By: Shilo Urban
At this moment, the nationally recognized art curator Michael Auping is probably wearing a ratty T-shirt and baggy shorts, wrestling with a 10-foot-5-inch paddleboard he’s attempting to get into his Lexus. On any given day, he is in the Pacific Ocean soaking up the Southern California sun. This is the joy of the 67-year-old’s retirement after 24 years as the chief art curator for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and 40 years in the art world.
This is the man who convinced Frank Stella to do his only non-New York retrospective in Fort Worth while also helping local artists like Dennis and Dan Blagg gain national recognition. He organized many critically acclaimed exhibitions with artists like Susan Rothenburg, Vernon Fisher, Philip Guston and Anselm Kiefer. His exhibitions traveled to museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Michael also traveled the world with Modern Art Museum director Marla Price and ultimately charmed Japanese architect Tadao Ando to Fort Worth to create the stunning building standing there today.
But he has always loved everything about the ocean. It is where he grew up and started his love affair with art before moving across the country, taking a job as the chief curator of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and then to Fort Worth in 1993.
Michael was born in 1950 in Southern California during the golden era of baby boomers. The war was over, Disneyland was built when he was 5, and “[we] had this idea that we could do anything. There didn’t seem to be many obstacles in the way,” Michael said.
After some soul-searching, he found his vocation.
“I changed majors every semester. Where I found myself hanging out most often was in the art department. Nobody in the art department asked your major because they didn’t care. There was a certain openness about the art department, and it was open 24 hours a day. I could get there at 11 p.m., crack open a beer and talk all night long about art,” Michael said.
He realized early in college he would never be a good artist. But what fascinates the artists Michael works with most is that he thinks like an artist. Landscape artist Dennis Blagg said Michael could see subtle differences between seemingly similar artists’ work. Where one landscape artist may be concerned with acute details, another Michael championed because the artist created light, translating the atmosphere around those details, making it more human and soulful as opposed to a sterile depiction of things. This also made Dennis wonder why Michael wasn’t a painter himself because he understood artists better than anyone. But his son, Jonny Auping, endearingly remembers seeing his father’s doodles and sketches on a notepad while bored talking on the phone.
“He can’t draw at all. I can say that because I inherited it,” Jonny said.
Artist David Bates said Michael hung art unlike any other curator.
Michael would spend countless hours going through an artist’s work, sometimes thousands of pieces. He then harvests a few chosen ones, places them, and meticulously adds lighting.
“So you haven’t seen your children [the artwork] in a long time, and he [Michael] holds this family reunion and brings them all back together. Grandma doesn’t really want to sit next to grandpa, so we are going to separate them. And that part of a family that doesn’t get along at all, let’s put them together and see what happens. But then there is harmony in the end,” Bates said.
In order to do this with skill, Michael spent time with artists, getting to know them. A few weeks after taking the job in Fort Worth, he was out meeting artists, asking them smart questions and earning their trust.
“I am very much a people person and need to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Being in an artist’s studio is a really special experience. It is like being on the stage where everything is being performed. What books do they have on the table? What paints are laid out? How big are the walls they use? To get into an artist studio, they must feel comfortable with who you are and what your intentions are. You are not there to be a judge,” Michael said.
The surfer dude never left this prestigious, yet humble art curator — he was not above a good time. Dennis compared him to a light bulb — everyone around him gravitated toward him like moths to a porch light. But when he came across a work of art, he would often fall silent and grow pensive as if star-crossed lovers had just met. He was locked in.
Even though Michael is now spending most of his time riding the waves in Southern California, his visceral love of art is not going anywhere.
“I plan to do what my wife tells me to do and then hide from my wife so I can spend time in the ocean,” he said with a chuckle from the phone in California.
And although he is leaving the museum, “I am not leaving art and artists. I am leaving institutional culture.”
He said he may even pull together one last exhibition.
By: Shilo Urban