After nearly two years of on-and-off negotiations, the Armand Hammer Museum and its landlord, Occidental Petroleum Corp., have worked out an agreement for construction of the long-awaited Billy Wilder Theater.


The 4,000-square-foot theater, located off to the side of the museum's central courtyard, will seat nearly 300 and become the new home of the UCLA Film and Television Archive's public screenings.


"This is the first phase and in many ways it's the most important phase," said Steffen B & #246;ddeker, the museum's communications director. "We always thought of the theater as the centerpiece of the (expansion) project. It's fully funded and finally going forward."


Audrey L. Wilder, widow of movie director Billy Wilder, donated $5 million to the museum in July 2003 to build a theater bearing her late husband's name.


B & #246;ddeker said construction is expected to begin in the fall and the theater could be operational in a year. He didn't expect difficulty getting permits from the city since construction will take place internally.


The theater, which will have stadium seating and the ability to screen classic films as well as digital video and film capability, is one of many improvements for which the museum is raising funds.


B & #246;ddeker said one sticking point in the negotiations was that Occidental executives were concerned about the impact construction and the operating theater would have on their headquarters building. Occidental, like many energy companies, requires a high level of security because of the sensitivity of its business and the attraction it draws from protestors. "They weren't excited about having more traffic in the building," B & #246;ddeker said.


Occidental spokesman Lawrence Meriage declined comment. Through B & #246;ddeker, Ann Philbin, the museum's executive director, declined to comment until the theater project is closer to breaking ground.


Officials at the museum, officially called the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center at UCLA, still hope to finish 3,650 square feet of raw exhibition space, a 2,660-square-foot reception and lecture hall, and a 1,000-square-foot multipurpose classroom. There are also plans for a restaurant and an expanded bookstore off the museum's courtyard.


The additions aren't new construction. When Armand Hammer, then Occidental's chairman, began building the museum to house his personal art collection, the improvements were part of the original plan. However the museum's current plans are designed by L.A.-based architect Michael Maltzan.


However, a group of shareholders disagreed with Hammer on using Occidental funds for the museum and successfully sued to halt construction, which was about two-thirds complete at the time.


Shortly after the museum opened in 1990, Hammer died and the relationship between Occidental and museum executives cooled. Four years later, UCLA took over managing the museum.


"It's not a secret from the start of the museum it's been a complicated relationship," B & #246;ddeker said. "I think both sides are trying to make the best of it. It's an unusual relationship."


Occidental has partially endowed the museum and owns the Occidental Petroleum Cultural Center Building, which houses the facility. So far the Hammer has raised $18 million toward the $25 million project, B & #246;ddeker said.


Already, the museum is moving forward with some elements of the expansion. Starting July 15, Jones on Third will serve food and beverages prepared at the restaurant from a courtyard location during museum hours.


After a slow start, the museum has gained some popularity. For the first time in more than five years, attendance last year topped 100,000 visitors.


The Hammer attracted an international spotlight in 2003 with a retrospective of sculptor Lee Bontacou. The show won the Hammer the International Association of Art Critics award for Best Monographic Museum Exhibition.


Philbin, who changed the Hammer from a collection of classics to a contemporary art focus, is also credited with strengthening the museum's staff of curators and forming strategic alliances with modern art museums in New York and Chicago to develop original shows.

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