“I feel very strongly that it’s impossible to live a full life without some involvement with the arts,” former Walker Art Center director Martin Friedman said in 1982. By that measure, Friedman, who passed away on May 9 at the age of 90, lived a very full life indeed.
During his three decades at the Walker, from 1961 to 1990, Friedman transformed the institution from a small, regional art museum into one of the nation’s liveliest centers for contemporary art. In those years, the Walker presented exhibitions on Pablo Picasso, Scandinavian photography, and the history of the Mississippi River. You could attend a talk by actor/director Clint Eastwood, see a classic film by François Truffaut, take in a concert by performance artist Laurie Anderson or the Urban Bush Women dance company, or sign your kids up for workshops with street artist Keith Haring and architect Frank Gehry. You could also see cutting-edge work by emerging artists in each of these artistic disciplines.
Because Friedman was equally concerned with accessibility and curatorial rigor, the Walker’s programs were both critically acclaimed and popular with audiences. “You take energy from the community and then you reflect it in the programs,” he explained. He brought the world to Minnesota, but he never forgot that Minnesotans were his main constituents.
The programs and exhibitions Friedman oversaw are now the stuff of history. He also left some tangible assets that can be visited and revisited for generations to come. Here are three of them.
The Permanent Collection
The Walker’s permanent collection of contemporary art was shaped largely by Friedman’s impeccable taste, visual acuity, and seemingly boundless energy. He was particularly interested in pop art and minimalism, and the Walker’s collection includes many fine examples of both, many of them purchased soon after they were made. Robert Indiana’s typographic diptych The Green Diamond Eat The Red Diamond Die was painted in 1962 and acquired in 1963. Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptural French fries, Donald Judd’s red-lacquered iron wall sculpture, and George Segal’s melancholy tableau The Diner were all purchased in 1966, shortly after they were made. “[Martin] is always in high-speed drive,” Segal said. “He’s totally immersed in his hunt for the best contemporary American art.”
In 1967, Friedman hit a bullseye when he bought Chuck Close’s Big Self-Portrait (1967–68), which is today one of the most beloved objects in the collection. That year, Friedman had visited Close’s studio and put a reserve on the painting, even though the enormous canvas was not quite finished. It was the young artist’s first sale to a museum, and even though it was priced at only $1,200, Friedman’s budget was so small that he had to pay for it in installments. And in 1968, the Walker became one of the first museums to acquire a painting by Andy Warhol, the now-iconic Sixteen Jackies (1964).
Friedman continued expanding the collection during the 1970s and 1980s, purchasing a complete archive of prints by Jasper Johns and important works by Sam Gilliam, Robert Gober, Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Sol LeWitt, Louise Nevelson, Agnes Martin, Isamu Noguchi, Susan Rothenberg, and many others. Not every object Friedman bought became a classic, but his commitment to supporting young artists and his willingness to take risks helped the Walker build a collection of modern and contemporary art that few American museums can rival.
The Museum Building
In 1961, when Friedman took over as director, the Walker was housed in an outdated structure from the 1920s. Its small, poorly lit gallery spaces were inadequate for showing contemporary art, and since the collection was expanding rapidly, Friedman convinced his trustees that the building be demolished. To replace it, he commissioned a new museum from the young New York–based architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. When the new Walker opened in 1971, it was immediately hailed as a national model for museum design. One of its chief virtues is its seven elegant, white cube galleries that are both modest and flexible—perfect for showing contemporary art in all of its exuberant vitality.
The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Today the Barnes building anchors an expanded Walker campus that includes a 2005 addition by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, an 11-acre public park that showcases work from the Walker’s collection. The garden opened in 1988, nearly 20 years after Friedman had the idea to transform a vacant lot across from the Barnes building into an urban sculpture park. Friedman commissioned the Spoonbridge and Cherry from Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, a husband-and-wife team known for their playful, outsized public sculptures. In the summer, the cherry’s stem emits a fine mist that turns Spoonbridge into a fountain—a quintessential garden feature. The sculpture quickly became an icon of the city and a backdrop for many a souvenir selfie.
Last year, the Walker’s current director, Olga Viso, unveiled a plan to renovate the 27-year-old garden. Dozens of new sculptures will join many old favorites—including Spoonbridge—along with new trees and plantings and a reconfigured Cowles Conservatory. The project ensures the continuing vitality of one of the region’s great public spaces; as such, it pays tribute to Martin Friedman’s extraordinary vision for the arts in Minnesota.
Joan Rothfuss is an independent curator and writer based in Minneapolis whose publications include the biography Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman (MIT Press, 2014). Rothfuss worked with Martin Friedman for two of her 18 years as a curator at the Walker.