Obituary: Robert Hopper
Friday 24 December 1999
Hopper was born in 1946 in Grantham and educated at Sedbergh School and at Manchester University, where he took an honours degree in History of Art in 1973. Five years older than the general Manchester intake of 1970, he was a popular and charismatic student, cherished by his peers for a combination of wisdom and kindliness; characteristics which seemed in short supply in the years following the student unrest of 1968.
Immediately after graduating, he was appointed Assistant Keeper, Art, at the Whitworth Art Gallery at Manchester University. There he organised numerous exhibitions, including the biennial Northern Young Contemporaries exhibition for student artists and, with Andrew Causey, the retrospective "Peter Lanyon: Paintings, Drawings and Constructions 1937-64".
Hopper's lasting contribution to the Whitworth Art Gallery was to its collection. Working closely with the gallery's Principal Keeper, Francis Hawcroft, he implemented a series of significant acquisitions during the later 1970s, including works by Harold Gilman, Stanley Spencer, John Piper and Peter Lanyon. More exciting still was the purchase of two important "pop" paintings by R.B. Kitaj and Peter Blake, and of masterpieces, Man's Head, Portrait, 1963, by Lucian Freud (of Freud) and Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1951, by Francis Bacon. With purchases like these, the Whitworth was to affirm its position amongst the leading modern collections in Britain.
In 1981 Hopper was appointed Director of Bradford City Art Galleries and Museums. For the next eight years, he ran a busy and effective local authority museum service, managing six public art galleries and museums, a large community arts centre and numerous ancillary organisations. The service which he took over was in need of modernisation and rationalisation and this he achieved, as much through common sense and good-humour as through a very considerable talent as an administrator.
Robert Hopper always saw the big picture. Typically, within two years of his arrival in Bradford, he had instigated a major exhibition based on the Oriental collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. "Petals from a Lotus: an introduction to the arts and history of the Indian subcontinent" was an artistic, political and popular success, establishing a new and invaluable relationship between a regional museum service and one of the great art collections of the world, transforming the museum's profile within the large Asian community of West Yorkshire, and attracting over 120,000 visitors.
During his years in Bradford, Hopper maintained and developed his serious interest in modern and contemporary sculpture. He made a number of intelligent acquisitions for the permanent collections there, purchasing sculpture by Lynn Chadwick, Frank Dobson and Eduardo Paolozzi among others. He organised and catalogued the exhibition "True and Pure Sculpture: Frank Dobson 1886- 1963" which toured Britain in 1981. He was elected Chairman of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 1982, and devoted much time and energy to the consolidation and expansion of the park as a national resource.
At the instigation of Alan Bowness, Hopper was appointed founding Director of the Henry Moore Sculpture Trust in 1988. Based in Leeds City Art Gallery, in 1989 the trust accepted Ernest Hall's invitation to take up a 60-year lease in a former carpet mill at Dean Clough, Halifax, to house the Henry Moore Sculpture Trust Studio.
In Leeds, the Henry Moore Institute, linked by a bridge to the City Art Gallery, opened in April 1993 with an important exhibition, "Romanesque Stone Sculpture from Medieval England". This second development completed the physical realisation of the Henry Moore Foundation's vision of a new sculpture facility for exhibitions, study and research in Leeds, with a complementary facility for artistic innovation in the laboratory environment of the studio at Dean Clough.
An experimental installation by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone established the Halifax studio's international credentials from the outset. This was followed by the inaugural exhibition, a spectacular group of new works by Richard Long, opened by the Prince of Wales in October 1989.
The list of artists exhibited at the studio over the next decade would bring credit to any Kunsthalle in the world. Among them were Ulrich Ruckriem, Bruce McLean, Jannis Kounellis, Alison Wilding, Magdalena Jetelova, Lawrence Weiner, James Turrell, Christian Boltanski, Wolfgang Laib, Anthony Caro and Georg Herold. That this was achieved in West Yorkshire was little short of miraculous. Furthermore, for many participating artists, their Yorkshire project turned out to be amongst the most satisfying and rewarding experiences of their careers.
Richard Long describes Robert Hopper as "one of the most friendly and sensible people in the art world; both serious and passionate about art". Speaking from New York, Lawrence Weiner acknowledges "a generosity towards art that is rare in the world in which we live". Such accolades from artists are themselves rare. Robert Hopper's blend of professionalism, integrity and warmth without sentimentality made possible a series of creative liaisons with world artists which was uniquely valuable to the cultural life of his country.
Robert Thomas Cort Hopper, museum director, curator and arts administrator: born Grantham, Lincolnshire 26 June 1946; Assistant Keeper, Art, Whitworth Art Gallery 1973-80, Deputy Principal Keeper 1980-81; Director, Bradford Art Galleries and Museums 1981-88; Director, Henry Moore Sculpture Trust 1988-99; Head of Henry Moore Foundation External Programmes 1999; married 1973 Christine Ball (one son, two daughters); died Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire 18 December 1999.
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