Hammer Museum’s Connie Butler looks back - and ahead

The Hammer Museum at UCLA plans to reopen April 17, which signals the end of a 13-month waiting game amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With safety protocols in place, the museum can reopen at 25% capacity to visitors with timed tickets, allowing the public to finally see “Made in L.A. 2020: a version,’ the acclaimed biennial that spotlights emerging Los Angeles artists and, for the first time, extends to galleries at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

“We’re not allowed to have big gatherings or big crowds,’ said Connie Butler, the Hammer’s chief curator. “It will be quiet and a really nice time to be in the galleries.’

Butler, who co-curated the second iteration of “Made in L.A.’ in 2014, says the biennial “proves... that Los Angeles is such a deep and vast art community right now — actually, it’s many different art communities — and it can really support a show that is a core sample of contemporary art in L.A. every two years.’

In the nine years since the biennial’s premiere, Los Angeles has furthered its reputation as a global nexus of contemporary art, and “Made in L.A.’ has helped shape that perception through its focus on emerging artists. The current exhibition is organized by independent curators Myriam Ben Salah and Lauren Mackler, with Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, the Hammer’s assistant curator of performance. The team made about 300 studio visits, Butler said.

“There was a time, and I remember it many years ago when I was a curator at [the Museum of Contemporary Art], when you almost felt like if you made enough studio visits, you could actually visit every single artist in Los Angeles. And that is vastly not the case anymore,’ she said.

This year’s biennial continues a trend of highlighting artists from outside the traditional art establishment. The show features Fulton Leroy Washington (also known as Mr. Wash), who learned to paint while serving a life sentence in prison, and Mario Ayala, whose paintings employ an airbrush technique that borrows from Chicano underground culture.

Butler says the museum has seen a large increase in global attendance for online programs over this past year. The Hammer’s programs have continued to explore political and social issues, such as voter suppression and anti-Asian violence, while taking on conversation series like “Reimaging the Museum,’ which offers a forum for critical dialogue about colonial and racist histories in cultural institutions and the future of museums.

“For many of the things that we’re thinking about in the museum field right now, we’ve been able to address in a really topical and immediate way,’ she said.

Butler has long had an interest in feminism and art, curating exhibitions by significant women artists, such as Adrian Piper, Lygia Clark and Marisa Merz, and co-editing “Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art.’

“I have always honestly felt the deep rage that comes from being a woman growing up and becoming an adult under patriarchy in the United States,’ she said.

Prior to her time at the Hammer, she curated “WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where she was curator from 1996 to 2006. The landmark international women’s art show featured works from 120 artists in a variety of mediums, but it was criticized for being overwhelmingly white, something Butler now regrets.

“In 2007 that show interrogated white feminism. I was trying to do something both canonical but also revisionist,’ she said. “The show had many flaws, and many artists who I now wish had been included were not.’

She’s looking to apply that lesson to the Hammer, where “bringing forward more women of color in our program is something that we need to do a better job of,’ she said.

“Witch Hunt,’ a show Butler co-curated with Anne Ellegood, executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, was intended to coincide with the 2020 presidential election, but it has been postponed to fall 2021. The exhibition, a survey of 15 midcareer international artists, focuses on political and social issues through the lens of feminism. It’s meant to encourage dialogue about issues ranging from violence against women and transgender people to the right to free speech and protest in a democratic society.

In addition to curating, Butler has helped lead the museum’s acquisitions of contemporary artists, ranging from work by Japanese photographer Daidō Moriyama to drawings by Tishan Hsu, whose survey was on view when the Hammer closed last year. The collection has a strong focus on Los Angeles-based artists, with recent acquisitions including a video installation by Miljohn Ruperto, mixed-media work by Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio and a recent project by Lauren Halsey.

“During the pandemic, although our acquisition funds have been reduced, we have managed to still primarily support artists working in L.A.,’ she said.

The Hammer has long prided itself as being an artist-led museum. In 2007, it assembled an artist council that meets quarterly and functions like a board of advisers. The council — which includes Andrea Fraser, UCLA Department of Art chair and professor; Charles Gaines and Njideka Akunyili Crosby — pushed for more online programming in 2009 and suggested a critical look at diversity, equity and inclusion among the Hammer’s own staff and board in 2014.

“This came out of a conversation about the diversity of Hammer exhibitions and our biennials in particular, and it was a really robust, not always easy, discussion that we started having with the artists on our council,’ Butler said.

That dialogue led to the formation of an internal Diversity and Inclusion Group. The Hammer’s Artists Council also spearheaded discussions about how artists are compensated for participating in Hammer exhibitions and programming.

Butler also looks forward to strengthening the Hammer’s relationship with UCLA, which assumed management and operations of the museum in 1994. Student educators lead museum tours and help curate programming, professors use the exhibitions and collections for teaching and research, and faculty are regularly featured in exhibitions and virtual programs. She’d like to see more classes visit the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts and other collections at the Hammer, and to see more student roles at the museum.

“A lot of what we do is unexpected for an art museum,’ she said, but being part of UCLA “helps broaden the context for a lot of those programs.’

Reflecting on the past year, Butler understands the public health reasons for keeping museums in Los Angeles closed, even as it was “distressing’ to see museums in other major cities reopen months ago.

“Museums employ thousands of people. Their visitors stimulate local businesses in many different neighborhoods across the city,’ she said. “We contribute $50 billion to the economy and support more than 700,000 jobs. We’re not just recreation.’

The city’s cultural leaders have been discussing how to make the case for museums as a necessary public good and “proving our own essential contribution to the city’s lifeblood.’

With a planned physical expansion of the museum’s gallery spaces, more virtual programming and the possibility of in-person events in the fall, Butler is looking forward to the Hammer’s future — beginning with opening the doors once again.

“It’s been a long, long time. We’re very excited,’ she said.

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