As director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Ann Philbin '76 works at the intersection of culture and celebrity. Yet her best friends remain her fellow activists from UNH. "That time set the tone for my consciousness about the world," Philbin says. "The biggest lesson for me coming out of UNH was to question authority."
In the '70s, authority said artists went to New York. Philbin did, but quickly realized she was more passionate about organizing exhibitions than making her own art. She rose through the gallery ranks to head the Drawing Center, mixing art with activism through her work with the AIDS activist group Act Up. Then, in 1998, she shocked both the art world and herself by moving to Los Angeles.
At the time, the Hammer was a sleepy museum seen as billionaire Armand Hammer's vanity. Under Philbin's direction it has positioned itself not just at the leading edge of contemporary art but as a cultural center with a wildly varied program of talks, readings and films. The Los Angeles Times says Philbin's "energy, personal magnetism and art world connections create a perpetual buzz," and last year Art Review put her at number 28 on its international list of the 100 most powerful people in art.
Humans need culture, Philbin says—not just art but the whole network of experiences that link us to one another and push us beyond our boundaries. Connecting people with culture and unsettling their thinking is the form her activism takes today. As more of the art world has moved west, she has come to love Los Angeles. It feels less established than East Coast cities, with more space for individuals to make a difference. "I love the idea that I can build something here," she says. "Maybe that's the artist in me." —J.H.