A 92-year-old industrialist has left a very large epitaph on the corner of Westwood and Wilshire boulevards in Los Angeles. It reads: The Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center.
He also left behind a gaggle of controversies surrounding the erection of this $96 million museum and the $450 million art collection it houses.Survivors include one disgruntled heiress, some miffed shareholders, one confused university, one snubbed museum, and some skeptical art world experts.
The battles in the art world center around whether the collection is deserving of its own museum. It is without dispute a collection to be regarded: 100 paintings by American and European artists, some 10,000 pieces by French caricaturist Honore Daumier and 18 sheets of drawings and notations by Leonardo da Vinci.
The Daumier assemblage is the second largest of that artist's work, and Hammer Codex, as it is known, is the only privately owned Leonardo manuscript.
"It's not a comprehensive collection; it's a personal collection. I think he bought the paintings that he liked," said Roger de Grey, president of Britain's Royal Academy where all three portions of the collection have been shown.
"It's a pretty significant collection by one person of representative work of a number of major artists," said Hammer Museum director Stephen Garrett, who left London 17 years ago to assist J. Paul Getty in the opening of his museum. "The fact that it's not the best in the world can still mean it's jolly good."
"However, one manuscript, one big study collection, and a handful of first-rate paintings do not a museum make," wrote Los Angeles art critic Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1988. A museum for the Hammer Collection would have been welcomed had it included Hammer's series of old master drawings, among them a Michelangelo, a Raphael and a Leonardo.
But following an agreement between Hammer and Washington's National Gallery director J. Carter Brown, the group of 12 with 39 more to come were donated to the Washington D.C. museum in 1987.
There was not to be much accord between Hammer and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's board of directors of which he had been a member. When the board refused to acquiesce to his demand for a separate installation and staff for his collection, Hammer did not back down.
In 1988, after 17 years of promising his collection to LACMA, Hammer announced he would build his own museum. LACMA had suffered far more than a breach of faith (there were written pledges, but none were legally binding).
The museum made its purchasing decision based on the knowledge that the Hammer collection would one day be theirs. For example, Knight noted recently in the Los Angeles Times that the museum backed down from buying 6, 000 Daumiers when it learned that its trustee was interested in them.
Now the Daumiers reside in a four-story, 79,000-square-foot marble fortress that surrounds a courtyard. Designed by New York architect Edward Larabee Barnes, it took two years to complete, and less than a month ago it opened to the characteristic Hammer-style fanfare.
In the legal arena, Hammer's problems got underway last summer, when Occidental Petroleum shareholders filed three lawsuits. The plaintiffs claimed Hammer had used unauthorized corporate monies to fund the construction and endowment of the museum.
During the proceedings, in fact, it surfaced that corporate funds had been used to purchase significant pieces such as the Leonardo manuscript, which Hammer bought for more than $5.3 million from Christie's in 1980.
A judge in Delaware, the state in which Occidental is incorporated, has now ruled that no more than $60 million in Oxy money can be put forward to the museum. Not surprisingly, the shareholders have appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court.
On the opposite coast resides the disgruntled heiress, Joan Weiss, whose case is expected to be heard in Los Angeles this spring. The only heir to the $33 million fortune of Hammer's widow claims that at least half of Hammer's collection is rightfully hers. She contends that her aunt did not have adequate legal representation when she waived her rights.
The opinions as to Hammer's legacy are predictably disparate.
Christopher Knight said, "It isn't simply that he did damage to LACMA, but he did do damage to himself."
However, J. Carter Brown said, "His decision to donate these magnificent drawings to the National Gallery was only one of his many magnanimous contributions to the cultural life of the nation, for which he will long be remembered."