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Hammer Museum gala draws artists, celebrities and a faculty protest

The Hammer Museum is not your regular university art museum. While still affiliated with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA),it has advisory boards stacked with major collectors and artists. It is located off campus. And over the past 25 years, director Ann Philbin has transformed it from an oil tycoon’s dusty vanity museum into a dynamic destination for contemporary art.

But campus life came to the museum this Saturday (4 May), the night of the Hammer’s annual Gala in the Garden, in the form of a faculty protest outside the building confronting guests as they pulled into the parking garage in their Teslas and Mercedes EQSs. Protestors were calling for amnesty for UCLA students arrested in a police sweep of pro-Palestine encampments on campus this week and for the removal of the university’s chancellor with chants of: “Hey hey, ho ho, Gene Block has got to go.”

Block was not actually in attendance at the gala, which was crowded with artists (including Charles Gaines, Mary Weatherford, Andrea Bowers and Glenn Kaino), museum leaders (Thelma Golden, Michael Govan, Jessica Morgan and Connie Butler) and some Hollywood figures (Steven Spielberg, Kate Capshaw, Jane Fonda, Keanu Reeves and Owen Wilson) among the roughly 700 guests. In the first speech of the night, Jodie Foster and her wife, the artist Alexandra Hedison, set the tone by acknowledging the campus protests and importance of free speech before returning to the task at hand: honouring Hammer director Annie Philbin, who is set to retire in November, for 25 years of leadership.

From left to right: Steven Spielberg, Will Ferrell and Kate Capshaw attend the Hammer Museum’s Gala in the garden on 4 May 2024 Getty Images for Hammer Museum

And if the protest didn’t make abundantly clear how challenging it can be to lead a museum in the 21st century, several speeches by artists did. Philbin’s long-time friend Robert Gober discussed her history of Aids activism when she helmed the Drawing Center in New York, during a time of deadly government inaction. Lari Pittman, who helped to recruit Philbin to the museum, remembered it before her as “a dark, moribund and historically anachronistic place—also a “complete fixer upper”, noting that she has given “artists in this community the continuity of 25 fucking years” in contrast to other institutions in town with a rapid succession of leaders (a clear jab at the Museum of Contemporary Art). Kara Walker, who made her New York debut 30 years ago at the Drawing Center under Philbin, called Philbin “a badass motherfucker who doesn’t take no shit from nobody”.

Other homages came from writer and sometimes-curator Hilton Als, artist Mark Bradford, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker and Will Ferrell, who identified himself as a “street performer”—“stripper!” yelled a heckler, or friend—in a nutty roast that provided much-needed comic relief. “I’ve been sitting at my table and listening to everyone drone on and on about how great Annie Philbin is,” he said. “And I’m thinking to myself: are they talking about the same monster that I know?” He took the bit as far, maybe farther, than it could go.

Ann Philbin speaks at the Hammer Museum’s Gala in the Garden on 4 May 2024 Getty Images for Hammer Museum

Philbin’s own speech briefly addressed “the violent clashes on the campus of UCLA” and reaffirmed the Hammer’s mission as a forum for “dialogue around some of the most fractious and difficult subjects of our time” before going on to describe the museum’s work supporting “hundreds, maybe even thousands, of amazing artists”. Tearing up more than once, Philbin ended her talk by thanking the many museum directors in attendance, with a special call-out to Connie Butler, who left a post as the Hammer’s chief curator to lead MoMA PS1 in New York. The last nod went to Philbin’s wife, communications guru Cynthia Wornham, which brought people to their feet.

Philbin announced that the gala cleared $2.5m, the largest net yet. There was no official comment on the search now underway for the next director, which is being led by the firm Isaacson, Miller, but plenty of dinner-table chatter about it. You could hear many variations on the same theme: it’s hard to imagine the Hammer without Annie. The director of the San Jose Museum of Art, S. Sayre Batton, made another point. “What a nice job for the next person,” she said. “Everything’s in perfect order.”

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