Ann Philbin’s Subtle Touch

This spring, L.A.’s Hammer Museum is celebrating the completion of careful renovations. The director’s own home in Beverly Hills underwent a similarly meticulous process.

Written by Arthur Lubow
Photographs by Ye Rin Mok
Styled by William Graper
Originally Published: 

Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin at home, wearing her own clothing and accessories.
Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin at home, wearing her own clothing and accessories.

Like artful plastic surgery, a good renovation rejuvenates without calling attention to itself. The subtle 20-plus-year transformation of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, which Ann Philbin has overseen since becoming its director in 1999, culminates on March 26. It began with urgent remediation—“I literally had holes in the ground,” she told me—and progressed to a full-scale, $90 million revamping. But most of the changes are discreet, designed to enhance the visitor’s experience and increase the museum’s visibility without radically altering the building.

Philbin described the process while we sat in the living room of her house in Beverly Hills, which she shares with her wife, the arts communications consultant Cynthia Wornham. A classic of Los Angeles midcentury modernism, the house seamlessly meshes the indoors and outdoors, with every room opening to the landscaped grounds. As with the museum, it needed loving attention. And in both cases, she was thorough but prudent. “We touched every square inch,” she said of the wood-and-glass house, which was constructed in 1957. “We just had to not do anything stupid.”

Philbin’s living room, with works by (from left) Nancy Shaver, Garnett Puett, Anna Sew Hoy, Mark Bradford, Analia Saban, Lee Bontecou, Robert Gober, and Isamu Noguchi.

Under Philbin, the mission of the Hammer has changed more dramatically than its architecture. It is easy to forget that two decades ago, few women served as museum directors, and notwithstanding its distinguished art schools, Los Angeles was a backwater in the art world. When she was approached about the job, Philbin was director of the Drawing Center in New York. Never having heard of the Hammer, she kept discarding the correspondence sent by its search committee until a friend, the artist Lari Pittman, asked, “Why haven’t you responded to our letters?”

Founded by the petroleum and trading magnate Armand Hammer to house his collection of Old Masters, the museum was not on the radar of a New York arts administrator with a passion for contemporary work. Under Philbin, it has become the leading exhibition space for young artists—certainly in Southern California and arguably in the entire country. Soon after her arrival, she began a program, Hammer Projects, that converted storage spaces into exhibition rooms for rising talent. (Kara Walker, whose debut New York appearance was in a group show at the Drawing Center in 1994, was the first artist enlisted.)

“We were very not risk averse, happy to jump off cliffs,” Philbin said. “Who is your audience? We said, first, it’s artists. If you get artists interested, everyone they talk to at dinner—collectors, journalists, critics—will get interested too.” At the end of 2002, for instance, Tomoko Takahashi collected garbage around town and installed it in a concave concrete shell that was intended for a theater but sat unfinished when the museum opened in 1990. “Mattresses and plastic palm trees,” Philbin recalled. “We said, ‘No organic garbage, please.’ We got away with all kinds of crazy stuff. It was just amazing.”

In the guest bedroom, framed artworks by (top, from left) Kara Walker (2), Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, and Robert Gober; (middle, from left) Mark Bradford, Mark Grotjahn, Dan Asher, and Kara Walker; (bottom, from left) Dave Eggers, Jagdeep Raina, Lari Pittman and Roy Dowell, and Kim Sook Song.

In 2005, the Hammer started collecting contemporary work, ranging from blue-chip artists—like Lee Bontecou, Robert Gober, and John Baldessari—to such emerging figures as Amoako Boafo and Lauren Halsey. The collection will fill almost all of the museum’s gallery space in the exhibition that opens March 26. “Many people don’t know we are an active collecting institution,” Philbin said. “This is a coming-out.”

Perhaps Philbin’s most attention-getting move was the introduction in 2012 of “Made in L.A.,” a biennial show of art and site-specific installations by Southern Californians. “ ‘Made in L.A.’ is obviously a landmark project for all of Los Angeles and the world, doing for L.A. what the Whitney Biennial does for the United States,” said Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “The growth of the Hammer was a fantastic signal that this was an artists’ metropolis. You can see ‘Made in L.A.’ as a bigger formal recognition of what has happened since she arrived. She’s a force. She’s revered.”

The museum was originally balanced on a shaky tripod, and was jointly governed by the Hammer Foundation, Hammer’s corporation Occidental Petroleum, and UCLA, which dominates the district of Westwood, where the museum is located. Eventually, UCLA took sole control. When, in 2015, the university acquired Occidental’s 16-story “Oxy Tower” adjoining the museum, the Hammer received a 99-year lease on the lower five floors. The upper two have been converted to office space, which allows the staff to stay on site, while the lower three provide room for exhibitions and public amenities. Since Philbin arrived, the museum has grown by 40,000 square feet.

Philbin’s Labrador, Olive, surveys the pool.

When, in one of her first decisions, Philbin approached the architect Michael Maltzan about renovating the Hammer, she warned him that the work would proceed fitfully as funds and space became available. “I like to tell people that when I got that project of reimagining the Hammer, people thought the building was the parking lot for the Oxy Tower,” Maltzan said. Indeed, the museum was so untrafficked, Philbin recalled, that when she walked into the Lindbrook Drive rear entrance before taking the job, “all the cabdrivers were using it as a toilet.”

The architectural mission has been tweaked, but not transformed, in the decades of work. “That master plan really did take the wide range of issues the Hammer was confronting—the difficulty of finding and navigating the entry points, the inconclusiveness of the courtyard, and a number of unfinished spaces, like where the theater would be,” Maltzan said. One of the first needs he perceived was creating a bridge across the courtyard so a visitor could get from the east to the west third-floor galleries. “The museum felt almost suburban, with disconnected elements,” he said. “You could see the galleries across the courtyard, but you couldn’t get between them. The bridge had an almost metaphorical relation to what the Hammer was trying to do—to create a different kind of intertwined and vibrant museum in a city that has been siloed and separated because of distance.”

But the bridge had to wait until 2015, because it didn’t satisfy a vital programming need, like the 285-seat Billy Wilder Theater, which opened in 2006. Along with filling the excavation hole, the theater provided space for lectures, films, and performances. From the outset, Philbin imagined the Hammer would be a center for the sort of lively discussions she had initiated at the Drawing Center. “When I walked in the courtyard, I saw it could be an oasis in a city without a real there there,” she said.

A sculpture by Nancy Shaver.
A painting by Jean-Paul Philippe hangs above a sculpture by Kenzi Shiokava.

If a theater can attract new visitors, so can a restaurant. In November 2021, the Hammer opened Lulu, a fine-dining establishment conceived by Berkeley-based chef Alice Waters and supervised by David Tanis. Philbin called Waters, seeking her advice on choosing a chef to run a reconceived restaurant in the courtyard. A few weeks later, Waters asked, “What about me?” Her involvement ensured that Lulu would become a destination, not just a place to grab a sandwich while seeing the art. “Tons of people who had never been to the Hammer have now been to the Hammer,” Philbin said.

Many of the design changes—such as flattening the courtyard arches that she suspected were imposed on architect Edward Larrabee Barnes by his imperious client—were intended to bring out the original modernist vision. With Wornham, Philbin applied the same approach to her house in Beverly Hills, which was designed by Buff, Straub & Hensman and won an award from the American Institute of Architects. “We bought it from a woman who lived here for 50 years,” she said. “No bad alterations had happened, but 50 years of aging had to be removed. We just had to do the surfaces.”

To restore the swimming pool, Philbin and Wornham referred to pictures made by the leading photographer of midcentury Los Angeles architecture, Julius Shulman. They looked everywhere to find the one supplier who could replace the white plates in the shoji-style gates by the pool. Sometimes it was a question of removing rampant vegetation that obscured the original design. Cutting back a ficus hedge that was more than 12 feet high, they discovered stately melaleuca trees that it had engulfed. Another piece of the property, which now contains a firepit and seating, was entirely hidden by foliage. In the Los Angeles canyons, wilderness is waiting to pounce as soon as the gardener relaxes her shears. “The backyard was literally a coyote highway,” Philbin said. She pointed to the entrance of the property. “We couldn’t come outside with our dogs without banging pots and pans.” They erected a fence, and the property is now coyote-free.

In the dining room, Saarinen chairs are paired with a George Nelson lamp and vases by People’s Pottery Project.

As with the Hammer, a tight budget ruled out most big-ticket improvements. “We said we could each do one extra thing we felt strongly about,” Philbin recalled. “Cynthia wanted the outdoor sound system, and I wanted the long bench”—a curvy banquette at the edge of the pool deck—“so we could entertain.”

The privacy of the house, which is tucked behind a short driveway, is a virtue. But for a public institution, invisibility is deadly. Although its corner of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards is a busy intersection in Los Angeles, the Hammer was typically overlooked by passersby. With the addition of the lower floors of Oxy Tower, it now stretches down a full block of Wilshire, and Maltzan has installed large windows that expose the art within. “We remade the whole ground level to quite literally have more transparency,” he said.

A new entrance on the corner, across the avenue from a soon-to-be-opened Metro stop, is marked by an elliptical pillar, with digital screens on either side. Vertical signage will boldly announce the name of the museum. The lobbies on the corner and the boulevard will be connected eventually, a step that was delayed when $10 million was reallocated to retain the museum staff during the pandemic. “It was an easy call,” Philbin said. (The capital campaign is raising another $90 million for the endowment.)

A rendering of the Hammer’s new corner entrance, at Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards, by Michael Maltzan Architecture.

Courtesy of Michael Maltzan Architecture.

After a long journey with Philbin at the helm, the Hammer has arrived. “For all these years, people have driven by and not known there is a museum here,” she said. “That’s exactly what we’re changing. It will finally look like a museum—an inviting, open space. I think it’s going to be surprising.”

Fashion assistant: Naomi Detre. Hair by Matt Motherhead; makeup by Heather Rose Harris for Laneige.

This article was originally published on