Walter Hopps

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Walter Hopps
Born (1932-05-03)May 3, 1932
Died March 20, 2005(2005-03-20) (aged 72)
Occupation Museum Director and Curator.

Walter Hopps (May 3, 1932 – March 20, 2005) was an American museum director and curator of contemporary art. His obituary in The Washington Post described him as a "sort of a gonzo museum director—elusive, unpredictable, outlandish in his range, jagged in his vision, heedless of rules."[1]

Early life and education

Hopps was born into a family of prominent doctors in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, California. He was home-tutored until junior high school, when he entered the private Polytechnic School in Pasadena. From there he went to Eagle Rock High School.[2] At Eagle Rock, he was assigned to an arts-enrichment program that included visits to cultural sites and performances around Los Angeles. One such visit was to the home of the pioneering Modern Art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, who befriended the young Hopps and invited him to their house frequently.[3] In 1950, Hopps enrolled at Stanford University; a year later he switched to UCLA to study microbiology. He also studied art history.


In 1952-1955, while in college, Hopps operated Syndell Studio in Los Angeles, showing the work of artists he knew in the area. As the gallery was closing in 1955, he organized the "Action" exhibition in the indoor merry-go-round at Santa Monica Pier. Hopps and several friends stretched tarps around the merry-go-round poles and hung nearly 100 paintings by 40 artists, mostly from San Francisco, including Sonia Gechtoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Paul Sarkisian and Jay De Feo.[4] While nothing in the exhibition sold, as a free show, it attracted a diverse group of attendees from the surrounding beaches.[5]

In 1957, he founded the Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, in partnership with artist Ed Kienholz. Keinholz soon left to focus on his own work and sold his interest to Irving Blum. The gallery showed a range of east and west coast artists during Hopps's tenure there, including, famously, Andy Warhol's first gallery show, which consisted of 32 Campbell's Soup Can paintings. Slow sales of Warhol's work ultimately persuaded Blum to buy all 32 pictures for himself; they are now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.[6]

Hopps left Ferus in 1962 to become curator of the Pasadena Art Museum, now the Norton Simon Museum, and was promoted to director in 1964. At Pasadena, he mounted the first museum retrospectives of Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp, as well as the first survey of American Pop Art, New Painting of Common Objects. His work at Pasadena brought him to national attention. Hopps served as United States commissioner for the São Paulo Biennial in 1965 and the Venice Biennale in 1972.[7]

Leaving Pasadena, he was appointed director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1967 and oversaw its absorption into the Corcoran Gallery of Art. At the Corcoran, he was appointed director in 1970 and left in 1972 amid a dispute over his support of unionizing the staff.[8] Hopps's staff at the Corcoran found him frustratingly unavailable when he was needed, and created buttons reading "Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes."[9] From 1972 to 1979, Hopps was curator of 20th-Century American Art at the Smithsonian's National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum). He commented to an interviewer about that period, saying that working for bureaucrats at the Smithsonian was "like moving through an atmosphere of Seconal."[10] Nevertheless, he curated notable exhibitions at the Smithsonian, including a large-scale 1976 retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg that was the museum's Bicentennial observance.

In 1979, Hopps became a consultant to the Menil Foundation, helping select the architect Renzo Piano to design the Menil Collection and becoming director in 1980. He was the director of the museum when it opened in 1987, but soon assumed a role as curator of 20th-century art. At the Menil, his exhibitions included a retrospective of the French artist Yves Klein as well as exhibitions of the work of John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, and Max Ernst. He organized a Kienholz retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1996; a second Rauschenberg retrospective (with Susan Davidson) at the Guggenheim Museum and the Menil in 1997.[7]

Hopps died in Los Angeles after a brief hospitalization at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He was in Southern California to mount a retrospective of the work of sculptor George Herms, which he organized for the Santa Monica Museum of Art.[2]


Writing in The New Yorker magazine in 1991, Calvin Tompkins sought to describe Hopps's radical approach to curatorial work, saying,

His sensitivity to works of art takes in not only the works of art themselves but the dialogue that he believes can and should occur between one work and another, provided the placement, the lighting, the sightlines can all be worked out. In a Hopps exhibition, considerations of art history and scholarship are often present, along with ideas about style and influence and social issues, but the primary emphasis is always on how the art looks on the wall, and this, surprisingly, makes Walter Hopps something of a maverick in his profession.[11]

In her 2005 obituary of Hopps, New York Times critic Roberta Smith observed that Hopps's career "contributed significantly to the emergence of the museum as a place to show new art."[7]

In 2001, the Menil Collection established the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, given every other year to a distinguished mid-career curator. The award includes a $20,000 stipend and the opportunity to deliver a lecture at the Menil Collection.[12]


  1. ^ Richard, Paul (March 22, 2005). "Walter Hopps, Museum Man With a Talent For Talent". Washington Post. Retrieved 19 October 2017.
  2. ^ a b Christopher Knight (March 22, 2005), Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists Los Angeles Times.
  3. ^ Hopps, Walter; Treisman, Deborah; Doran, Anne (2017). The Dream Colony: A Life in Art. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 31–32. ISBN 978-1632865298.
  4. ^ Howard, Seymour, Galleries of Discovery: Beat Rhythms and Beats in "The Beat Generation: Galleries and Beyond", Natsoulas, John, John Natsoulas Press, 1996, pp. 5-9 and continuing. ISBN 1-881572-88-9
  5. ^ Hopps, Walter; Treisman, Deborah; Doran, Anne (2017). The Dream Colony: A Life in Art. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 50–51. ISBN 978-1632865298.
  6. ^ Hopps, Walter; Treisman, Deborah; Doran, Anne (2017). The Dream Colony: A Life in Art. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 121–123. ISBN 978-1632865298.
  7. ^ a b c Smith, Roberta (March 23, 2005). "Walter Hopps, 72, Curator With a Flair for the Modern, Is Dead". New York Times. Retrieved 19 October 2017.
  8. ^ Hopps, Walter; Treisman, Deborah; Doran, Anne (2017). The Dream Colony: A Life in Art. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 208, 231. ISBN 978-1632865298.
  9. ^ "Walter Hopps Will be Here in 20 Minutes". Archived from the original on 2011-07-08. Retrieved 2010-11-12.
  10. ^ Obrist, Hans-Ulrich (February 1, 1996). "Walter Hopps hopps hopps". Artforum. Retrieved 19 October 2017.
  11. ^ Tomkins, Calvin (July 29, 1991). "A Touch for the Now: Walter Hopps". The New Yorker: 34.
  12. ^ Greenberger, Alex (May 23, 2017). "Menil Collection's Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement Goes to Reem Fadda". Art News. Retrieved 15 October 2017.

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