Arts / Museums

50-Year-Plus Art Career Celebrated at The Menil — The Power of Walter Hopps’ Prolific Imagination

The Challenge and Joys of Curating The Curator

BY Haley Berkman Karren // 08.08.23

As a curator, it is easy to be inspired by Walter Hopps. The late gallerist and founding director of The Menil Collection was known for his incredible dedication to artists, a mission that this Houston museum continues to emphasize. 

I worked as a curatorial assistant at the Menil in 2019 when we coordinated and accepted a major gift of more than 600 artworks from Hopps’ widow Caroline Huber, a fellow curator, artist and co-director of Houston’s DiverseWorks. This massive undertaking — which consisted of multiple departments such as curatorial, exhibitions, collections and conservation — helped yield the Menil’s exhibition “The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps,” which is now on view through this Sunday, August 13.

The exhibition celebrates Hopps’ 50-plus year career and features more than 130 artworks from 70 artists. Its accompanying catalog, Artists We’ve Known: Selected Works from The Walter Hopps and Caroline Huber Collection, highlights 53 works and 50 artists from Hopps’ and Huber’s collection. Short essays accompany the works, detailing the artists’ relationships with the couple and describing the selected piece. 

Curator Clare Elliott beautifully installs the exhibition within the context of the broader holdings of the Menil, which Hopps assisted in shaping. Elliott tells us more:

Installation view of "The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps" at the Menil Collection (Photo by Paul Hester)
Installation view of “The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps” at The Menil Collection (Photo by Paul Hester)

Walter Hopps is a storied curator. What was it like creating The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hoops with artwork he personally collected?

Clare Elliott: It was challenging, but it was a lot of fun. It was an amazing opportunity to learn about both well established and underrecognized artists, and to connect with living artists who had vivid memories of their time with Hopps. For several years I worked closely with Caroline Huber, which was invaluable to understanding Hopps and the collection.

Introducing Pêche

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What were you most surprised about while curating this exhibition of promised gifts to the Menil?

CE: I was most surprised by how much it resonated with the history of the museum. When the installation was finished, it felt much more personal and more poignant than I was expecting.

How do you see Hopps’s legacy continuing to inform the Menil?

CE: We continue to honor Hopps’s ardent dedication to living artists, which he shared with John and Dominique de Menil. Also, while museum practice can be a little bit bureaucratic, the Menil strives to honor the curiosity and openness that made Hopps stand out in the field.  

When and where did the idea for the show get hatched?

CE: In November 2019, the Menil’s Board of Trustees approved Huber’s large, promised gift. We started working shortly thereafter on an exhibition to highlight that donation. The show was rescheduled due to pandemic disruptions, and the idea evolved into weaving key works from the permanent collection into the installation so that we could both celebrate the gift and also explore Hopps’ curatorial legacy.

A visitor at "The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps" at the Menil Collection (Photo by Hung Truong)
A visitor at “The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps” at The Menil Collection (Photo by Hung Truong)

Caroline Huber echoes Elliott’s remarks.

“There is an energy you feel when you walk into The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps,” Huber says. “The exhibition encapsulates the spirit and appreciation Walter had for artists, their work and their presentation. . .

“It’s thrilling to see several (artworks gifted to the Menil) in this exhibition, as part of a place Walter and I have loved and that has transformed both our lives.”

I also spoke with the Houston-based Sharon and Gus Kopriva, who were both profoundly inspired by Hopps. Sharon Kopriva, an artist and her husband Gus are avid art collectors who founded the nonprofit art space Redbud Arts Center. In 2000, Hopps dedicated a solo show to Sharon Kopriva at the Menil. The artist recalls the early stages of working on the exhibition, including stories that depicted Hopps’ idiosyncratic and ingenious nature. 

“It was incredible seeing his mind at work,” Sharon Kopriva says. “He went through all of my artwork and then picked the show. I was nervous and in awe of Walter. I went in to see the model (of the exhibition), and he had a piece that wasn’t straight.

“I moved it, but quickly moved it back when I saw his expression. That was how he wanted it.”

That piece was Kopriva’s From Dust Thou Art, a sculpture of the pope in a wheelchair, her version of Velazquez’s Pope Innocent X. From Dust Thou Art was acquired by artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz, who were incredibly close to Hopps and Huber.

Sharon Kopriva also remembers how the curator asked her to draw something for the inside cover of the exhibition catalog that would tie the show together. That piece dubbed Cosmic Fish became the frontispiece of the catalog. She gifted it to Hopps — and now the artwork is in the promised gift and on view in The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps.

Gus Kopriva viewed Hopps as his mentor and speaks highly of his discerning eye. 

“He could go into any artist’s studio and pick out his best piece in just one visit,” he says. 

Gus Kopriva also shares that Hopps attended many openings at Redbud Arts Center and had a sharp eye for lighting. 

“He would always say, ‘Light the art, not the walls. It is all about the light.’ He would get the ladders out even during the opening to change the lights,” Gus Kopriva details. 

Both Koprivas fondly recall how Hopps held court late at night at the House of Pies. If one ever received calls at 2 or 3 am, they knew it was Hopps, bubbling with ideas.

“The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps” is on view through this Sunday, August 13 at The Menil Collection. Learn more here

Haley Berkman Karren, a former Menil curatorial assistant, is an art advisor, appraiser, independent curator and writer. She is the founder and director of Karren Art Advisory, specializing in modern and contemporary art, photography, and digital art.

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