Blogs Centerpoints Walker History

Turning Snow: Olga Viso on Martin Friedman’s Legacy

Martin Friedman, the Walker’s director from 1961 to 1990, passed away in New York City on May 9, 2016.  When I began my tenure at the Walker in early 2008, it had been almost 20 years since Martin Friedman had retired. As the institution’s third and longest-serving director, Martin was legendary and his influence foundational. Indeed […]

Martin Friedman. Photo: David Price

Martin Friedman with Jim Hodges’s Untitled (2011) on the Walker hillside, 2012. Photo: David Price

Martin Friedman, the Walker’s director from 1961 to 1990, passed away in New York City on May 9, 2016. 

When I began my tenure at the Walker in early 2008, it had been almost 20 years since Martin Friedman had retired. As the institution’s third and longest-serving director, Martin was legendary and his influence foundational. Indeed it was Martin who gave form to founding director Daniel Defenbacher’s WPA-era vision of the art center as “meeting place for all the arts.” And it was he who shaped the building blocks of the multidisciplinary institution we know today. During Martin’s 30-year tenure—first as curator and then as director—the Performing Arts and Moving Image departments were established, each led by a succession of influential, groundbreaking curators he hired. These were among the first of such programs in museums around the country. Together with his equally visionary wife, Mickey Friedman, who led the Walker’s renowned design studio and passed away a few years ahead of Martin, the Visual Arts and Design programs at the Walker flourished and set new standards for exhibition and publication design in the contemporary field.

Despite the decided impact of Martin’s immediate successor, Kathy Halbreich, who solidified the Walker’s global reach and impact in her 16 years as director (1992–2007), Martin’s legacy still loomed large in Minneapolis when I took the helm. And Martin’s values and influence could still be felt through a cadre of devoted staff members who carried his exacting precision and excellence—the utter commitment to detail that defined his career at the Walker. “Friedman perfection” was conveyed in a variety of ways, most notably through the telling of the apocryphal “turning snow” story, in which Martin purportedly directed the Walker’s building maintenance crew to go outside with shovels in subzero Minnesota weather to “turn the snow” around the museum. The goal: to ensure that a pristine carpet of fresh white would set the Edward Larrabee Barnes building off just so. This was, of course, essential before any winter opening at the Walker.

My arrival in Minneapolis in 2008 also coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the adjacent 11-acre “garden for art” that was one of the signature triumphs of Martin’s tenure. Inaugurated in 1988, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden was among the first major urban sculpture parks of its kind in the US and heralded as a new model of public-private partnership. This model would be successfully emulated in Chicago, Kansas City, Seattle, and New York—in several instances with Martin’s advisory counsel. In planning the anniversary celebration for the Garden in 2008, I was able to spend time with Martin and Mickey, who came to Minneapolis for the occasion. Over the next decade, I would often frequent their Manhattan apartment when traveling to the city, always leaving with elaborate stories of his adventures (and misadventures) as director. Martin was always working on his memoirs, and in 2015 the Walker began to publish his recollections online as part of its 75th anniversary as a public art center. He’s given us permission to publish a wealth of his memories in the months and years to come.

Martin Friedman, Olga Viso, and Kathy Halbreich in 2011

Three generations of Walker directors—Martin Friedman, Olga Viso, and Kathy Halbreich—in 2011

The Friedmans’ New York apartment was a trove of Walker artifacts and memorabilia—old photographs, posters for past Walker exhibitions, signed sketches, and personal gifts from artists, as well as a wonderful collection of art works by artists whose careers he supported, most notably Sol LeWitt, Claes Oldenburg, and Mark di Suvero, all artists he remained close with through the decades. It was clear that Martin thoroughly enjoyed his time as director of the Walker. He loved the Walker the way Bill Clinton loved the White House. As Clinton said in his last days in office, “I just love this place!” Martin’s love of the Walker was only matched by his appreciation of artists and a zeal for working with creative people. He also cherished collaborating with Mickey and the talented league of curators he hired through the years—from Richard Koshalek and Graham Beal to Adam Weinberg and Larry Rinder, all who went on to run their own institutions. The list of colleagues to whom Martin gave first opportunities is long; he had a decided eye for recognizing talent and investing in it. He also enjoyed working with donors, and he was surrounded by an equally impressive array of community leaders of his generation who became the visionary philanthropic powerhouse of the Twin Cities from the 1960s through the 1990s. These individuals not only presided over the Walker but also the Guthrie, Minnesota Opera, Minnesota Orchestra, and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Among the highlights of my first year at the Walker was sharing dinner with a circle of Martin’s devoted patrons, some who have since passed, including Phil von Blon, Harriet and Ed Spencer, and John and Sage Cowles, as well as others who continue to be incredibly generous to the Walker to this day, including Bruce and Martha Atwater, Judy Dayton, Erwin Kelen, and Penny Winton.

I will never forget sitting around a dinner table with Martin and Mickey, the von Blons, and the Cowleses shortly after arriving at the Walker. That night they shared how much they enjoyed working together to build the Walker and other cultural organizations in the Twin Cities. Their goal was to make a world-class city and to foster philanthropic commitment to forward-looking culture. In a toast that evening Martin expressed his desire for me, and my husband Cameron, to enjoy the same camaraderie, partnership, spirit of discovery and adventure with our generation of donors that he and Mickey shared with their community of friends and supporters. His hope was that we would similarly “do great things together” as well as “have a helluva of a good time doing it!”

In the coming years, Martin and Mickey would be part of a number of Walker milestone moments during my tenure, including the 2011 announcement of the acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Archive in which we brought into the Walker’s collection a trove of incredible objects—props, sets, drops and costumes as well as other ephemera—created through Merce’s signature collaborations with dozens of visual artists throughout his career, including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, and Olafur Eliasson. Indeed, the Walker’s relationship with Merce had commenced with Martin’s invitation in 1961 and was followed by 16 distinct engagements over nearly 60 years and three directors. It was amazing to be able to share that occasion with Martin and Mickey, as well as Kathy Halbreich, who joined me, and a host of Walker donors, at the Rauschenberg Foundation Warehouse in New York to celebrate the historic acquisition.

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 20th Anniversary, June 14, 2008

Martin and Mickey Friedman (at left) at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden 20th Anniversary, Celebration, June 14, 2008. Photo: Cameron Wittig

Similarly, when we acquired Jim Hodges’s Untitled, an arrangement of four shimmering boulders, in 2013 and placed them on the hill of what would become the Walker’s upper garden, Martin made a pilgrimage to Minneapolis to see them. It was not an easy journey up the hill with his cane, but he managed. It was always like Martin to be at the center of things, to be curious and inquisitive about what was exciting and new. What meant most to me about this visit was that Martin knew this major new acquisition was an opening gesture for a bigger, longer-term vision that would unify the Walker and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden campus and would ultimately entail a major renovation of his beloved Garden. I feel very fortunate that I was able to share with Martin and Mickey the plans for the redeveloped 19-acre campus that will be inaugurated in June of 2017. They both wholeheartedly endorsed our plans and went out of their way to let me know that they were supportive of my vision. Indeed, just weeks before passing in 2014, Mickey insisted that I should not feel beholden to honoring their legacy in the Garden. As she emphatically stated, she and Martin’s careers at the Walker were insistently about the future, supporting artists, and advancing the new. She affirmed that the best way to honor their legacy was for me to move forward and not look back. I will never forget that beautiful gift that Mickey and Martin gave me that afternoon—the permission to lead and shape—to “turn snow” my way, just as they did before me.


Nam June Paik at the Walker: A History of Experimentation

Last summer, I initiated the conservation of Anti-Gravity Study, a two-channel, 25-monitor video artwork by Nam June Paik, whose tapes are part of the Walker Archives’ documentation collection. While working on this project, I also discovered the rich history that Paik has with the Walker, and the following is an account of this research as well […]

Paik installing Fish Flies on Sky (1976), another artwork in which monitors were mounted to a gallery's ceiling. Photograph: Paik Estate 

Paik installing Fish Flies (1976). Photograph: Peter Moore Estate

Last summer, I initiated the conservation of Anti-Gravity Study, a two-channel, 25-monitor video artwork by Nam June Paik, whose tapes are part of the Walker Archives’ documentation collection. While working on this project, I also discovered the rich history that Paik has with the Walker, and the following is an account of this research as well as the ongoing conservation of Anti-Gravity Study. 

An artist who continually reinvented every medium with which he engaged, Nam June Paik is perhaps best known for recognizing video’s creative potential and elevating it to artistic status. Born in Seoul in 1932, Paik began his career as a musician, creating experimental compositions while also realizing new sounds with classical instruments. He pursued these experiments in Germany, where he collaborated with composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage and met George Maciunas, who would later invite Paik to join Fluxus when he moved to New York City in 1964.

In the late 1950s, Paik expressed increased interest in the theoretical and conceptual properties of video and a desire to further expand his technical knowledge and skill of the medium. During this time, he carried out his own experiments with video technology, especially in regards to using magnets to alter the polarity of the cathode ray tube inside televisions. Paik also made connections with members of the scientific community to merge the disciplines of art and technology through the works he produced.

In 1963, Paik met engineers Hideo Uchida and Shuya Abe, and it was this partnership that led to the creation of the Paik/Abe Synthesizer, a revolutionary device that allowed artists to manipulate closed-circuit video broadcasts and pre-recorded footage themselves as opposed to having to rely on technicians. The objectives of the synthesizer are echoed throughout Paik’s entire oeuvre and artistic process as he strived to challenge conceptions of the medium and the role technology increasingly played in everyday life: “the key point of today is how to strike the best balance in the interface of the man/machine, or hardware/software. It has been a basic philosophy behind the design of video synthesizer” [source].

The art world soon took notice of Paik’s experimentation with video. In 1965, the New School for Social research organized Paik’s first solo show, Nam June Paik: Cybernetics followed by the Bonino Gallery’s Paik exhibition—Electronic Art—the same year.

Martin Friedman, the Walker’s director from 1961 to 1990, heard about Paik while collaborating with the Howard Wise Gallery on the exhibition Light/Motion/Space. In a letter from Wise to Friedman, Wise describes Paik as follows, “40-ish, Korean, produces patterns in TV tubes by use of magnets. Hand operated. He is Charlotte Moorman‘s partner, or perhaps assistant.” Friedman was intrigued and eager to include Paik in the exhibition. He even expressed interest in inviting both Paik and Moorman to perform at the Walker.

Cover of Lights in Orbit catalogue.

Cover of Lights in Orbit catalogue

Light/Motion/Space featured artworks by artists who were experimenting with light as an artistic medium, and included 65 artworks. Thirty-five of the works were on loan from Howard Wise and shown in the earlier Lights in Orbit (1967), and artworks by eight additional artists were added to Light/Motion/Space. This exhibition also proved to be an excellent platform to introduce Paik’s video artworks to Midwest audiences, since it featured a group of international artists, all of whom pushed the boundaries of their respective medium.

Light/Motion/Space featured Paik’s Electronic Blues (1966) and Electronic Waltz (1967). These two color, single-channel videos were part of Paik’s “dancing patterns” artworks that he created during the mid-1960s using magnets to manipulate a video’s image. One of the most iconic of these was Magnet TV, which is also an early example of Paik’s “prepared televisions” and his first video sculptures. With these artworks, Paik deconstructed the television while adding a participatory element to the medium, since viewers could influence the television’s image by moving its magnet.

Cover of Light/Motion/Space catalogue.

Cover of Light/Motion/Space catalogue

In Paik Video, art historian Edith Decker-Phillips explains the creative and technical process behind these artworks:

“The power of attraction of the magnet hinders the electronic beam from filling up the rectangle surface of the TV screen. The field of lines is drawn up and builds veil-like patterns within the gravitational field of the magnet. If the magnet stays in this fixed position, the picture remains stable. There are only minor variations created by fluctuations in the electrical power supply. By moving the magnet, forms can be endlessly varied.” 

Using light as an artistic medium within Light/Motion/Space. UNTITLED (1966) by Ben Berns.

Using light as an artistic medium within Light/Motion/Space. UNTITLED (1966) by Ben Berns.

Electronic Blues (1966) displayed television news coverage of politicians, including future American president Richard Nixon. The magnet attached to the monitor impacted its electronic signals, causing the broadcast video to become distorted and creating what Friedman aptly referred to as Nixon’s “malleable physiognomy.” In this case, however, the magnet proved detrimental to the artwork—and exhibition—by causing the television to implode and smoke to fill the gallery. The exhibition briefly closed after this incident.

Friedman immediately phoned Paik about this problem, and an apologetic Paik arrived from New York on the afternoon of the same day to replace the monitor’s cathode ray tube and fix a short circuit. Unfortunately, the work continued to malfunction and was not featured in the exhibition when it later toured to the Milwaukee Art Center. Paik also did not see any use in replacing it with one of the other, yet older, color televisions in his equipment library:

“Easiest solution for all and probably the only one possibility is to forget about my color TV work in Milwaukee, but it might hurt me in the long range, if the rumour spreads in this small art world that my work is fragile.”

Richard Nixon's "malleable physiognomy" on view in Electronic Blues.

Richard Nixon’s “malleable physiognomy” on view in Electronic Blues

In more recent years, time-based media conservators have assumed the challenge of restoring and preserving Paik’s works for future generations of viewers. Paik, however, was already acutely aware of the technical challenges his works posed in 1967.

Paik also referred to the mishap at the Walker in a letter and follow up phone call to Friedman while in the midst of applying for a Rockefeller Foundation grant. Friedman recalls the exchange (which he shared in his May 2007 Art in America article, “Nam June on the Mississippi”):

‘“Please don’t expose me!’ [Paik] implored. The call was followed by a two-page letter describing his intention to establish the ‘world’s first studio for electronic video art’ at the State University in Stoney Brook. It concluded with an urgent request. Paik entreated, ‘Don’t forget to add that as far as you know, I am neither a Hippie nor a Beatnik. I am pretty SQUARE [emphasis Paik’s].’”

Whereas magnets attached to the monitor’s picture tube also manipulated the imagery of Electronic Waltz, this artwork didn’t carry the same radical weight as Electronic Blues with its malleable politicians. Exhibited on a television encased in a wooden frame, Electronic Waltz instead captivated viewers with its gyrating Möbius band that changed color as it moved against a black background.

The television used for this artwork was gifted to Paik by Jasper Johns sometime during the early 1960s. In a conversation with Walker Visual Arts Curator Joan Rothfuss in 2002, Johns revealed that the previous owners of the house he purchased on Riverside Drive in New York in 1963 left the set behind. Having recently met Paik, Johns was familiar with his experimental use of video technology and growing interest in color television, which was still a relatively new invention at this time and one that Paik had recently began incorporating into his video artworks. Johns later regretted offering the television to Paik: upon further inspection, he discovered that its dials could calibrate the television solely to one color—red, green, or blue. He found this to be a marvelous feature, but didn’t know Paik well enough to rescind his offer. Johns’ generosity, however, was the Walker’s gain since it allowed the museum to become one of the first American art institutions to usher Paik’s foray into the possibilities color television technology provided the medium of video.

Martin Friedman and Hubert Humphrey, 38th Vice President of the United States, viewing Electronic Waltz.

Martin Friedman and Vice President Hubert Humphrey viewing Electronic Waltz

In 1975, Friedman invited Paik back to the Walker to discuss creating an entirely new video artwork for The River: Images of the Mississippi. According to Friedman, the focus of the exhibition was “on how that ‘father of waters’ had been perceived not only by explorers and the first settlers along its banks but also painters and early photographers who wended their way along its 2,500 mile course.” Friedman saw Paik’s TV Sea at in January 1975 at the Bonino Gallery, and was eager to see how Paik would use video to depict the mighty river.

This issue of Design Quarterly was the catalogue for the exhibition.

An issue of Design Quarterly was dedicated to the exhibition

A merging of the natural with the scientific was a recurring motif throughout Paik’s oeuvre, particularly during the 1970s. TV Garden (1974–78), one of these seminal works, featured color television sets of various sizes installed on a gallery’s floor among live plants. All of the monitors played Paik’s earlier collaboration with John J. Godfrey, Global Groove (1973), which merged art, performance, and technology. In Fish Flies on Sky (1975), monitors of various sizes were mounted to a gallery’s ceiling and played a video of goldfish swimming.

TV Sea installed at the Guggenheim. This artwork is also part of the museum's collection.

TV Sea installed at the Guggenheim. This artwork is also part of the museum’s collection. Photo: Guggenheim Museum

In the resulting Anti-Gravity Study, Paik articulated the ethos of The River exhibition while simultaneously building on this visual language of nature and technology.

Bob Harris, a filmmaker who Paik worked with this project, helped create the footage for Anti-Gravity Study. In summer 1976, Harris traveled from the Minneapolis to New Orleans along the Mississippi River capturing his journey on 8mm, color film, and focusing his lens on wildlife, riverboats and barges, the St. Louis Arch, and fish swimming in ponds at the St. Louis Zoo. Paik later transferred this footage to video and skillfully edited two channels for Anti-Gravity Study using the Paik/Abe Synthesizer.

anti_gravity_1 anti_gravity_2 anti_gravity_3

Within The River, Anti-Gravity Study was displayed on 20 color and five black-and-white CRT monitors that were on loan from General Electric solely for the exhibition. A custom bracket was constructed to mount them 10 feet high to Gallery Four’s ceiling.

In the exhibition’s brochure, Anti-Gravity Study is described not as a video artwork but as a video environment. This description is particularly apt since Anti-Gravity was exhibited within its own black box, where visitors could lie down and become ensconced in an accelerated version of Harris’ voyage down the Mississippi. Anti-Gravity was also the last of the exhibition’s 274 artworks and installed in a section called 20th Century Images along with the only other moving image artwork, Louis Hock’s 16mm, color multi-projection film, Mississippi Rolls. 

Paik worked with Charles Helm, then the Walker’s audio-visual producer and technical director for performing arts, to install the monitors, which were each calibrated to a different color and mounted at various angles. Using the Walker Archives’ resources, including photographs, exhibition records, and a building diagram of Gallery Four, Helm, Walker Archivist Jill Vuchetich, and I were able to better ascertain how and where the monitors were mounted.

A video environment within the Walker's Gallery 4.

Anti-Gravity Study, a video environment within the Walker’s Gallery Four

The floor of the gallery was carpeted and viewers could stand, sit on the stairs, or lie down. And since the monitors were each mounted at different angles, a visitor’s experience of this artwork was influenced by their location within the space. If sitting at the top of the galley’s stairs, for example, visitors would likely have only seen the different colors of the monitors beaming down onto the floor, instead to the footage itself that would be seen by lying directly underneath the monitors. The absorbing atmosphere of this artwork encouraged visitors to pause and perhaps even stay awhile after they came to the end of The River.

Anti-Gravity currently exists only as the 3/4-inch tapes that were used to exhibit the work in 1976. This placed great emphasis on stabilizing these tapes, as well as on the importance of exhibition documentation.

Due to the deterioration that had taken place over time, I didn’t want to risk playing the 3/4-inch tapes myself. I instead worked with DuArt Restoration in New York City, which cleaned the tapes, baked, and transferred them onto an archival videotape master and digital file. And despite not having the same video environment as 1976 viewers, being one of the first people to view this footage in forty years was truly an incredible experience:

Anti-Gravity Study was accompanied by a version of Paul Robeson singing ‘Ol Man River, whose lyrics describe the flowing Mississippi contrasted against the hardships of African Americans laborers. Within the context of this artwork and exhibition, the song was slowed down to half its speed, creating a droning effect that could be interpreted as expressing these workers’ exhaustion as they worked along the river. An additional soundtrack of crickets and other insect sounds was added to this song, but played back in real time.

Besides undertaking efforts to stabilize and transfer the videotapes, recreating the soundtrack was an additional factor. This part of the project is ongoing, but a short clip of its progress can be heard below:

Whereas Anti-Gravity Study demonstrated the Walker’s commitment to exhibiting media artworks and collaborating with Paik, none of Paik’s artworks had yet been acquired by the museum. Friedman thought it was time to rectify this absence, and in 1987, he approached Paik about acquiring one of his artworks for the permanent collection. Paik instead suggested combining the earlier Electronic Waltz and footage from Anti-Gravity Study alongside new material. The result was 66-76-89 (1989), a four-channel video sculpture displayed on 32 monitors of various sizes that combined two earlier artworks shown within Walker exhibitions and showcased Paik’s mastery of video imaging effects and Chroma key technology. These effects are both commonly found throughout his entire oeuvre, and especially in artworks from the mid-1970s onward.



After 1990, the Walker acquired other seminal Paik artworks, including TV Bra for Living Sculpture and TV Cello. Paik’s single channel works, including Global Groove and Merce by Merce by Paik (1975), are also represented in the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection. 66-76-89 is currently on view as part of Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections. TV Cello was recently on view as part of Art Expanded: 1958–1978.

The conservation of Anti-Gravity Study is ongoing. For questions regarding this artwork or to provide information on its history, please contact Caylin Smith.

“A Startling Development for an Art Museum”: WCCO Broadcasts the Walker’s Opening Night, January 4, 1940

Sculpture demonstration with Jean Severson and WCCO radio personalities, Clelland Card and Florence Lehman, opening night, January 4, 1940.
Walker Art Center lobby, opening night, January 4, 1940

Walker Art Center lobby, opening night, January 4, 1940

It was a chilly night 75 years ago on January 4, but that didn’t stop 3,000 visitors from coming to celebrate the opening of the Walker Art Center. But even if the weather did stop Minneapolis residents, they could’ve tuned into WCCO from 9 to 10 pm for a live radio broadcast of the festivities. Equipped with portable microphones, announcers Florence Lehman and Clellan Card roamed the building from galleries to basement interviewing staff and guests along the way. Here’s an excerpt from the radio transcript to give you a sense of opening night.

Artist-instructors in the Walker Art School, 1940

Artist-instructors in the Walker Art School, 1940

Clelland Card: Here we are in the Walker Art Center, a scene of one of the most interesting ideas in the nation. There are a large amount of visitors present. This is a startling development for an art museum. It tells an absorbing and thrilling story. We must throw away our old ideas of what an art center is like. It is no longer something you would rather stay away from. This is different. As you walk in you see brightly colored walls and ceilings. Would never dream an art school could look like this. 1940 art comes in bright colors. We all dislike the mausoleum atmosphere of the old museums. Here there is action, fun, and enjoyment. People are busy doing things with their hands; that is part of the art center purpose.

Now let’s talk to the man who runs this place, Mr. Dan Defenbacher. Am I in an art center or a manual training center?

Mr. Defenbacher: A museum in the modern manner. The term implies a museum which breaks with tradition. We break with tradition by placing the same stress on present-day art as we do on the past art.

Walker Art Center opening night.  Left to right: Colonel F.C. Harrington, WPA; Daniel Defenbacher, Walker Art Center Director; Clement Haupers, WPA

Walker Art Center opening night. Left to right: Colonel F.C. Harrington, WPA; Daniel Defenbacher, Walker Art Center Director; Clement Haupers, WPA

Florence Lehman: Now we are in the sculpture studio. This is Jean Severson. What are you making?

Jean Severson: A portrait sketch of the model in front of me.

Lehman: What goes into the sketch?

Severson: There’s an armature under here.

Lehman: What’s an armature?

Severson: An armature is the foundation of the model. It holds the clay. Some are made of wood, others of wire. There is wire in this sketch.

Lehman: Can anyone work in here?

Severson: Yes. Everything is free; anyone can come here.

Sculpture demonstration with Jean Severson and WCCO radio personalities, Clelland Card and Florence Lehman, opening night, January 4, 1940.

Sculpture demonstration with Jean Severson and WCCO radio personalities Clelland Card and Florence Lehman, opening night, January 4, 1940.

Clelland Card: This is the most restful trip I have made in an art gallery. There’s no gallery fatigue here, no squinting of eyes. All exhibits are made attractive with captions, easy to look at. By reading the captions one gets the whole story of the pictures in everyday language, everyday terms. It is hard to believe these walls were before a uniform drab white. They have been done over in very pleasing colors.

Old formal display cases gone. Cases are made of painted wood extending from top to floor with only opening for object or objects displayed. For example, here is a black vase shown against a turquoise wall. Vases having designs are shown against background lighted just right. The brief description I am giving doesn’t do justice to this. You must come and see for yourself.

"The Tea Ceremony," display case for the T.B. Walker collection, 1940

“The Tea Ceremony,” display case for the T.B. Walker collection, 1940

Card (interviewing Hon. Gov. Harold Stassen): How do you like the art center?

Stassen: I am enjoying it very much. I find it very stimulating. It’s very thrilling. Judging from the turnout, bringing this number of people out on a cold evening speaks well for Minneapolis. The art center is full of people.

Card: What significance do you feel the art center has on our locality?

Stassen: This is a splendid forward step in broader appreciation of art. Pleased to see a step of this kind taking place in Minneapolis.

Card (interviewing Sydney Stolte, State Works Progress Administration [WPA] Administrator): Do you feel that without WPA this new art center would not have been possible?

Stolte: Not entirely so. Many factors must qualify to make a WPA project. The Minnesota Arts Council, to whom our community should give great credit, is a large factor. An art project is a big project. Many people are not aware of the many talents of our own artists. The Art Project was set up to help artists badly hit by the depression.

Left to Right: S.L. Stolte, WPA,  Minnesota Governor Harold E. Stassen,  and D.S. Defenbacher, director, Walker Art Center opening night, January 4, 1940

Left to Right: S.L. Stolte, WPA, Minnesota Governor Harold E. Stassen, and D.S. Defenbacher, director, Walker Art Center opening night, January 4, 1940, standing in front of an exhibit panel for “Time Off,” organized by the Walker Art Center and Life magazine.

Lehman (interviewing lithograph printer Morris Olstad): Do you print on pieces of paper?

Olstad: A drawing is made on stone or zinc plate, etched and then printed. The coated transfer paper on which the drawing is made is placed between damp blotters and run through the press under pressure.

Lehman: How do you know how much pressure to use?

Olstad: Have to use your own imagination, must get just enough.

Lehman: Must have to work at it a long time to know just the right amount of pressure to use. How long have you done this kind of work?

Olstad: Thirty.

Lehman: I guess that is long enough.

Printing demonstration, Walker Art Center, 1940

Printing demonstration, Walker Art Center, 1940

Walker Art Center opening January 4, 1940

Walker Art Center membership desk, opening night, January 4, 1940.

Card: We certainly have enjoyed our visit here. We hope all of you will have the chance to come down here soon and have a good time, see the beautiful things here.  (Signs off)



Eric Sutherland and the Lost Art of the Darkroom

(3 darkroom photos) Eric Sutherland took these photos of his darkroom in the basement of the original 1927 Walker building so that a precise replica of the workspace could be created in the 1971 Barnes Building.  The same sinks and cabinetry were used until the photography department converted to digital technology in 2003.

In today’s digital world it can be hard to remember that photography once relied on cameras, chemicals, and a darkroom. For many decades the magic of an image did not just occur with the snapping of the shutter, but also in the darkroom where the manipulation of exposure could produce dramatic effects.  The Walker Art Center darkroom was the domain for many exceptional museum photographers in the last century.  But photographer Eric Sutherland had a special attachment to the Walker’s darkroom.

Sutherland was the Walker’s staff photographer from 1953 to 1978, shooting some of the center’s most iconic images, including Marcel Duchamp’s portrait, Christo’s Balloon Ascension (1966), and Dan Flavin’s corridor of lightUntitled (1971), featured on the cover of the  November/December issue of Walker magazine. In these photographs Sutherland captures the spirit of the moment with his meticulous attention to detail and his command of darkroom technique. This is particularly evident in the series of photographs that he shot of Duchamp. Duchamp with Bicycle Wheel (1913) captures the artist in what appears to be a spontaneous moment, with martini in hand and an impish grin. By contrast, the rarely seen image of Duchamp with his readymade Why Not Sneeze (1921), taken at the same event as the Bicycle Wheel shot, creates shadows that makes Duchamp look sinister.

Contact sheet for opening of Marcel Duchamp exhibition, October 19,1965

Contact sheet for the opening of Marcel Duchamp’s Walker exhibition, October 19, 1965. Left with director Martin Friedman; middle with Why Not Sneeze (1921); right with Bicycle Wheel (1913)

But in the darkroom Sutherland had precise control over the look of his final prints. Through the use of an enlarger he would project the negative onto chemically sensitive paper, process the paper through a series of chemical baths, then hang it to dry. He might make several prints before arriving at the exact effect he is looking for. Some areas of the negative would require more or less light to create the desired result. Sutherland created detailed “dodge” and “burn” tools in order to manipulate the amount of exposure certain areas of the paper received.

In addition to his darkroom wizardry, Sutherland kept copious records. His scribbled notes are legendary, rigorously jotting down film types, exposure times, chemical temperatures, and personal evaluation on negative sleeves, film boxes and contact prints. His thorough documentation preserves his method and and process and provides insight into how a photograph was once made.

Negative, sleeve and "burning" tool used to increase exposure in a particular area when printing while limiting the exposure of light to the remainder of the paper.  The image is one featured in Design Quarterly # 81, devoted to the newly completed Barnes Building (1971) and its gallery and work spaces within.

Negative, sleeve, and “burning” tool used to increase exposure in a particular area when printing while limiting the exposure of light to the remainder of the paper. The image is featured in Design Quarterly No. 81, devoted to the newly completed Barnes building (1971).

Barnes building office suite, 1971 for Design Quarterly # 81, 1971

Barnes building office suite, 1971, for Design Quarterly No. 81, 1971

In 1968, when the Walker Art Center was preparing for a new building by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, Sutherland turned his camera on his own darkroom. He took detailed photographs of the layout of his operation so that it could be recreated in the new building exactly as it was in the old building.darkroom_002 darkroom_001

(3 darkroom photos) Eric Sutherland took these photos of his darkroom in the basement of the original 1927 Walker building so that a precise replica of the workspace could be created in the 1971 Barnes Building.  The same sinks and cabinetry were used until the photography department converted to digital technology in 2003.

Sutherland documented his darkroom in the basement of the 1927 Walker building so that a precise replica of the workspace could be created in the 1971 building. The same sinks and cabinetry were used until the photography department converted to digital technology in 2003.

It was an eerie experience to stand in the darkroom in the Barnes building and look at the photographs that inspired it: the two spaces were nearly identical, just as Sutherland planned. Today the photos remain an interesting and haunting set of images that detail a process that is no longer practiced and document a space that is no longer a darkroom. Thanks to these images and Sutherland’s notations we have a comprehensive and preserved record of how photographs were created in the 20th Century.

Circa 1976 staff gathering on terrace, Eric Sutherland far left.

Staff gathering on the Walker terrace, circa 1976. Sutherland, waving, at left.

In 1976, a Dystopian River and Inflatable “Plumes of Fire”

American muralist Terry Schoonhoven was commissioned by the Walker Art Center to create his mural No River Wall Painting for the 1976 exhibition The River: Images of the Mississippi. It loomed large—24 by 35 feet—and foreboding in the Walker’s outer lobby, depicting the riverfront as dystopian industrial district, going to rack and ruin in mounding […]


Trevor Schoonhoven, No River Wall Painting, 1976

American muralist Terry Schoonhoven was commissioned by the Walker Art Center to create his mural No River Wall Painting for the 1976 exhibition The River: Images of the Mississippi. It loomed large—24 by 35 feet—and foreboding in the Walker’s outer lobby, depicting the riverfront as dystopian industrial district, going to rack and ruin in mounding decay, a parched riverbed supporting barges going nowhere and tipped oil drums lodged in the scorched silt. Meanwhile, just off in the distance, gleaming new city buildings emerge—reaching up and away from the riverfront and the industry of the past.

It must have been an eerie experience gazing upon this almost-life size view of the “Mighty Mississippi” looking so miserable. Schoonhoven and The Fine Arts Squad, which he co-founded, had a knack for creating fantasy environments which enticed the viewer with their potential reality. The riverbed depicted here is a scene from a dark dream but one that must have resonated at the time, as environmental concerns were fueling a rapidly growing ecology movement in the 1970s.


Schoonhoven sketch

In this preliminary sketch, also included in the exhibition, Schoonhoven includes these notes: “Dry river view. Sky cool and metallic. Looks like it’s imported from another planet. Mississippi river bed cracked, features similar to area around Badwater in Death Valley. Evidence of drifting land, sand flats. Clear brilliant light. The Los Angeles river would feel right at home here.”


Schoonhoven preliminary sketch


Terry Schoonhoven working on No River Wall Painting in the Walker lobby, 1976

Another highlight of The River exhibition, albeit brief, was Otto Piene’s Black Stacks Helium Sculpture. It was commissioned by the Walker and installed on October 30, 1976, at the Northern States Power (NSP) South East Steam Plant (located at S.E. Main Street and 6th Avenue).

1976 Helium Stacks install_002sm

Otto Piene

Otto Piene, then director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on hand for the installation of this work of “Sky Art,” a term he coined in 1969 and which allowed him to use landscape and cities themselves as the focal point of his work.

The entire installation process of the four 300-foot-long red helium-filled balloons was estimated at three to five hours. The streamers, three feet in diameter, were to be pumped up every two days for as long as they would last, an expected two weeks.

1976 Helium Stacks install_001

Lisa Lyons, a Walker assistant curator at the time, recalls a meeting with then-Walker director Martin Friedman and officials at NSP about using the stacks: “After looking at Otto’s preliminary drawings, they were concerned that the big red balloons issuing from the top of the disused stacks would call to mind smoke and pollution. But ultimately, they signed on, and the piece was installed without a hitch, until, that is, someone took aim at it.”

Originally scheduled to be on view through November 13, vandals shot three of the four streamers full of holes within the first days of the installation. The work was not reinstalled.


Article from the Minneapolis Tribune, November 1, 1976

“An inflatable sculpture that was installed Saturday on the smokestacks of a power plant had been shot full of holes by vandals by Sunday afternoon, according to Walker Art Center spokespersons,” read a news story in the Minneapolis paper. “Of the original four 300-foot-long, red helium-filled balloons only one was floating yesterday from the stacks of the NSP Co. steam plant at Main St. and 16th Ave SE. The work by Otto Piene had been commissioned by the Walker Art Center in conjunction with its exhibit called The River: Images of the Mississippi.”


Black Stacks Helium Sculpture by Otto Piene


Black Stacks Helium Sculpture by Otto Piene


Black Stacks Helium Sculpture by Otto Piene

Martin Friedman, Walker director from 1961 to 1990, described them as abstract plumes of fire.

Opening day cake for the 1976 exhibition, The River: Images of the Mississippi

The exhibition ran from October 3, 1976 to June 9, 1977. And of course, there was a cake for the opening.


An issue of Design Quarterly was dedicated to the exhibition

Mickey Friedman wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue:

“River imagery is explored in this exhibition as it exists in painting, prints, photography, maps and, indirectly, as it occurs in planning and architecture. Though architecture does not immediately reflect an image of a river, the character and course of the waterway affects the forms and functions of architecture related to it and conversely, future river imagery may be the consequence of architectural proposals made today.”

Her opening paragraph foretold the future. Schoonhoven’s noir-ish view of the riverfront gratefully did not come to pass. Crossing the Stone Arch Bridge today offers a cityscape that took decades to form and was indeed the consequence of conversations and proposals that had begun in the 1970s and ’80s. Instead of warning people away from its banks with mounds of aggregate and earth-moving machines, the river now invites exploration, into its present amenities as well as its stories from the past, and is the “next frontier” in Minneapolis’ nationally known parks system.

2014 Mill District from Stone Arch_crop

Riverfront 2014 photo by Barb Economon

For more moments from the Walker’s 75 years as a public art center, visit our Walker@75 page.

Ghost Building: Walker Galleries 1927

T.B. Walker on the Grand Staircase, 1027
Richard Haas, Walker Art Galleries Circa ‘27, 1978-1979

Richard Haas, Walker Art Galleries Circa ‘27, 1978-1979

In Pathé Newsreel footage from 1927, we see T.B. Walker opening the Walker Galleries. He opens the giant forbidding doors, pushing past lion-headed doorknockers, and we get a brief glimpse of his personal collection of art and artifacts as the camera goes through the galleries. Later, in 1979, artist Richard Haas took the image of the exterior of the 1927 building and another photograph of T.B. Walker standing on the sweeping staircase, known as the grand staircase, to create his trompe l’oeil work Walker Art Galleries Circa ‘27, now on view in the exhibition Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections. The ghostly image of T.B. Walker reminds us that before the brick-and-aluminum facility we know today there was another home for the Walker Art Center.

T.B. Walker on the Grand Staircase, 1927

T.B. Walker on the Grand Staircase, 1927

The Walker Galleries—sited in a building by architects Long and Thorshov of Minneapolis—existed from 1927 to 1969. The Moorish-style structure stood where the brick building by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes stands now. The grand staircase was the central focal point of the building, and over the years it was a backdrop for showcasing artwork, people, and events. It is the most enduring image of the old structure we have today. But what was beyond that staircase?

"Colonial Cubism" by Stuart Davis on the Grand Staircase, 1957

Stuart Davis’s Colonial Cubism (1954) on the Grand Staircase, 1957

Walker Art Center floorplan, 1940

Walker Art Center floorplan, 1940

Upon entering the building’s first floor, visitors were greeted by the grand staircase. To the left was the information desk and book corner and to the right, the coatroom. From the lobby one entered the galleries from either right or left. The galleries were a series of connected rectangle-shaped rooms.

Information desk with Book Corner 1956

Information Desk with Book Corner, circa 1956

The galleries continued on the second floor, lit by skylights that lined the ceiling.

Balcony level, Stuart Davis exhibiitions, 1957

Balcony level, Stuart Davis exhibition, 1957

Upper level galleries, Stuart Davis exhibition, 1957

Upper level galleries, Stuart Davis exhibition, 1957

A surprising feature of the building was its horseshoe shape that surrounded an open courtyard. The courtyard was used for concerts such as the very popular Doc Evans Jazz Band in the 1950s. At times the court was also used for sculpture classes or exhibitions.  In the 1960s it was known as the Sculpture Court.

Doc Evans Jazz Band, Court Yard Concerts, 1958

Doc Evans Jazz Band, Court Yard Concerts, 1958

Sculpture Class with Evelyn Raymond, circa 1941

Sculpture Class with Evelyn Raymond, circa 1941

The Walker Art School was on the basement level. Founded in 1940 under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the art school was operational until 1950, hosting art classes for children and adults in a variety of subjects including drawing, painting, sculpture, design, and fashion. Dozens of local artists taught at the school, led by the charismatic director, Mac Le Sueur. Other instructors included Evelyn Raymond, Arthur Kerrick, and Stanford Fenelle, all successful artists of the time. Although not a degree program, credit from the Walker Art School could be transferred to the University of Minnesota. The art school was very popular and served hundreds of people regularly in the classrooms.

High School class with Mac LeSueur, 1941

High School class with Mac LeSueur, 1941

When the terra cotta features on the Long and Thorshov building began to crack—raising fears that decorative pieces might fall and injure visitors—the Moorish-style facade was replaced with a Moderne look in 1944. In addition to being safer for the public, the sleek new look designed by Magney, Tusslar and Setter, Architects, reflected the spirit of the progressive contemporary programming offered at the Walker Art Center in the mid 1940s.

Walker Art Center 1965

Walker Art Cente,r 1965

By the 1960s the old Walker Galleries building was in desperate need of repair. One side of the building had reportedly sunk, causing a crack through the center of the building. After examining the condition of the structure, architect Edward Larrabee Barnes was hired to design a new building. He created seven schemes before settling on the current brick facade that sits on Vineland and Hennepin. The old Long and Thorshov building was torn down in 1969, but before the wrecking ball began swinging, the Walker held a grand goodbye party along with a solo exhibition by Barry Le Va. The Le Va installation was not open to the public as the Walker Art Center had already moved the collections off-site. The building itself had been condemned in preparation for demolition so virtually no one saw Le Va’s show that has since become legend. It was a fitting end to a grand building.

Barry Le Va installation, February, 1969

Barry Le Va installation, February, 1969

Demolition day, March 7,1969

Demolition day, March 7,1969. Louise McCannel with Mike Winton, foreground.

Jade Mountain Returns

October 3 marked a homecoming, albeit temporary, for a beloved work of art: long part of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ collection, Jade Mountain was installed in the galleries for the October 16 opening of Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections. Its history with the Walker goes back more than 100 years […]


Walker and MIA art handlers install Jade Mountain in Art at the Center

October 3 marked a homecoming, albeit temporary, for a beloved work of art: long part of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ collection, Jade Mountain was installed in the galleries for the October 16 opening of Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections. Its history with the Walker goes back more than 100 years to the museum’s founder, Thomas Barlow Walker.

Jade Mountain Illustrating the Gathering of Scholars at the Lanting Pavillion (1784), carved from light green jade in Qing Dynasty China, chronicles members of an ancient literary society as they celebrate the Spring Purification Festival alongside a stream in Shaoxing. As curators explained on the joint Walker/MIA website ArtsConnectEd: “The scholars engaged in a drinking contest: Wine cups were floated down a small winding creek as the men sat along its banks; whenever a cup stopped, the man closest to the cup was required to empty it and write a poem. In the end, 26 of the participants composed 37 poems. Wang Xizhi was asked to write an introduction to the collection of these poems.” That poem, transcribed by Emperor Ch’ein-lung, appears on Jade Mountain.

The work, the largest jade carving outside of China, was brought to the United States by Herbert Squiers, who served as Secretary of the U. S. Delegation in Peking (Beijing) until 1901. Squiers donated much of his collection of Chinese jade and porcelain to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but after his death in 1912 the remainder was put up for auction. T.B. Walker’s top bid of $4,000 brought the work to Minneapolis. Included in a “time capsule” within Art at the Center, Jade Mountain is presented in front of a photographic reproduction of Walker’s mansion, where the the 640-pound sculpture is visible on a table. The work was part of Walker’s collection through his death in 1928, his gallery’s reopening as a public art center in 1940, and throughout much of the Walker Art Center’s modern history. In 1976 Jade Mountain went on long-term loan to the MIA, and over the ensuing decade negotiations led to the permanent transfer of its ownership to the MIA. The MIA generously agreed to lend this spectacular piece for Art at the Center in commemoration of the Walker’s 75th anniversary as a public art center. It will remain on view here until March 29, 2015.


Christo Takes Flight: Balloon Ascension, 1966


Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966. All photos: Eric Sutherland

In 1966 Christo came to Minneapolis to participate in the exhibition Eight Sculptors: The Ambiguous Image at the Walker Art Center.  Taking advantage of Christo’s visit, area colleges arranged for Christo to teach and participate in student art activities while he was here.  For a project at Minneapolis College of Art (MCAD) Christo worked with students to create  14,130 Cubic Feet Empaquetage (1966)—also known as Balloon Ascension. The students filled a weather balloon with 2,804 party balloons. The package was lifted 20 feet into the air by helicopter where it hovered for 30 minutes before descending to the ground. The original plan was that the helicopter would lift the balloon from MCAD to the Walker, but because of the complexity of lifting the balloon no one knew what would actually happen until the helicopter attempted the lift.  Although it never completed the intended route it was still an impressive sight.

Covering the project, a partnership between MCAD and the Walker’s Contemporary Arts Group, the Minneapolis Tribune ran a story headlined “A Monument to Nothingness.” “The balloon is  merely a container holding nothing just like the package will eventually hold many containers holding nothing and if one of the containers breaks the nothing still remains,” wrote Mike Steele. “It boggles the mind.”

For more moments from the Walker’s 75 years as a public art center, visit our Walker@75 page.


Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966


Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966


Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966


Christo, “Balloon Ascension,” Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966


Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966


Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966


Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966


Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966


Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966


Christo, Balloon Ascension, Minneapolis College of Art, October 28, 1966


Shall We Take It? The Walker’s Founding Question

Dan Defenbacher, center, with Walker Art Center staff, circa 1940

Minnesota Arts Council/Walker Art Center brochure, 1939

The Walker was founded on a question. “Shall we take it?” In 1939 the citizens of Minneapolis were offered an opportunity to start a federally funded art center. The answer? Yes. A resounding yes.

But how exactly did this offer come about? And what did it mean?

In 1935 a young architect and industrial designer left his architecture firm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to become the state director of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project for North Carolina. That young man, Daniel S. Defenbacher, launched the Community Art Center program. His vision was to open the art world to every American citizen, and Defenbacher saw the community art center as a gathering place for learning, culture and amusement, a destination, a town square with a mission to support all the arts. As he expressed it:

Art springs from human need and its values must be based upon human values. The museum therefore must measure its vitality in terms of service to the human need in its community. It must integrate art with the experience of living.

His experiment in North Carolina was a tremendous success and the Community Art Center program quickly became a national movement that spread across the country with Defenbacher at the helm. Between 1935 and 1939, Defenbacher established more than 70 art centers. The Walker Art Center would be his last and the largest.


Dan Defenbacher (front, right) and Walker Art Center staff with Franz Marc’s The Large Blue Horses (1911) featured in the background, circa 1950

Dan Defenbacher, center, with Walker Art Center staff and local architects, July 12, 1940

Defenbacher, center, with Walker Art Center staff and local architects, July 12, 1940

Defenbacher spent most of his time traveling around the country personally overseeing the creation and operation of the art centers. According to his employment records he spent two to three days a month in Washington, DC, with Thomas Parker, the assistant director of the Federal Art Project, while the remainder of his time was spent traveling across the country looking at communities. In order for a community to be considered for an art center, a sponsor, such as an arts council or committee, would contact their WPA State Director. In turn, the WPA State Director would recommend communities to Defenbacher for consideration. After a site visit, Defenbacher would require that the local committee launch a fundraising campaign. He would estimate the total amount necessary to start an art center and then require the committee to raise 25 percent. He did this so that the community would embrace the concept and feel ownership in the center. After the funds were raised, the WPA would contribute the remaining 75 percent. The WPA contribution mostly paid for salarie, with a small amount allocated for general operation. It was up to the community to pay for maintenance costs, renovations, equipment and transportation.

Across the country Defenbacher spoke passionately about the potential of the art center system highlighting successful centers in his talks. One of his shining examples was Iowa’s Sioux City Art Center. “It had no gallery building, no art collection,” he wrote. “For quarters the owner of a business building donated the basement. For equipment the various trade unions donated labor, the merchants donated materials, and the citizens and civic organizations gave cash – in all, about $17,000. In six months over 56,000 people – well over one-half the entire population – visited and used the center.” With buy-in from the community, Defenbacher’s goal was that each art center would become self-supporting. WPA funding was year to year and, given the economic recovery in place, Defenbacher knew that that federal funding would only last a few years more.

Salem Art Center, Salem, Oregon circa 1938

Salem Art Center, Salem, Oregon circa 1938

In 1938, after three years on the road establishing art centers, Defenbacher was exhausted and looking for another opportunity, perhaps as a museum director. But he was also looking for one final site for the art center program. He wanted it to be outstanding, larger than any of the other art centers, something that would become the model for the modern museum. As fate would have it, at about this time Clement Haupers, WPA State Director of Minnesota, contacted him about an opportunity in Minneapolis.


The Walker Art Gallery, 1927

Walker Galleries, circa 1915

Walker Art Galleries, circa 1915

Haupers wrote that the Minnesota Art Council (MAC) had identified a potential site in the T.B. Walker Gallery. MAC, founded by Ruth Lawrence, curator of the University Gallery (Weisman Art Museum), had formed a group of like-minded art lovers in 1938. The primary focus of MAC was on contemporary, living artists. At the time there was no gallery in the Twin Cities providing a place for Minnesota artists to exhibit their work. Lawrence contacted Bertha Walker, who in turn convinced her husband, Archie Walker, and the T.B. Walker Foundation to donate space in the Walker gallery to MAC for contemporary exhibitions. The result was the 1938 exhibition Living Minnesota Artists held in the Walker Art Gallery. Building on MAC’s success, the Council had the idea of approaching the WPA for funding to establish an art center. At this point, Lawrence, who remained on the MAC board, took a back seat on the council, as she had many other activities with the university, and felt she could not devote any more time to the project.   However, she was reassured that MAC would thrive under the leadership of Rolf Ueland. He was a successful attorney, violinist, craftsman, and art enthusiast.1 Once again in 1938 MAC contacted Archie and Bertha Walker for their support, and this time they convinced the T.B. Walker Foundation to turn over the entire Walker gallery to MAC. With an art council and a facility in place, Defenbacher came to visit on November 15, 1938, and what he found inspired him.

In a letter from that same day written by Louise Walker, daughter of Archie and Bertha, to her brother, Hudson, she recounts the very first visit of Debenbacher and Haupers to the Walker Art Gallery.

“Dear Duke,” she wrote, “I’m all steamed up so listen carefully. This afternoon, …, two men came barging in on the privacy of my basement room, but instead of the usual gawkers who wander in by mistake and curiosity, they turned out to be the men with whom Pa had a long talk yesterday. One was Clement Haupers. …. The other was Dan Deffenbach (sp), regional director or some such big shot in the Federal art project, and who runs and flies about the country organizing art centers. As soon as I realized that I didn’t have to watch and see that they wouldn’t abscond with a snuff bottle we began talking and walking about the building while D. marked down what there was in the way of collection and space. He was so enthusiastic at the material we have there that most of the time he wouldn’t even listen to what we were saying so hard was he planning to himself how he would arrange it all.”2


Walker Art Center brochure, 1941


Walker Art Center brochure, 1941

After the site visit, MAC successfully raised $5,500 from the community in order to receive the $35,000 from the WPA. The T.B. Walker Foundation donated the museum building and collection and paid the utilities and maintenance while the WPA paid the salaries. MAC oversaw all the operations and began looking for a director. Its members were impressed with Defenbacher’s efforts and offered him the position. In November 1939 Defenbacher officially resigned his post with the WPA and became the first Walker Art Center director. In a few short months, he had transformed the Walker Art Gallery from a nineteenth century salon-style museum to a dynamic twentieth century art center.


The Walker Art Center with its new moderne facade, 1944

Artist Stanford Fenelle and guest at Walker Art Center, 1940

Artist Stanford Fenelle and guest at Walker Art Center, 1940


Installation view, Answers to Questions, 1940

When the Walker Art Center opened on January 4, 1940 the 3,500 visitors saw colorful displays, innovative exhibition cases, and numerous graphics and explanatory panels. The guest of honor was Thomas Hart Benton, the outspoken Regionalist and WPA champion. The press coverage was impressive, including a live radio broadcast of the event on WCCO. There were artists demonstrating their work and WPA dignitaries on hand. After the opening, MAC  and the Walker staff began to work on the programming including special exhibitions, workshops, an art school for adults and children, dance recitals and film screenings. The next challenge would be to sustain the programming  beyond federal funding.


Banner outside of Walker Art Center for exhibition America Builds for Defense, 1941

Walker Art Center School Design Class

Walker Art School design class with Mac LeSueur (standing), 1947


Everyday Art Gallery, 1946

WPA funding would end entirely in December 1942. The United States was at war and the era of the New Deal was over. Many of the center’s staff either joined the armed forces or were drafted. Even though he was short-handed, Defenbacher remained as director. Under his leadership the exhibition and education programs continued to expand including Everyday Art Gallery, the first dedicated design space in a museum, and the influential Everyday Art Quarterly (later renamed Design Quarterly). Defenbacher stayed on at the Walker until 1950. His enthusiasm for start-up operations led him to the Fort Worth Art Center. Later he became president of the California College of Arts and Crafts. He also took up architecture again and was associated with architect Victor Gruen. Eventually he retired to Florida, where he passed away in 1986. Defenbacher was an energetic, talented organizer with a passion for art, and under his leadership the groundwork was laid for what the Walker Art Center would become. The question he posed 75 years ago, “Shall we take it?” continues to remind us that—like art itself—the Walker is a conversation that we continue to have, as artists, as audiences, and as a community.


Walker Art Center poster, 1940

Minnesota & the Nation 1941

Installation view, Minnesota and the Nation, 1941

1 Ueland would be president of MAC from 1938–1946 and later after MAC was dissolved in 1946 he became the first president of the Walker Art Center board of directors

2 Defenbacher’s first visit must have impressed Louise Walker very much. They worked together over the next several months preparing for the Walker Art Center opening and became more than just colleagues.  Later Dan and Louise were married and were a dynamic couple in the art world before they divorced in 1950.

Memories of Mickey: Colleagues and Friends Remember Mildred Friedman

Mildred “Mickey” Friedman is a monumental figure in the history and culture of the Walker—a talented designer, innovative publications editor, and forward-thinking architecture and design historian, who was a strong creative force in all aspects of the institution. We’re saddened to hear of her passing on September 3, 2014, and we extend our condolences to […]

Mildred "Mickey" Friedman in the Walker Design Studio, 1971

Mildred “Mickey” Friedman in the Walker Design Studio, 1971. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Mildred “Mickey” Friedman is a monumental figure in the history and culture of the Walker—a talented designer, innovative publications editor, and forward-thinking architecture and design historian, who was a strong creative force in all aspects of the institution. We’re saddened to hear of her passing on September 3, 2014, and we extend our condolences to her husband, Walker director emeritus Martin Friedman, and her family.

During her tenure at the Walker from the 1960s to her retirement in the early 1990s, she shaped, with Martin, some of the most distinctive publications, exhibitions, and communications at the Center and put the Walker on the map globally for its approach to design and publications within a museum setting. (For more on her legacy, here and in the field, read the reflection by Andrew Blauvelt, our former design director and current curator and architecture and design.)

I first came to know Mickey when I joined the Walker in 2008, twenty years after she and Martin’s respective retirements and nearly fifty years after they first put their creative marks on the Walker. I could not have been met by a more gracious and generous spirit than Mickey, both energetic and curious, and voraciously interested in what was new and progressive in culture today. I relished my regular annual visit to their New York loft. Mickey’s commitment to researching and giving platform to the new and to supporting emerging voices in architecture and design stands out for me as one of her greatest contributions. It is not surprising that while at the Walker, she established a fellowship in design that persists to this day. We are proud that this fellowship now carries her name, the Mildred S. Friedman Design Fellowship.

Mickey will be deeply missed by all of us at the Walker, and her commitment to excellence and integrity and her great passion for design will continue to inspire us for many years to come.

To commemorate Mickey’s extraordinary life and career, we’ve invited her friends, professional peers, and colleagues from her Walker years and beyond, to share their memories. Please check back as we add more reflections in the coming hours and days. To share your own perspective, please leave a comment or email us.

Mary Abbe, Minneapolis Star Tribune visual art critic/reporter; former public information officer  (1980–1984), Walker Art Center

Walker staff used to jokingly call the place the “Mom and Pop Art Shop” back in the early 1980s when I had the great pleasure of working there.

Mickey was always the calm, inquisitive, bemused, and decisive one, while Martin bustled about fretting over exhibition wall colors, second guessing himself, pushing curators for new ideas, and wondering when The New York Times was going to fly out to cover his latest show. Mickey would study and think through an issue, resolve the problem, and then speak. When she did, all the angles had been considered and the solution settled. Martin, by contrast, is an impresario given to imaginative flights, fidgety revisions, and impromptu brilliance grounded in intuition.

The contrast in their personalities was a key to the success of their long professional and personal partnership. They depended on each other, trusted each other’s taste and intellect, set the highest standards for staff and themselves, were demanding and imperious, self-deprecating and welcoming, and altogether deeply human. Working late was routine on nights before big shows opened, but no one resented the unpaid imposition because Martin and Mickey were always there too, sitting on the basement floor eating pizza with the installation crew.

Both brilliant with words, they could be wickedly funny in dismissing some public eyesore. The tacky, copper-paneled Minneapolis public library of the day looked to Martin like “a Gold Bond stamp redemption center.” After a visit to Rome, where the Vatican was then cleaning up Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, Mickey mischievously sniffed that the gods’ new apple-green and fuchsia outfits were “too Puerto Rican.” It was politically incorrect, of course, but hilarious too.

For the just-out-of-grad-school curators and programmers who landed there, the Walker was a crash course in professionalism. Mickey, being quieter, sometimes seemed more intellectual and grounded in history, hence her innovative de Stijl show and history of graphic design in America. She was always interested in first principles, the ideas and concepts that drove design. She wanted to know what was fresh and innovative, thus her new-architect exhibits with Frank Gehry, et al. All of her projects were executed with clean lines, crisp type, clear colors, and minimalist forms. Those principles became a stylistic vocabulary that marked many of us for life.

Working at the Walker was, in many ways, the happiest time of my professional life. We were all young then, of course, and part of a wonderful family.

Elizabeth Armstrong, curator of contemporary art, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; former curator (1983–1996), Walker Art Center

I was so sorry to hear about Mickey’s passing. Of course, the news brought back so many memories of the Walker Art Center. I grew up there as a curator from 1983 to 1996, and during that time I worked with Mickey on a number of projects. I was the beneficiary of her commanding sense of design and style, which helped bring the Walker’s exhibitions and publications, already well-known, to the greater attention of the art world. Her eye for design was a key ingredient in the museum’s ability to attract broad audiences to new ideas.

I was there when she jump-started Frank Gehry’s career by recognizing and translating his architectural and design brilliance in a groundbreaking exhibition of his work. By employing Frank’s unorthodox use of materials and forms in three dimensions and on a live-sized scale, she took architectural exhibitions out of their cloistered niche to make them enormously popular with visitors! This exhibition was followed by a series of experimental shows created in collaboration with emerging architects (from Steven Holl to Diller & Scofidio) who have gone on to be leaders in their field.

Mickey’s insistence on excellence in every aspect of work at the museum set the bar at the highest level, which continues to be a hallmark of the Walker Art Center. Of course, her major commitment, over all others, was to her family and to Martin. Her admiration, love, guidance, and support of her director-husband was in evidence every day. And when he, who seemed indefatigable, might flag on the rare occasion, Mickey would magically appear by his side! Simply remarkable.

Jay Belloli, independent curator; former assistant curator (1970–1972), Walker Art Center

Mickey was such a handsome woman—tall, thin, a strong but pleasing face, and simply but elegantly dressed. She was also a wonderful mother to her three daughters. I particularly remember Lise, whose gentleness and kindness clearly was influenced by Mickey. And Mickey was so intelligent and creative. Looking back, I am amazed, under her editorship, the wide and very timely range of subjects she chose for Design Quarterly. I believe that publication made an important contribution to design and also architecture, especially the visionary architecture of the 1960s.

Dr. Robert Blaich, fellow of the Industrial Designers Society of America; fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts

I had been an avid reader of Design Quarterly long before I met its editor, Mildred Friedman, in 1974  when, as the Vice President of Design at Herman Miller, I was asked by Mickey to help in the exhibition Nelson | Eames | Girard | Propst: The Design Process at Herman Miller. It was my great pleasure to work with Mickey during the process leading up to this iconic exhibit in 1975. This was the beginning of a long friendship, and later I invited Mickey to participate in a review of Herman Miller design programs along with Miller designers Bruce Burdick, Bill Stumpf, Don Chadwick, and consultants Ralph Caplan, John Massey, and myself. This activity, referred to as “The Fertile Ground,” resulted in considerable re-thinking about how the company could build on its great designer’s legacy. Mickey’s contribution to this effort was critical as she brought her long experience as a design curator, writer, and editor to the process.

In 1980 I moved to the Netherlands as the head of design at Royal Philips Electronics, and some time later I was contacted by Mickey and Martin Friedman, who were planning a trip to Holland with the board of the Walker Art Center to visit art museums. I recommended visiting the Kröller-Müller Museum and Sculpture Park in Otterlo. I helped organize the visit and joined them in a very successful day.

I had not seen the Friedmans again until last year when dining in their favorite restaurant, the Gotham Grill in New York. I sighted them across the room and we renewed our friendship, followed by correspondence. I was preparing a nomination for Mickey for Lifetime Achievement and for Design Mind for the National Design Awards of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum when I received the news of her passing. There is no one more deserving of this honor than Mickey Friedman.

Jim Dayton, principal, James Dayton Design, LTD; outgoing president of the Walker Board of Trustees

Mickey Friedman shaped my life in both direct and indirect ways.  As a college kid, it was Mickey’s exhibition of Frank Gehry’s work at the Walker that ignited my passion for design in general, and architecture specifically, an influence that still informs my thinking some 30 years later. I knew there was something out there like that, but had no idea how to get to it; Mickey’s ability to bring worldly intellect to the Walker influenced multiple generations of designers and artists. After graduate school, it was Mickey who made a personal call to Frank on my behalf, and helped me land a much coveted job in his LA office. That experience had a profound influence on my life as a designer, something I cherish every day.  I am deeply grateful for Mickey’s immeasurable impact on the world of design, and will remember fondly my experiences with her.

Siri Engberg, senior curator, Visual Arts, Walker Art Center

Mickey Friedman was a force. To the world at large, her extraordinary exhibitions and publications broke new ground for design as curatorial practice. Her own gifts as a designer and her personal and genuine relationships with up-and-coming talents in the field—from Frank Gehry to Steven Holl to Diller + Scofidio—produced exhibitions and projects of the highest quality. The first of her shows I ever saw was Graphic Design in America, a sweeping survey of the discipline that included a dizzying array of examples from iconic practitioners to emerging voices. It was a remarkable exhibition—at once visually exhilarating, lively, dense, and polished. Beautifully installed in the Walker’s pristine white gallery spaces, it was the kind of presentation that invited complete immersion and repeat visits. I remember feeling awed by it all, and knowing then that the Walker was a place at which I might aspire to work. When I did join the curatorial staff the following year, I recall noticing immediately how the Friedmans had built an institution with a culture of extended family that included not only employees and trustees, but also artists. We all felt secure under the wings of their dynamic partnership, but with that security came responsibility: without question, one was expected to meet their standards of excellence, and with that came mentorship and trust. Mickey’s unwavering aesthetic sensibility infused everything at the Walker—from the banners on the building to the products in the shop to the desk lamps and office furniture. Her warmth as a person, and her enthusiasm for her field, the Walker, and the artists and designers she championed was palpable. Mickey’s legacy is immense, and reaches far beyond the walls of the Edward Larrabee Barnes building she called home for so many years, yet she will be especially missed by those here in the Walker family whom she touched and inspired.

Martin Filler, architecture critic, The New York Review of Books; former editor, Design Quarterly (1992)

Perhaps Mickey Friedman’s greatest talent was as an incomparable spotter of new talent. Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, famously said that if fifteen percent of a curator’s picks pass the test of time you’re ahead of the game, but Mickey’s success rate was much higher. Apart from establishing Frank Gehry’s international reputation with the 1986 Walker retrospective (eleven years before Bilbao), her 1988–1991 Architecture Tomorrow series did the same for such then-unknown but now-celebrated figures as Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Steven Holl, Thom Mayne, and Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio. I myself was given a similar boost when in 1979, only five years into my writing career, she asked me to write an essay for Design Quarterly that attracted wide attention because of DQ’s exceptional authority and prestige.

Her long editorship of Design Quarterly marked a high point in the popularization of good design in America, enough in itself to secure her place in design history. The exhibitions she curated after retiring from the Walker were equally excellent, especially her superb 1999 Carlo Scarpa retrospective at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. She was a generous and congenial collaborator, as I found when we served together as guest curators for the Brooklyn Museum’s 2001 Vital Forms exhibition.

Apart from Mickey’s breathtaking command of her subject, she was wise, compassionate, and philosophical about the often difficult personalities she encountered in the design world. When I was having particular trouble with one of them, she calmly told me, “Oh, Martin. Don’t you know they’re all like that?”

Phil Freshman, former editor, Walker Art Center

Mickey Friedman hired me to be the Walker Art Center’s first-ever staff editor in the spring of 1988, and I moved here from Los Angeles with my wife and five-month-old daughter that June. I soon settled into the Walker’s routine 70-hour work week and made common cause with the cast of other dedicated maniacs who comprised the then 50-person staff. One reason I’d been hired was to edit Mickey’s magnum opus, the book accompanying her long-planned exhibition, Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History. She rightly wanted to keep close tabs on the writing (by a large and far-flung set of contributors) and the editing. But before that engine even got started, there was Adam Weinberg’s hefty Vanishing Presence photography catalogue to edit, plus a book on Frank Stella’s Circuits print series for Liz Armstrong. And because I was the only editor in the joint, I was handed just about every piece of printed matter the Walker cranked out, from the members’ calendar to booklets, brochures, program flyers, and broadsides for the film/video, performing arts, and education departments, annual reports, and assorted whatnot. There was also the little business, in the summer of 1988, of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which opened that September—requiring its own thick set of “ephemera.” After five or six such breakneck months, I asked Martin and Mickey if I could hire a part-time assistant. They shook their heads and shut their eyes. “Edit faster,” said Martin.

Editing faster, and editing for precision and clarity, was something at which Mickey excelled. She hated fluff, flatulence, posturing, and imprecision in writing as much as I did. But the wonder of it, to me, was that she could drain the waste out of a piece and rewrite lead and concluding paragraphs at warp speed, seemingly with little exertion. I would hand her my first pass at someone’s tortured essay for the graphic design book at, say, 10 a.m., and it would be back on my desk within a couple of hours, its major problems fixed and the path forward made clear. I learned a great deal about achieving clarity by looking at her edits, and from them how to struggle less with my own. Mickey and I got crosswise many a time, but she never told me how to edit and never failed to support me if I was at an impasse with a writer. Although she thought, like Martin, that there was no limit to the amount of time and energy I (and the rest of the staff) should devote to the Walker—that was the way the two of them lived, after all—I saw that in everything she did, the aim was excellence and quality. It was remarkable, indeed admirable, how often and squarely she hit those targets.

I was at the Walker until the Friedmans left, at the end of 1990, and stayed the first four years of Kathy Halbreich’s tenure. As tough a customer as Mickey could be, there were definitely days during that post-Friedman time when I missed her no-nonsense and her sharp eye.

Peter Georgas, former publicist, Walker Art Center (1964–1979)

In the 1960s, the Walker’s senior staff numbered eleven (you can look up the names in the London: the New Scene catalog from 1965) and we were like family. When we had a staff meeting we gathered around the coffee table in Martin’s office. It is in this context I want to share my remembrance:

There was a follow-up party after an opening in early 1971 at a stately home in Kenwood. Mickey and I were sitting on a wide stairway and I told her that my wife Peggy and I were adopting and that we wanted to name our daughter Zoe. This was also the name Martin and Mickey gave to their youngest daughter. In those days Zoe was an uncommon choice and I did not want Mickey to think we were being copycats. She was very gracious and told me I should not feel that way in the least. I think she was also pleased that we thought the name Zoe was as special to us as it was to her and Martin.

April Greiman, designer

There are no words, truly, for me to express how grateful I am and indebted to Mickey Friedman. She, single-handedly, turned my career around, supported the path least taken, and was a dear and warm friend. I am heartbroken with the loss of her in my world, and to the design world at large.

Roger Hale, honorary trustee and former president, Walker Board of Trustees

Mickey Friedman was a highly  regarded, visionary figure in the field of design. She recognized early the architectural genius of Frank Gehry and also was deeply involved in the Walker team working with Ed Barnes in the design of the “New Walker” in the early 1970’s. She was fiercely visionary as to the possibilities of critical historical buildings in Minneapolis and was a major influence in the saving and rehabilitation of the Butler building in the Warehouse District and later the stunning possibilities of the  Mill District of Minneapolis. Beyond her professional vision and expertise, she was a sparkling personality, had a contagious laugh, and was never shy about expressing strongly held political opinions.

Erwin Kelen, honorary trustee and former president, Walker Board of Trustees

I had the privilege of being the president of the Walker board in 1986, when Tokyo: Form and Spirit, one of the Walker’s most popular exhibitions ever, opened. In the years leading up to that opening, Martin and Mickey traveled several times to Japan, spent extensive periods of time there getting to know Japanese artists, designers, architects, craftsmen and just getting immersed in Japanese culture.  Needless to say, the scope and the attendant expense of the exhibition kept getting larger and larger as time went on. The final installation, which in fact ended up utilizing all of the Walker galleries, was truly impressive. Mickey was truly Martin’s partner, and the fully engaged co-curator of this marvelous and unique show.

Of course, there were many stressful moments and, at times, even doubt if this whole enterprise would come off successfully or just blow up before it ever opened. We all looked for some levity and stress-relief in this long process. My favorite memento from this period is a plastic sign, which they’d surreptitiously removed from a Japanese train, instructing the locals on the use of a Western-style toilet. Martin and Mickey and Miriam and I had many laughs as both our families proudly displayed these signs in our respective bathrooms. They are still there!

Mickey was a truly unique and very talented individual, a great friend, who will be sorely missed !


Margy Ligon, former education director (1979–1994), Walker Art Center

Mickey had an enormous influence on all of us who had the privilege of working with her. In addition to her landmark exhibitions and publications, she produced influential conferences and lectures. During my 15 year-tenure in the Walker’s education department, I worked with her on countless public programs and experienced first-hand her legendary high standards. Rather than inviting “the usual suspects,” she preferred to discover provocative thinkers and challenge them to create original scholarship for Walker audiences and, often, for subsequent publication in DQ. Her expectations inspired extraordinary results and her example informed the rest of my professional life. Later when I was producing high-profile lecture series at the University of Minnesota, I would often think, “What would Mickey do?”

Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Abbott Miller and I had the amazing pleasure of working with Mickey in the late 1980s on her groundbreaking exhibition Graphic Design in America. She was the first real curator I had ever met, and she had so much to teach a young aspirant like myself. Her grace, intelligence, and kindness—and her patience with two green young writers—will always stay with me. Mickey Friedman thought with her eyes. She had a way to spinning stories, ideas, and insight out of objects and rooms. She had both extraordinary taste and the desire to illuminate the whole world with better design.

Abbott Miller, designer, writer, and partner at Pentagram

Mickey had an amazing sense of adventure, independence, and generosity in her thoughts and actions. That combination led her to champion, explicate, and consider design from truly diverse vantage points. From the “spoon to the city” meant that Julia Child, Tokyo, and Frank Gehry were all expressions of design. There was a modernist current to her interests, but not as a stylistic vocabulary. She was interested in the public life of design, the formal experimentation of contemporary designers, but also the “commercial vernacular” that was evident in her Graphic Design in America exhibition.

I co-authored an extended timeline-essay for her Graphic Design in America catalogue: I remember that Mickey came to New York to discuss the show with Ellen Lupton, who was curating great exhibitions on graphic design at Cooper Union. We saw her outline for the catalogue she was planning, and after she left we wrote her a letter nominating ourselves as the authors. Her response was along the lines of “I was thinking the exact same thing.” It was a leap of faith that she had probably made many times in her career, trusting her instincts and having confidence in her choices.

I’ve been fortunate to have had multiple occasions and experiences touched by Mickey, Martin, and their daughter, Lise Friedman, who was the editor of the first magazine I designed. I know multiple projects can be traced back to Mickey, directly or indirectly, and that I am one of many designers whose lives have been deeply influenced by her intelligence, charm, and vision.

Peter Murphy, media specialist, Walker Art Center

I know Mickey had a formidable professional presence and was responsible for a lot of the cool cachet the Walker seemed to hold for me and everyone who encountered it. Eames chairs in the offices (and even in the projection booths)! I knew she struck fear into others, but I was struck by how, on Martin’s arm and in her home, she always seemed like a benevolent sidekick with a kindly smile. Her roles as sophisticated homemaker and mother were more apparent to me. I was in their home several times at gatherings and parties. Me — a nobody at the time. I shook Robert Rauschenberg’s hand there! Mickey and Martin were both even friendlier to me in the years after the Walker when I would encounter them — treating me like an old friend. One of the few remaining faces at the Walker they still recognized.

Mary Polta, chief financial officer, Walker Art Center

The Walker was the first place I worked out of college. As an ambitious, young professional, I clearly remember being in awe of Martin and Mickey as I realized early on how the work environment they created at the Walker was so extraordinary, very much a reflection of themselves. Their passion, drive, high standards, intellectual brilliance, work ethic, and aesthetic were eye-opening (and, at times, intimidating). Watching them taught me much about what it takes to be the best and to truly make a difference in one’s field.

One memory that stands out for me occurred at an exhibition planning meeting in Martin’s office. Mickey and I were present along with a few other staff. During much of the meeting she and Martin were engaged in a lively debate of various project details, with a little input from the rest of us. What struck me about their fascinating interchange was how respectful, yet candid it was, the rigor of their thinking, how carefully they listened to each other and, in the end, how constructive the discussion was in advancing the exhibition. It was a glimpse of what was likely a regular occurrence for them throughout their long, happy marriage. I observed many times how confident Mickey was when communicating her point of view. While each was mutually supportive of the other’s endeavors, she was an important collaborator and sounding board for Martin. For all of us privileged to know Mickey, it is apparent how instrumental she has been to the success of the Walker.

Susan Rotilie, former program manager for School Programs, Walker Art Center

I remember Mickey as a powerful quiet force at the Walker when I worked there in the 1980s. She had strong opinions and was a perfectionist of the highest order. Working with Martin and Mickey was not always easy but definitely made us all strive to be the best we could be. Her taste, style, and vision were unfailingly spot on. From mounting blockbuster shows like De Stijl and Tokyo: Form and Spirit to small details such as insisting on Alvar Aalto furniture in the Art Lab, she set the tone for the Walker in so many ways.

When Mickey was planning the Tokyo: Form and Spirit show, she traveled to Japan with Martin and other Walker staff several times. I heard this story from Adam Weinberg (I believe) about a meeting with a Tokyo design contact. The Japanese man assumed Mickey was just a woman accompanying Martin and refused to talk to her directly. Needless to say, Mickey did not let this pass! She let the man know in no uncertain terms that she was in charge and I don’t think he made that mistake again.

Mickey was invited to be on a planning commission for the city of Minneapolis. I went along to one meeting with her and saw first hand how her vision for our town did not always follow the prevailing opinions. There was excitement over the plans to add to the growing skyline of downtown. At this time the IDS building was the only real skyscraper. Mickey felt that there was no reason to build more tall buildings in Mpls because, unlike New York, we had so much space in the Midwest to build horizontally rather than vertically. I don’t think her opinion swayed too many in this case, but sometimes I wonder how different downtown would look if it had.

Peter Seitz, former design curator (1964–1968), Walker Art Center

I worked in the mid-Sixties for nearly five years at the Walker Art Center as design curator, editor of Design Quarterly, and graphic designer, writing, lecturing, publishing, and producing all visual communications and curating design exhibitions, even designing graphics for the early Guthrie Theater. I practiced an inclusive approach to design, something Mickey not only carried on but excelled in it. Her focus on urban design, her involvement in getting good national and international designers and architects in designing in and for Minneapolis, resulted in this area to become known as a center for good design.

After leaving the Walker I was not dismayed when I learned that Mickey took over the design curator position and right away hired two more designers to assist her. We all miss her; the design community lost a great professional and a friend.

Glenn Suokko, independent graphic designer; former senior graphic designer (1988–1990), Walker Art Center

Working with Mickey Friedman remains one of the most stimulating and important experiences of my career in design. We worked together on the major exhibition, Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History, and it was while working on his particular—enormous—project, that as a graphic designer fresh out of graduate school, I learned from Mickey about the integration of design, art, culture, history, and experience—and so much more. She was unrelenting in making everything exceptional and had amazing taste. I thought she was the most insightful, brilliant person I had ever met. We often had lunch together in Gallery 8 and while enjoying a salad and the special of the day, carried on our work in planning and creating the exhibition, book, and programming. We always worked on Saturdays, because this was the day when we could really dig in and get a lot done without distraction. Every so often on a Saturday, Mickey or Martin would suggest we take a break and have lunch at their house. Mickey always made the most delicious lunches with simplicity and ease. She was so gracious and these are treasured moments in my memory. After lunch we’d head back to the office and work more, and often wind up having dinner and seeing a performance in the theater that night. With Mickey—as with Martin—work and friendship, experience and wisdom, good food and wonderful projects, all seemed to just continually flow into one another in the nicest way.

Marc Treib, landscape and architectural historian/critic; Professor of Architecture Emeritus at UC-Berkeley

Under the joint guidance of Martin and Mickey Friedman, for several decades the Walker Art Center maintained a leading presence in both the art and design worlds. Mickey’s catholic (small c) editorship of Design Quarterly brilliantly continued a tradition begun, I believe, as early as the late 1940s with Walker’s Everyday Design Quarterly, whose name belied sympathies with a movement begun in Sweden in the early part of the twentieth century. Each thematic issue surprised, delighted, and enlightened. Among those issues that come to mind are the number on Julia Childs’s kitchen, complete with its fold-out view of the chef’s realm, and the clip-on and plug-in architecture issue with Ron Herron’s “Walking City” on its cover. There were many others.

My own contact with Mickey began with my proposal for what became Design Quarterly #115: Mapping Experience, which appeared in 1980. At that time my primary writing subject was graphic design, with articles principally for Print magazine. My long-standing interest in maps had been further stimulated in the early 1970s by a first visit to Japan, where the dearth of street names had given rise to an abundance of maps in a great variety of forms. It was an honor for someone new to design writing and publishing to be included in the DQ series.

Perhaps from knowing of my interest in Japanese gardens and architecture, Mickey invited me to contribute to the catalog for the Tokyo: Form and Spirit exhibition in the mid-1980s. A planning meeting for the exhibition brought me to Minneapolis where I met Japanese design luminaries such as Tadao Ando and Shiro Kuramata, who over time became friends. I recall being asked to rewrite my essay several times, with each revision adding to the length of the text. Mickey stressed clarity and quality, and unlike my efforts for the DQ issue, wasn’t too concerned about word count. The show was stunning and the book became a classic and holds up well.

My last professional contribution to the Walker’s design program was the historical overview essay for the issue of DQ that accompanied the opening of the museum’s sculpture garden in 1988. By that time my study interests had shifted from graphic design and architecture to the design and history of landscape architecture and the display of art outdoors. The assignment to review the history of gardens, the history of sculpture, and the history of sculpture in gardens—all in a very few pages—was certainly a challenge. Sadly, every effort for continuity on my part was torpedoed by the issue’s graphic designer, who under the misguided attempt to make an “interesting” page, shifted alternate paragraphs from flush left to flush right.

Sadly, the printed voice that had intrigued and informed so many in the design world and general public ended with Mickey’s departure from the Walker. Her critical eye, energetic brain, curatorial bravado, and active interest in design of all forms, made her a great instigator, organizer, and editor. I am grateful for the opportunities she provided me personally; the design community, at least of my generation, is very much indebted to her for the forum she provided us.

Michael Van Valkenburgh, landscape architect; designer of the Regis Gardens (with Bobbie Solomon) and of the 1992 Minneapolis Sculpture Garden expansion

Designing the Regis Gardens and, after that, the addition to the Walker Sculpture Garden were among my first non-private commissions as a landscape architect. I wish every young designer could work first for people like Mickey and Martin, believers in design in the deepest sense and people who knew the value of cultivating those they believed had talent. When you worked with Mickey, there was joy and purposefulness and a sense that of course everything had to be the absolute best.

I have to share a funny story about our first conversation. It was actually Mickey calling me on my 34th birthday. In those days, the phone rang and you answered it: no call waiting, no caller ID.

“Hello, I am trying to reach Michael Van Valkenburgh. This is Mickey Friedman at the Walker Art Center.”

“This is Michael.”

“Michael, I am heading a committee to select the designer for a series of gardens within greenhouses at the Walker Art Center, and your name came up because we saw your work for the St. Paul Square competition. Here is the situation. We really do not want to have a competition because half of the committee wants you to win and half wants  Bobbie Solomon to win. So my question to you is: would you be willing to try to work collaboratively with Bobbie?”

The rest is history. But the story says it all: Here was someone who had done her homework, who was blindingly honest, and who believed in taking chances. With the passing of Mickey Friedman I not only have lost my first non-private client, I lost someone who pointed me in the right direction when I was a young man and made me, too, pursue excellence every time I can.

There are few wonder-couples like Mickey and Martin in the world, and to this day I have in my office a copy of their going-away party’s schedule of events, designed by David Hockey; many older readers will remember this gorgeous image. It’s of Martin and Mickey doing a crossword puzzle together. Working for them felt the same: You were never sure if you were talking to one or the other, and of course you were always talking to both. I am saddened by the world’s loss of a great advocate for design.

No posts