On Walter Hopps

My first encounter with Walter Hopps was more characteristic of him than I realized at the time. I surely did not expect that rendezvous—such as it was—to develop into one of my most important professional friendships, let alone to offer me first-row center seat access to one of great curatorial minds of the twentieth century.

The year was 1982, and I was an art history graduate student in Washington, D.C. I had grown up in close proximity to John and Dominique de Menil because my mother, Elsian Cozens, had been their personal assistant since the late 1960s. Walter arrived in Houston in 1980 to become Director of the Menil Collection just as Mrs. de Menil was re-engaging with building a museum. At the same time, they were soon engrossed in a complicated rescue—one that would become a landmark for a number of reasons—of looted Byzantine frescoes.  I would later come to learn that this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill purchase, but rather an escapade that included thieves, unscrupulous dealers, various governments and restorers, and ultimately, several heroes—among them, Walter.

One afternoon, I received a phone call from Elsian: “Walter would like to speak to you.” “Why?” She was simply following his instruction, which was to give me a time and place that he would telephone me. The location turned out to be a phone booth in the basement of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, whose extensive photographic and rare book libraries and stellar collection of Byzantine art I was familiar with, since I often availed myself of their facilities. I never learned how Walter knew that number (he was prone to spending inordinate amounts of time on telephones and, as if working undercover, favored phone booths in discrete locations over more public pay phones).

At precisely the agreed-upon hour, the basement phone rang and I quickly picked it up.

“Okay, this is Walter Hopps.” “Hello, I am Susan Davidson.” He did not acknowledge me, instead continuing his directive in hushed tones: “I’d like you to go to the photo library and look for the fourteenth-century Church of Saint Euphemianos located just north of Lysi, a town invaded by the Turks in the 1970s.”  Never being good with phonetics, I asked him to please spell out the names.  He cut me short, unequivocally announcing: “I’ll call you in three days at this number.” That was it. No reason given why he needed the information or what I was actually looking for—architecture, an altarpiece, or what, if anything.  I felt like I had been recruited into the CIA (a fantasy Walter himself harbored).

As if under some spell, I spent the next days ensconced in metal file cabinets, flipping through countless images of ecclesiastical buildings in Cyprus, becoming quite frustrated because I could not find the church but was determined not to fail the voice on the other end of the phone line. When the appointed time for the second call arrived, I was stationed, ready to defend my lack of findings. I answered on the first ring. In his deepest, slowest voice I heard: “And?” Nervously, I launched into it: “Well, I’m terribly sorry, I haven’t found anything.” The pitch of his voice rose and he exclaimed: “That’s excellent news!” Click! He immediately hung up. I sat there dumbfounded.

I had no further contact with him. Occasionally though, when my mother visited me in Washington, Walter and his wife, Caroline Huber (who remained in the city until 1986) picked Elsian up in Caroline’s paneled station wagon for coffee. I’d casually wave hello like a ghost from the window. He’d be wearing a straw hat whatever the season and always, always had a cigarette in his hand. 

I did not meet Walter officially until I finished graduate school in 1985 and temporarily returned to Houston while I looked for employment back east. My mother came home from the de Menil house one evening (Walter had commandeered the dining room for his office). “Walter’s working on a show of American drawings in France and he’s agreed to let you come and be a curatorial assistant for a couple of months until you figure out what you’re doing.”

So, I went to work for Walter (and his research curator, Neil Printz), although I rarely saw Walter during office hours. The first time I actually did, he queried: “How late can you stay up?” I thought that was such an odd question to ask someone—little did I know. “Well, I don’t know. Maybe two o’clock.” To which he retorted: “Perfect, that is the start of another day. You’ll be fine.” In fact that was what my work life became, staying up extremely late, often all night, planning shows, producing catalogues, taking notes while he talked on the phone, and in short, learning how to be a curator.

A demanding but engaging teacher, he insisted on precision and believed every question had only one answer—the one he deemed correct. He possessed a quirky sense of humor and a far-reaching imagination, sometimes crippled by irrational superstitions (never ride in a red vehicle; never be without an umbrella—a leftover childhood fear of water; never travel without a certain talisman). Despite his sternness, I have never met anyone more brilliant or more generous. Not being a pushover myself, I argued with him a lot and in a roundabout way came to understand that by standing up to him, I garnered his deeper respect.  Walter offered insights and specifics like no one else. If you were alert, you learned the intricacies of your craft from an exceptional mentor. While artists rightly claim him as one of their own, any curator who had the privilege, and yes, sometimes the pain, of working with Walter—as I did closely for eighteen years—is forever indebted to him.


Susan Davidson

SUSAN DAVIDSON is a senior curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.