LOS ANGELES — Arriving at the newly renovated Hammer Museum, I was politely redirected from the garage entrance to the doors facing the busy corner of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards. After decades of mildly confused visitors arriving through a generic office building elevator bank, it’s no wonder the museum is excited to welcome people through its airy new entrance lobby, currently bedecked with 800 pounds of red yarn by the artist Chiharu Shiota and a team of UCLA students to create the eye-catching installation “The Network” (2023).

Despite the museum’s location at the heavily trafficked intersection near the 405, “it has been an invisible building for all these years,” Director Ann Philbin explained to Hyperallergic. “People drive by it [and] they have no idea there’s a museum here. And as a result, I think … we’re still kind of a well-kept secret for the general public.” 

Sanford Biggers’s monumental 25-foot-tall “Oracle” (2021) (photo Anne Wallentine/Hyperallergic)

Philbin’s leadership kickstarted over two decades of renovations by architect Michael Maltzan, beginning in 2000, and a capital campaign that has raised $156 million to date. These initiatives have culminated in the unveiling of the renamed Lynda and Stewart Resnick Cultural Center, with a new 5,600-square-foot gallery, sculpture terrace, and lobby showcasing four exhibitions. The most recent renovations aimed at making the institution more visible from the street, thereby creating better public awareness of what is now Los Angeles’s third largest art collection after the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Getty Institute. 

“The museum started exactly the opposite of the way most buildings are designed. Here, we started in the middle and worked outwards,” Maltzan told Hyperallergic. “Now it’s that moment where you can actually come out and greet the city with what you’ve been doing. It really is a connection to the city that is going to be, I think, startling for people. All of a sudden the museum is present on the most important ‘Main Street,’ if you will, in Los Angeles.” 

Installation view of Together in Time. From left: works by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Christina Quarles, Robert Colescott , and Derek Fordjour (photo Anne Wallentine/Hyperallergic)

The museum has evolved from the inside out as well. Its collections and programming have transformed in parallel with its architecture with the establishment of a leading contemporary art collection and an excellent range of film programming in the Billy Wilder Theater, which opened in 2006. The museum now holds over 4,000 contemporary works, some of which are featured in the wide-ranging exhibition Together in Time in the Hammer’s main galleries.

When the Hammer opened in 1990, it featured industrialist founder Armand Hammer’s collections of European and American paintings and drawings in the unassuming space next to the Occidental Petroleum building (Hammer was the former chairman of the company). The collection merged with UCLA in 1994 and the university bought the Occidental Petroleum building in 2015, adding 40,000 square feet to the museum and enabling the eventual expansion of ground-floor galleries to stretch across the entire city block. 

Rita McBride’s laser-based “Particulates” (2017) is now installed in this section and visible through windows from the street. It is, at present, the only space the museum still has plans to adapt: Philbin explained that McBride wanted to keep the former bank space in its current state for her installation so that it felt “like a corporate ruin.” To that end, McBride’s eerie green light and dilapidated floor provide a fascinating contrast to the Shiota’s tactile and bright red web in the shiny new lobby. 

Rita McBride’s laser-based “Particulates” (2017) (photo Anne Wallentine/Hyperallergic)

Meanwhile, Sanford Biggers’s monumental 25-foot-tall “Oracle” (2021) holds court over the corner of Wilshire and Glendon, combining African and European histories in its form and impressing from all angles of approach. The statue’s installation facing the street is another demonstration of the reinvented Hammer’s visibility to passersby.  

In addition to public access, there are other benefits to the Hammer’s spaces of varying scales and sizes. “Most museums can’t hand over their big galleries to an emerging artist,” Philbin said. “Whereas we can allow that kind of experimentation and jumping off a cliff, taking a chance, because the space is just one of many small spaces.” For Maltzan, the challenge was to ensure architectural consistency across those varied spaces and 20 years of change “while constantly evolving how you think about the museum.” 

Installation view of Karon Davis: Selections from the Hammer Contemporary Collection (photo by Charles White, courtesy Hammer Museum)

Between the museum’s Made in LA biennial, established in 2012, and its interdisciplinary shows like the recently closed exhibition Joan Didion: What She Means, the Hammer has been a key player in changing LA’s reputation as a locus for contemporary art over the past decade. In addition to the Hammer’s evolution, the openings of the Orange County Museum of Art in 2022, the Academy Museum in 2021, and LACMA’s ongoing major construction have all reshaped the city’s cultural landscape. As new institutions crop up, they each must grapple with the evolving future of the arts, including calls for the decolonization of institutional structures and shifting definitions of what a museum should be “for.”

“Each piece [of architecture] has been tailored to the way that the Hammer was thinking about their future, not about their past,” Maltzan said. The Hammer’s core concept, as described by Maltzan, is the “profound idea that museums are not, in fact, storehouses removed from the vicissitudes of what’s going on in culture, but they can keep pace with culture.” With this revamp, the Hammer is certainly keeping pace — and in many ways, ahead of the game. 

The Hammer Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 11am to 6pm, and admission is free.

The Hammer Museum’s new entrance at Wilshire and Westwood (photo by Eric Staudenmaier, courtesy Hammer Museum)

Anne Wallentine is a writer and art historian based in Los Angeles. She received her MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art.