Curator had formative role in L.A. arts


Henry T. Hopkins, a distinguished museum director and educator who played a leading role in establishing Los Angeles’ art scene, has died. He was 81.

He had suffered from a brain tumor for about eight months and died Sunday morning at Belmont Village, a senior living facility in Los Angeles, said his daughter, Victoria Shegoian.

Hopkins achieved national prominence as director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from 1974 to 1986, but he got his professional start at UCLA and returned there in later years.


“He was a genteel, highly intelligent and discerning man,” said Christopher Waterman, dean of UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture. “No one had more to do with establishing the very high quality of the visual art programs at our university, including the academic programs and the Hammer Museum. He chaired the art department from 1991 to 1994 and ran the Wight Art Gallery, and later became the first director of the Hammer Museum.”

After the death of oilman and museum founder Armand Hammer, Hopkins helped UCLA negotiate a complicated contract that put the university in charge of the Westwood museum’s management and programs, Waterman said. Hopkins “stepped down in ‘98, but he paved the way for what Ann Philbin has been able to do,” Waterman said, referring to Hopkins’ successor, who has transformed the Hammer into a high-profile exhibition center for contemporary art.

Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said Hopkins’ death is “the loss of one of the great advocates in the world for Southern California art.” Hopkins and Barron joined forces last year in a $1-million campaign to purchase “The Illegal Operation,” a controversial work by Edward Kienholz, for LACMA. “We pitched everyone we knew and were committed making it happen,” she said. “I’m so glad he was able to see it come to pass.”

Hopkins also encouraged the Getty Research Institute to develop programs about the history of Southern California art, including a series of exhibitions planned throughout the region in 2011.

“The bottom line,” said Jay Belloli, director of art programs at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, “is that it’s inconceivable to think of contemporary art in Southern California without Henry.”

In what was probably his last public appearance -- the recent 85th birthday party of fine-art publisher Sidney Felsen -- Hopkins stood in the courtyard of a West Hollywood restaurant, his walker off to the side, greeting friends as if in perfect health. To those who told him how well he looked, he cheerfully responded that the trouble inside his body didn’t show on the outside.

Born Aug. 14, 1928, in Idaho Falls, Idaho, he was the son of agronomist Talcott Thompson Hopkins and his wife, Zoe. Henry frequently accompanied his father on business trips throughout the country but didn’t drift far from home until he had completed three years of study at the College of Idaho in Caldwell, where he majored in psychology.

“Trying to find out about myself, I suppose,” he told The Times in a 1998 interview. “I had been painting since I was 6 or 7 years old, but in a small town like Idaho Falls, doing art was not something you talked very much about. You talked about football and basketball and potatoes. Art just grew naturally with me, but I always had the support of my parents.”

On the advice of the college’s art department chairman, Hopkins transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1952 and was soon drafted into military service.

Stationed in Germany and trained as a photographer, he made the most of opportunities to visit European museums.

He returned to the Art Institute in 1954, receiving a master’s degree the following year.

He married Joanne Bybee in 1954, a union that lasted 14 years and produced three children. The couple moved to San Diego, where Hopkins taught art at Grossmont High School from 1955 to 1957. With the help of the G.I. Bill and scholarship funds, they moved to Los Angeles in 1957 so Hopkins could do graduate work in painting and art history at UCLA. He quickly became enchanted with the city’s growing art scene.

“The turning point came when I approached Fred Wight about doing an exhibition as part of my dissertation,” Hopkins said, referring to his mentor. “He had grudgingly accepted the fact that I was working on Southern California art history and agreed that I could do an exhibition at UCLA. It was called something like ’50 Paintings by 35 Artists’ and included people like Edward Kienholz, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman, Ed Moses, who continued to prosper in later years.”

“The art world was a lot smaller in those days,” Hopkins said, “but in 1960-61 the show traveled to five quite respectable museums, so I guess I had established some little niche in the field.”

Hopkins’ influence grew as he launched the Huysman Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard and became involved with the circle of artists and curators at the much more prominent Ferus Gallery, across the street. He also taught UCLA Extension classes, introducing prospective collectors to new art.

His museum career began in 1961, when he became an assistant curator and educator at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park. He remained on staff for seven years, as the art branch of the institution evolved into the L.A. County Museum of Art.

Hopkins moved into administration in 1968, heading the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth for six years before stepping up to an eight-year tenure as director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His partner during that period was Jan Butterfield, an art teacher, critic and writer whom he married in 1972 and divorced in 1984.

Enticed back to Los Angeles in 1986 by Frederick R. Weisman, Hopkins led the collector’s art foundation for five years before moving on to UCLA. In his final years, he introduced himself as a painter in exhibitions at Los Angeles galleries, including Louis Stern Fine Arts.

In addition to his daughter, who lives in San Francisco, Hopkins is survived by sons John Thomas Hopkins of Oceanside and Christopher Tyler Hopkins of Miles City, Mont.; five grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and his brother Timothy of Idaho Falls.

A memorial service is being planned.