Suzanne Muchnic’s well-done profile of UCLA’s Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin contains this short history of the Hammer’s birth and funding problems. It shows that two recent themes, collectors opting for private museums over donating to existing institutions and de-accessioning to raise operating funds, in the museum world are hardly new themes. In the Hammer’s case, they were granted an exemption from AAMD rules. In other words, if you ask first, you can get an exemption:
In its early days, the museum was run by the Armand Hammer Foundation with Stephen Garrett as director, but talks with university officials began in 1991. Negotiations ended with an agreement in 1994, putting UCLA in charge of management and programming without committing new funds. Operating money came from a bond portfolio, UCLA’s existing art budgets, private donations and revenue from the museum.
Henry T. Hopkins, a veteran museum administrator and UCLA professor who died recently, directed the museum from 1994 to 1998. He presided over a period when the museum gained respect mainly as a venue for traveling exhibitions but got harsh criticism for selling a major asset, a scientific manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci known as the Codex Leicester, to establish a reserve fund for potential legal challenges to Hammer’s estate. Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corp., bought the Codex at auction for $30.8 million.
The money was released to the museum in 2002 as a new endowment, but a controversy raged about how the interest should be used — strictly for art acquisitions, in keeping with the prevailing ethical code, or also to pay for other museum needs? Philbin took the matter to the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, which granted an exemption to the usual restrictions, partly because of the museum’s tumultuous beginnings. The museum now uses half the interest — about $1 million a year — to buy art and the other half for exhibitions and programs.
Philbin faced a much thornier problem that came to light in 2007, when the museum and the Armand Hammer Foundation announced they would part company and divide the $305-million art collection amassed by Hammer and owned by the foundation.
The founder’s grandson, Michael A. Hammer, had raised questions about changes in the museum’s original name and nonconformance to requirements for displaying Armand Hammer’s collection. The breaches made the museum vulnerable to a “reversionary clause” that allowed the foundation to reclaim the collection and some endowment funds.
The new agreement revoked the ominous clause and gave the museum 103 works valued at $250 million — including trademark paintings by Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and John Singer Sargent — and a separate collection of 7,500 works by 19th century French satirist Honoré Daumier and his contemporaries valued at $8 million. The foundation got 92 paintings valued at $55 million, which are available as loans to museums.
The Hammer Museum’s Striking Rise (Los Angeles Times)