L.A.'s Hammer Museum Announces Free Admission at Annual Gala

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From left: Jodie Foster, Ann Philbin and Alexandra Hedison

The museum drew Jodie Foster, Rita Wilson and Will Ferrell to its Gala in the Garden, which honored writer Tony Kushner and artist Robert Gober Saturday night.

The director of Westwood's Hammer Museum, Ann Philbin, made a surprise announcement at its 11th annual Gala in the Garden on Saturday, Oct. 5, that the arts institution would make its exhibitions free to the public. The free admissions would start in February thanks to two $1 million donations from philanthropists Erika Glazer and Brenda Potter, which would cover the charge for four years. The news follows on the heels of another Los Angeles museum, the upcoming Broad, announcing that it too would be free to the public when it debuts in 2014. Is this the beginning of an L.A. trend?

The donations were part of an outpouring of support, with the museum pulling in $2 million additionally at the fundraiser, which was sponsored by Bottega Veneta and drew Jodie Foster with Alexandra Hedison, The Simpsons and Futurama creator Matt Groening, United Talent Agency CEO and Hammer board of overseers member Jeremy Zimmer, Maria Bello, producers Lawrence Bender and Marcy Carsey, actress Dana Delany, singer Beth Ditto, Diane Kruger and Joshua Jackson, and Thomas Jane, going barefoot as usual.

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Even with a guest list numbering some 600 board members and other supporters, artists and gallerists, the Gala in the Garden manages to be one of the most intimate-feeling L.A. art fundraisers of the year. At the outset, there's no red carpet. Cocktails start on the Hammer's exhibition level (the current show of paintings by outsider artist Forrest Bess is a standout, though the story on the wall about his self-surgery to become hermaphroditic comes as a bit of a shock) and then continue with a dinner, prepared by chef Suzanne Goin of Lucques, in the courtyard garden under twinkling lights.

The evening was co-chaired by actor couple Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks along with Tomas Maier, creative director of Bottega Veneta. But Hanks was unable to attend, so Will Ferrell stepped up to the stage with Wilson for the night's opening remarks, deciding that the next best thing to Hanks was Ferrell as Hanks.

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"Thank you all for coming. I'm Tom Hanks," said Ferrell, who then planted a kiss on Wilson. The two then bantered about being married for 25 years and how they never kiss in public generally. Ferrell also joked he'd been reprimanded for touching artwork at the museum and he plugged "his" new movie: "Go see my next film, Captain Phillips, out Oct. 11." Later, Wilson, recovered from Ferrell's smooch, chuckled to The Hollywood Reporter: "I like to tell you, actors always look different in person."

Each year, the Hammer Museum names two honorees, one of whom is often from the entertainment world. This year, Lincoln and Angels in America writer Tony Kushner filled the latter role. Actress Viola Davis, who's known him since her days at Juilliard, introduced Kushner, but continued the barefoot appearances of the night by taking off her Bottega Veneta shoes and placing them on the podium. "Beautiful shoes, beautiful designer, but I have a bunion."

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Kushner gave a stem-winder of an acceptance speech, though he rushed at times. "It's so nice to fly to L.A. for an award I'm 100 percent certain I'm going to win," he started, before paying tribute to the Hammer for its collections, "which are so rich, so surprising, so dazzlingly varied … a museum that provides food for the mind as well as for the eyes, a museum named for Armie Hammer's great-grandpa." He really got going as he launched into a paean to the ways art and literature benefit a culture, citing a recent study that showed that reading great literature improved participants' social skills, including empathy.

It wasn't a stretch, he said, given the government shutdown, to think that politicians might be in need of exposure to some good literature and art right now. "Science now tells me art is maybe what's missing when I encounter as one does flagrant displays of jaw-dropping stupidity and borderline sociopathy. Take for instance what's been happening in the House of Representatives. Probably a lot of you spent the last week reading the papers and watching TV, and the voice in my head is screaming, 'What is wrong with these guys?!' Now I know it's because they've been reading the wrong kinds of books. They haven't gotten art. … Now I know the answer is to bring him to the Hammer Museum."

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Artist Charles Ray then introduced artist and friend Robert Gober, who'd previously curated a show of painter Charles Burchfield's work at the Hammer and recently a show of Bess' work at the Whitney. Ray praised Gober -- known for his sculptures of everyday objects like sinks and doors -- as an artist whose "heart is in the world and that's what makes it great."

The night ended with a quick set -- at times ethereal, mostly deeply powerful -- by singer k.d. lang, whose songs included her signature rendition of "Hallelujah" and Cole Porter's "I Am in Love." Also spotted in the crowd:

China Chow, writer and producer Maria Bell, DreamWorks Animations' Bill Damaschke with business manager John McIlwee, Jena Malone, Rodarte's Laura Mulleavy, For Your Art's Bettina Korek, The Gersh Agency's Bob Gersh, lawyer Alan Hergott, board of overseers members Michael Rubel, managing partner at CAA, producer David Hoberman and Leonard Nimoy, plus a host of artists including Alex Israel, Walead Beshty, Doug Aitken, Ed Ruscha, James Welling, Jennifer Steinkamp, Mary Weatherford, Glenn Kaino, Elliott Hundley, Thomas Demand and Catherine Opie.