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Don't Count Him Out Yet

Henry Hopkins is retiring as director of the UCLA/Hammer, but his work is far from over.

October 25, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic

'Every day is not going to be like this," James Elliott, then-chief curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art, warned his new assistant, Henry T. Hopkins, on a balmy evening in 1961. Hopkins had spent his first day on the job with William Seitz, a prominent curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who had come to Los Angeles to judge the annual open exhibition at the county museum in Exposition Park. When Seitz finished, the curators went to the luxurious home of collectors Frederick and Marcia Weisman for a swim and a leisurely dinner.

"Quite right," said Hopkins, in an interview at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, which he has directed since 1994. "Those were wonderful times. There was a different museum world then."

Hopkins, who celebrated his 70th birthday in August and is retiring from the UCLA/Hammer museum at the end of the year, has had many good days during his long career as a curator, educator and museum director. But he has also weathered some bad times during Los Angeles' fitful evolution as an international cultural center, and he has witnessed troubling changes in America's art museums.

Born and raised in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Hopkins began painting as a child and earned a master's degree at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1955. He then taught art at Grossmont High School in San Diego for two years, but returned to school to pursue his career as an artist. Funded by the GI Bill from a tour of duty in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and inspired by art he had seen in European museums while stationed near Munich, Germany, he enrolled at UCLA in 1957.

He became thoroughly immersed in the local art scene and decided that his talents lay in the area of curatorial and educational work rather than painting. While still in graduate school he organized an exhibition of Los Angeles contemporary painting at UCLA and ran the Huysman Gallery, a commercial contemporary art gallery across the street from the seminal Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard.

Sensing that Hopkins was a rising star, Elliott asked him to join the staff of the multifaceted county museum in 1961, when plans to build a separate art museum on Wilshire Boulevard were in the works. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened in 1965; Hopkins rose through the ranks to become head curator of exhibitions and publications. He stayed until 1968, when he became director of the Fort Worth Art Museum, in Texas, a 20th century art museum.

Returning to California in 1974, he directed the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until 1986, then came back to Los Angeles and led the Frederick R. Weisman Foundation of Art for five years. In 1991, Hopkins moved to UCLA as chairman of the art department and director of the Wight Art Gallery, but he was soon embroiled in the university's negotiations to take over management and programming of the Hammer Museum. In 1994, when the merger occurred, Hopkins became director of the UCLA/Hammer Museum.

Debonair and well-spoken, Hopkins is an educator at heart and a natural diplomat. He looks every bit the respectable museum director--stocky, fit and distinguished, with neatly combed white hair, a thick mustache and a ready smile. But having spent his entire career in the West, he is also a bit of a renegade--widely recognized as a stalwart and effective champion of West Coast art.

Hopkins will remain on the faculty, teaching art history and theory full time at the university, but he is leaving the museum. Preparing for the next phase of his professional life, he talked about the ever-changing art scene and how he might realize some of his dreams.

Question: What is it about Los Angeles that has kept you here?

Answer: People are always surprised, particularly my San Francisco friends, that I have an affinity for Southern California, but it's very much a part of my heritage. When I was little, my father had business in Southern California and we had relatives in Pasadena, so every year in February--the worst time of the year in Idaho--we would pile in the car and head out across the barren Nevada desert, where Las Vegas was just a pimple on the horizon at the time, and come into San Bernardino. With the orange groves, the smell of the blossoms and orange juice stands on the corner, it was like coming to heaven. Then, even though it was winter, we would go the beach. That wonderful smell of oil and sand around Long Beach permeated my soul.

This is also a place where a lot can happen, and I think it's destined now in the next 20 years to be the lead city for the 21st century, mainly because we have gone through a lot of trauma and sorted it out. It's a challenge to try to get the best here, to get more and more interesting people to come here, to get over our self-consciousness about differences between the East and the West and get on with it. But it's not only a challenge, it's fun.

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