said the artist at the March 24 presentation. McBride’s piece is at street level and is best viewed at night from outside the museum on Wilshire Avenue.

The “Together in Time Celebration Weekend” highlighted the most extensive presentation of the Hammer Contemporary Collection to date. When Ann Philbin arrived, the museum deepened its commitment to young artists, especially those based in Los Angeles. Since 2005, the Hammer has added more than 4,000 pieces to this collection, one of five collections with more than 50,000 works. Together in Time features 70 works, some publicly exhibited for the first time. It includes pieces by John Baldessari, Robert Gober, Sasha Gordon, Mario Ayala, Rafa Esparza, Tishan Hsu and many other artists.

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