In the 1980s, when the art world was struggling to distill the pain and loss of the AIDS epidemic, Ann Philbin, a young curator with an avant-garde eye and an activist’s edge, walked into a New York gallery and came upon a simple and searing work: A white, scoured sink by sculptor Robert Gober.
“It took my breath away,” said Philbin, who watched many friends die of a disease that swept through the East Village and inspired gay artists like Gober to respond. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I have no idea what it means, but for me that sink had all the beauty and pathos of what we were living through in that moment, and what we were living through was horrifying.’”
That reckoning spoke not only to Philbin’s aesthetic but to a provocative instinct that art should define its era, challenge its politics and resonate with a truth that can startle and illuminate. Her 19 years as director of the UCLA Hammer Museum have personified that credo, turning the institution into one of nation’s most enticing and risk-taking ventures, exhibiting not only contemporary and conceptual art, but holding hundreds of programs a year on topics including racism, civil disobedience, feminism, clean energy and talking sex with Dita Von Teese.
“When I came here,” said Philbin, who left the Drawing Center in New York to move to the Hammer, “L.A. was considered not at all an interesting city for art. But in these two decades, it has become the red hot center, arguably in the world. Artists are moving here from Berlin, South America, a lot from Europe. The environment here is not about making money, it’s about making art.”
Trim and mercurial, Philbin, who once clashed with billionaire Eli Broad over funding and turned away potential board members who didn’t share her progressive inclinations, runs on self-assurance and charm. She looks right at you, as if perhaps you’re a painting or video installation to be politely scrutinized, and then, if all goes well, conspired with. She is at ease in the penthouses of donors and the cluttered studio apartments of unknown artists, looking for that revelatory find that will celebrate Los Angeles’ ascension.
The Hammer’s current ‘Made in L.A. 2018’ biennial exhibition features 33 artists from ethnicities that reflect the city’s diversity. It is a signature show that, like many at the institution, highlights new and under-recognized local artists. Throughout her career, Philbin, who started out as a painter, has focused on artists ahead of boards of directors, donors, collectors, the public and other complicated whims and egos that are at once a distraction and necessity for an institution to thrive.
“I started with artists and it took a long time for people to notice anything was happening here,” said Philbin, whose operating budget has jumped from $5 million to $25 million since 1999. “But it gave us credibility with the artists. Only in the last six years has the general public finally noticed. We’re still building our audience. Sometimes I say more people in Berlin know who we are than in Westwood.”
Andrea Bowers, whose work is often politically charged, praised the Hammer last year for hanging her 50-foot mural depicting banks, including one of the museum’s donors (Wells Fargo), that were funding the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, which runs through the Standing Rock Native American reservation. “Annie has amazing courage to do projects that other institutions might not do,” said Bowers. “The reason LA has evolved into one of the major art cities in the world has a lot to do with her tenure.”
But Philbin fears that the city’s allure for artists — many of whom studied at local schools — is now threatened by rising rents and creeping gentrification, factors that in other cities, notably New York and San Francisco, pushed artists away. The pressure is likely to intensify as Southern California becomes attractive to the tech industry, a shift that could recast the region’s character and culture.
“Real estate prices are something that’s now talked about all the time. You can feel it changing. It’s a big concern for artists,” said Philbin. She added that in San Francisco, the tech industry was estranged from the local art scene. “They were in their own little bubble,” she said of tech companies. “You can’t old hold it (development) back. You can’t stop it. But you can do it differently. I hope they understand what it means to be a citizen. If so, we have the potential to alter this landscape in the most exciting way.”