PRINT April 2001


a new appointment at the Hammer

The secret strength of the LA art world is its instability, which spells blessed unpredictability. Each season witnesses a wholesale reinvention, with new galleries, styles, and power bases quaking the status quo. The exception is a relatively stolid institutional scene, into which the UCLA Hammer Museum, long a venue for sprawling, mostly so-so group shows, has unexpectedly thrown a monkey wrench. Change came two years back in the person of Ann Philbin, the institution’s intrepid new director, formerly of New York’s Drawing Center. Not only has Philbin initiated meaty and off-kilter programming such as last year's Robert Overby survey and independent curator Amy Capellano’s “Making Time: Considering Time as a Material in Contemporary Video & Film” (currently on view), she has also jumpstarted a major renovation that breaks ground in January 2002, coordinated by architect-of-the-hour Michael Maltzan.

The latest rumble: With the new year came the appointment of Russell Ferguson to the freshly created double position of deputy director of exhibitions and programs and chief curator. Serious headhunting happily turned up not a high-profile outsider but the familiar face. The former MoCA associate curator combines international art smarts with quirky individualist taste. His credits range from editing two anthologies of writings on postmodern art and culture to curating MoCA’s decidedly non-party-line 1999 exhibition “In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O’Hara and American Art.”

With a full year of construction approaching, the future impact of the Hammer is up in the air. The downtime will give the Philbin/Ferguson duo a chance to develop a solid game plan. For his part, Ferguson says, “I hope to keep programming as flexible as possible, turning the institution’s past eclecticism into an advantage.” He aims to both highlight the museum’s collection and serve the LA art community, which he avidly maintains constitutes “one of the most exciting art scenes in the world.” The museum’s summer exhibition, “Snapshot: New Art in Los Angeles,” should be a good test of the new team’s grasp on the local scene. Ferguson says the twenty-five or so artists in the survey remain largely unknown—no mean feat in LA’s currently overhyped “emerging” category.

Michael Duncan is an arts writer based in Los Angeles.