Embracing the "American Idol Syndrome": Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin on L.A.'s New Biennial

Embracing the "American Idol Syndrome": Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin on L.A.'s New Biennial
The Hammer Museum
(Courtesy Wikipedia)

It is often remarked of the Los Angeles art scene that it lacks the institutional infrastructure of a New York or a London. This has been true historically and remains so today: despite a handful of world-class museums, the real locus of energy remains stubbornly diffused across an ever-shifting network of commercial galleries, artist-run spaces, and art school departments, driven by individuals and personal relationships more than executive decisions by corporatized entities. As the scene’s international profile continues to rise, however, large-scale institutional gestures have appeared with greater frequency, suggesting that the tide is at least starting to turn: LACMA’s accumulation of sculptural landmarks (such as Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass”); the Getty’s massively funded revision of the American canon, Pacific Standard Time; and the struggle of one art fair after another to find a reliable foothold. The latest was the announcement last week a new biennial, hosted by the Hammer Museum, complete with a flashy $100,000 prize.

It’s not the first biennial in southern California — the Orange County Museum launched the California Biennial in 1984 — nor is it exactly a first for the Hammer, which has been mounting something functionally equivalent since 2001 as an "invitational." It feels, indeed, like a natural extension of the agile and reliably intelligent program that’s made the Hammer — arguably L.A.’s most agile museum — such an excellent resource. More surprising, perhaps, is the prize announced alongside the new event. Funded by philanthropists Jarl and Pamela Mohn, who made their money in television and media, the Mohn Prize surpasses even London's Turner Prize in value, matches the Whitney Museum’s Bucksbaum Award in New York, and far outstrips any comparable merit-based windfall available to Los Angeles artists locally today. (The California Community Foundation awards grants of $15,000-$20,000 annually; the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs offers $10,000.) In a conspicuous nod to the donor’s entertainment background, the winner will be chosen by public consensus, American Idol-style. Is this a positive development? Time will tell. The Mohns have committed to funding the prize for at least 10 years.

The first Hammer biennial, titled “Made in L.A. 2012,” will open June 2 spread between three locations: the Hammer itself, LAXART in Culver City, and the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, a city-run space in Hollywood, as well as on a handful of billboards around town. Developed in collaboration with LAXART, a nonprofit venue, with five curators drawn from  both institutions (Anne Ellegood and Ali Subotnick from the Hammer; Lauri Firstenberg, Cesar Garcia, and Malik Gaines from LAXART), the exhibition features 60 artists of respectable diversity, most of them young but with a notable handful of locally respected but nationally under-recognized older artists like Channa Horwitz, Thomas Lawson, and Simone Forti. There is no explicit theme, though the curators site “archeology, materiality, theatricality, subjectivity, and mythology” as guiding concepts. By late June, a team of judges will have narrowed the 60 artists involved down to five, and then the public will be invited to vote on a winner. (Visitors will have to register at the Hammer or the Municipal Art Gallery to qualify, though voting may be done online.) The winner will be announced in late August.

ARTINFO Los Angeles spoke with Hammer director Ann Philbin about what the Biennial means for Los Angeles.

What was the decision to transform the invitational into a biennial? What does it mean for the Hammer to take on such an established tradition?

We’ve been conflicted about it for years. We called it a biennial internally and have always thought about it that way but resisted the word, for obvious reasons: because there are a lot of them and they’re notoriously hated, loved, anticipated, despised.  It’s a loaded word. In the end, we decided to just call it what it is — a biennial. The public understands what 'biennial' means and that goes a long way in attracting audiences to an institution — people actually know what they’re coming to see.

Last year in “All of This and Nothing,” the Hammer’s sixth invitational, half the artists were from L.A. and half were international and, quite frankly, people got really upset with us. It was very surprising. We realized that people — artists especially — looked forward to the tradition of our invitationals shining a spotlight on L.A. artists. We also realized that there was space for a serial exhibition that focused exclusively on L.A. artists. The [“Made in L.A. ”] curators saw over 600 artists, but the truth is they could have seen 3,000. There are enough artists living in this town and coming out of the art schools here that there really is no reason not to do an L.A. biennial, especially when you think of what an international scene is being created here. A full third of the artists in “Made in L.A.” were born outside of the United States. We felt like L.A. could handle a focused show every two years, and that the vitality of the scene warranted it.

What role do you see the Biennial playing in L.A. moving forward?

Los Angeles has absolutely become a destination for the art world, and, as we all know, the art world likes to organize itself around certain events. It was amazing to me how many people flew in from all over the world to see Pacific Standard Time — boards of institutions from all over the country, groups from Europe and South America. We heard a lot of, “This is so great, I’ve learned so much about the history of California art,  I wish we could know more about what’s happening here now.” The international art world is very interested in the contemporary art scene here because they know it is influential, definitive, and exciting. I think they’d love the opportunity to come every other summer and see a great selection of contemporary artists all at once. This is not just for an L.A. audience, I think it has the potential to attract cultural tourism. 

The organization of this year’s Biennial reflects one of the more interesting aspects of the L.A. art world: the extensive degree of institutional collaboration. Is that likely to continue in some form or was it specific to this year?

It was definitely specific to this year. We’ve collaborated with LAXART on different projects before this, and really enjoyed it. We basically decided that we wanted to make this year really big — and it is really big — and we needed a partner to do that. Moving forward I’m not sure we will do as many as 60 artists every time or that we will always collaborate with another institution. Certainly there will be different curators for the next one though I don’t know who they are yet. 

When will the next biennial’s curators be chosen?

We hope to announce the curatorial team for the next biennial by the end of this summer. We’re looking for a new chief curator at the Hammer at the moment, so possibly that person would also curate the next  biennial — maybe partnering with an outside curator.

How does the Mohn Prize figure in? One might argue that the gesture runs contrary to the generally inclusive spirit of the scene in L.A.: to recognize a fairly diverse range of artists, then single one out as somehow better than the others. Also, it’s a huge amount of money to saddle a young artist with (were a young artist to win it). What would you say to these sorts of criticisms?

For most biennials there is a prize. It’s a way of calling attention to the exhibition. We want to create as much visibility as we can for these 60 artists. Would the artists say, “Why are you giving one person $100,000? Why don’t you just give 20 people $5,000?” Some might prefer that, but the truth is it wouldn’t be as effective in calling attention to the show — I’m convinced of that. The gift of $100,000 is a significant amount and very importantly, it’s the amount that felt right to the donor. Jarl Mohn’s expertise is marketing and PR. He started the E! network and has come up with some great taglines, including one for our local NPR station KPCC: "NO RANT NO SLANT." He knows his stuff. It’s a great strategy and will create buzz — especially the public voting part.  

Was there any conversation about what $100,000 does for an artist’s career?

Frankly, I don’t think it really will alter their lives that dramatically but it certainly could offer some creative freedom for a while. I think it might change somebody’s year in a big way, maybe two years, but I don’t think it’s a life changing amount really. Hopefully it offers a little extra boost to their careers with the added attention as well.

How was the decision made to make the final round of voting public?

Again, we’re making no bones about the fact that this is all about calling attention to the exhibition and bringing an audience in to see the show.  We’re borrowing a model from popular culture — the American Idol syndrome. After the panel of five jurors winnows the 60 artists down to five then the public will vote on the winner. People seem to appreciate a more active participation in their experience of culture — they love the idea of judging and affecting what they see.