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Remembering Rosemary Furtak, Champion of Artists’ Books

On July 8, we lost a dear friend when Walker Librarian Rosemary Furtak passed away. Dedicating 29 years to the Walker Art Center, Rosemary was a leader in her field, building our library into one of the primary repositories for contemporary art research in the country. She knew that as an institution powered by the […]

Rosemary Furtak in the Walker Library, 2006. Photo: Gene Pittman

On July 8, we lost a dear friend when Walker Librarian Rosemary Furtak passed away. Dedicating 29 years to the Walker Art Center, Rosemary was a leader in her field, building our library into one of the primary repositories for contemporary art research in the country. She knew that as an institution powered by the work of living artists, the library too must be a living, breathing organism, one that deepened not only our understanding of the artists in the Walker’s collection, but also in the world at large. Under her care, the library demonstrated that contemporary art was fast-paced and exciting. She made sure the right exhibition catalogues, periodicals, and offbeat ephemera were brought in to provide crucial context to the work of the many artists, performers, and filmmakers shown here. Her view was that a library of this nature must be both a repository and a space for active exploration.

Rosemary had many passions: edgy fashion, the Minnesota Twins, the hills of northern Italy, and concerts at Orchestra Hall, where she was an usher for years. But her greatest love was the field of artists’ books—volumes conceived as original works of art rather than reproductions or mass-produced publications. The art form took hold in the mid-1960s as many artists began to embrace the book as a uniquely democratic vehicle for presenting visual information, and has today grown into a vibrant area of artistic production. When it came to artists’ books, Rosemary was omnivorous, whether she was seeking out key historical examples, befriending rare book dealers here and abroad, or acquiring publications by talented young artists from the Twin Cities. In this arena Rosemary was a trailblazer, a distinction she wore with pride on her well-tailored sleeve.

Rosemary Furtak, 1986 Photo: Glenn Halvorson

Rosemary began her tenure at the Walker as librarian in 1983. Upon her arrival, the library owned 20,000 volumes, and only a handful of books made by artists, many of which had been inadvertently rubber-stamped and stored with exhibition catalogues and artist monographs. Seeing its potential value to the Walker’s collection, Rosemary proceeded to “rescue” this material and devote a special section to it. Her efforts were recognized by artist Sol LeWitt, who, while here installing his wall drawing Four Geometric Figures in a Room (1984; currently on view on the Walker’s 8th floor), paid a visit to the library and perused its holdings. He proceeded to hand Rosemary a check for $500, instructing her to officially launch a collection of books by artists. At the time, the sum went a long way and gave root to this now significant trove: today, the Walker’s library and permanent collections have grown to include more than 2,000 examples. All told, the library’s holdings doubled under her watch.

A selection of books made by artists from the Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library.

Rosemary created a unique community. Those who worked with her throughout the years came to know her as a friend, indispensable colleague, and mentor. The many artists, students, and book enthusiasts who visited her domain encountered a person whose passion for her work was contagious, and whose capacity for sharing her enthusiasms seemingly boundless. Though the Walker’s library occupies a quiet corner of the building, she made it a nerve center, often buzzing with curators, researchers, and tour guides. Always accommodating, Rosemary delighted in assisting visitors with their research, more often than not pointing them toward resources only available at the Walker, including her meticulously assembled artist files filled with clippings, uncatalogued ephemera, and sometimes unclassifiable oddities.

Books by Lawrence Weiner from the Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

Each year, alongside her general acquisitions to the library, Rosemary earmarked funds to be used on artists’ books, making an effort to have representation of all artists in the Walker’s collection who had made books as part of their practice. In this way, important volumes were acquired in depth by LeWitt, Ed Ruscha, Richard Tuttle, Dieter Roth, Lawrence Weiner, and others for whom books were a central activity beginning in the 1960s. She also began to collect publications by local and regional artists, emerging artists expanding notions of the book’s aesthetic possibilities, and to fill in historical gaps in the collection by Surrealists, Futurists, and others, such as Marcel Duchamp, essential to the development of contemporary art.

Beyond her acquisitive zeal, however, it was Rosemary’s desire for sharing the collection that was the most inspiring aspect of a visit to Walker’s library. Rosemary was always at the ready to provide the essential piece of information you never knew you needed. She was more than happy to pull out her most recent treasures, sometimes unsolicited. From innocuous storage boxes on the shelves came books lavishly illustrated with original etchings and lithographs, shaped books, books without words, books that pop up to become sculpture, books that unfold or unfurl to astounding lengths, and books made from unconventional and often seductive materials. We curators were instructed to never throw mail away, but to send it to the library, in case something merited safekeeping. Rosemary collected important ephemera, correspondence from artists and galleries, rare exhibition catalogues, and multiples. Occasionally, one might open a storage box and find in it not only an artist’s book, but also its sales prospectus, a clipping of a review, or a letter from the artist.

Books by Richard Tuttle from the Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library.

The Walker’s curators have frequently drawn upon the library’s collection for works to include in exhibitions, such as Duchamp’s Leg (1997), which examined the ripple effect of Duchamp and his legacy throughout contemporary art, or Edward Ruscha: Editions (1999), a show that took the library’s complete collection of the artists’ books as a point of departure for a full retrospective and catalogue raisonné of this material. In 2007, I had the pleasure of working with Rosemary as a co-curator on Text/Messages: Books by Artists, which marked the first time that the material had been featured as such in an exhibition. The show was as much a celebration of Rosemary and her work as it was of the extraordinary collection she assembled.

In her field, Rosemary was a quiet but formidable force. Her advocacy made her a model for other art librarians grappling with ever-shifting definitions of what a book can be. She was a strong proponent for intermuseum exchange programs, whereby institutions with increasingly limited resources can continue to grow their libraries through the trading of catalogues and other publications. She was involved with the book arts community locally, lecturing about artists who make books and teaching classes to students who visited the Walker’s library. During the period when the Walker was closed for expansion, Rosemary curated an engaging satellite exhibition of artist’s books at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, which featured highlights from the Walker’s holdings.

On the occasion of her retirement earlier this year, and as a tribute to her enduring contributions here, the Walker named her hidden cache the Rosemary Furtak Collection. This institution and the community at large owe much to Rosemary’s keen and adventurous eye, generous spirit, and scholarly care. She will be greatly missed as her legacy continues to inspire those who seek to open a book’s cover, encounter the truly unexpected, and realize they have found art.

Books by Dieter Roth from the Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library.

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