As director of the Walker Art Center from 1961 to 1990, Martin Friedman—who passed away May 9 at age 90—oversaw the construction of a new Walker building, spearheaded the creation of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and put the center on the map internationally for its astute curatorial vision, multidisciplinary focus, and artist-centric values. Following up curator Joan Rothfuss’s reflection on Friedman’s life and legacy, we’re commemorating his passing by inviting friends, family, and colleagues to share their memories of the man who indelibly shaped the Walker. This post will be updated as new reflections come in; if you’d like to contribute a reflection, please email us.
Tom Arndt, photographer, Walker Art Center (1975–1981)
The six years I worked at the Walker Art Center changed my life.
The first time I went to Europe was with Martin and Mickey. Mickey took me to England where I photographed four projects by the British architect James Sterling. The photographs I made comprised an exhibition of his work at the Walker. Martin and Mickey were so good to me on that trip. They took me to plays in London and got me a personal tour of an exhibition of Fabergé eggs at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was an amazing experience for me. I co-curated an exhibition on Minnesota press photography with Mickey. It was a great success.
Martin introduced me to George Segal. “Tom,” he said, “I’m going to create a friendship for you.” He did, and George Segal became my good friend. I still have letters from him.
There are so many other moments when they both were so supportive to me. They were there for me when I had a personal crisis in my life. When my parents died, I received wonderful personal notes of condolence from both Martin and Mickey. In 1981, Martin told me it was time for me to go and pursue my own work. I left the Walker that year, and for my going-away party we had a Hawaiian luau (I wore a lot of Hawaian shirts in those days). The guys on the exhibition crew made some palm trees, and everyone wore Hawaiian shirts, including Martin and Mickey. It was very special for me.
I learned from Martin and Mickey what a special calling it is to be an artist. They taught me to expect the best from myself and strive for the perfection of my ideas. I have gone on to have a good artistic life. I recently emailed Martin telling him that I now have galleries in New York and Paris and that I owe so much to him and Mickey for instilling in me, and so many others, a rigorous method of inquiry and the expectation of the best for ourselves.
I miss Martin and Mickey so much. I know there are so many great artists and curators that have worked with them over the years. I am so grateful to them both for making my life so profoundly better.
All my love and respect to you Martin, to you and Mickey.
Katharine DeShaw, director of development, Walker Art Center (1991–1999)
There is tale that the idea to create a Minneapolis Sculpture Garden came to Martin after the City of Minneapolis asked him to place a “dandelion fountain” in a field in front of the Walker. He was horrified—loathed the piece and did not like anyone dictating his artistic choices. That fountain is now located on the distant edge of Loring Park, far away from the brilliant garden that Martin ultimately built.
Kathleen Fluegel, director of development, Walker Art Center (1989–1991)
Martin’s passing brings back a rush of memories, such as the day after Kathy Halbreich was in town for the announcement that she was to be Martin’s successor, and he was going over a proposal with me in excruciating detail. At one point he looked across his desk at me and growled, “I’m still the director!”
I replied, “I know you are Martin, and I’m glad you are.”
He growled back, “You. Are. Not.”
At which I laughed and said, “You’re right!”
To his credit, he laughed, too.
Emily Galusha, program officer, Bush Foundation (1971–1979); Board treasurer and chair, then executive director, Northern Clay Center (1991–2012)
Fifteen years ago, I was interviewing someone I very much wanted to hire as the exhibitions director at Northern Clay Center when he asked me who my role model was as an arts organization director. With no hesitation, I said Martin Friedman. His vision for the Walker as a national and international leader in its field; his almost limitless curiosity about contemporary art, as well as the culture in which it is made; his ability to bounce back and forth between relentless attention to the details that go toward perfection and the larger ends toward which the enterprise was moving; his unbending commitment to quality in all things—whether the art being presented, its presentation, the words written about it; and, finally, his wit and sense of humor: all provided characteristics to emulate. My response apparently hit a sympathetic chord, and my candidate said yes.
I first met Martin in 1971, after I joined the staff of the Bush Foundation. My colleagues and most of the board were firmly embedded in St. Paul, so the Walker was, and was in, terra incognita; I got to be the lucky explorer for the organization. After the foundation approved a couple of grants to the performing arts program, Martin approached us for support for exhibitions. Martin’s vision, and his ability to realize that vision, produced an outsized impact of those grants on the Walker, the region, and contemporary art. His exhibitions were not just about objects, but about ideas expressed through objects.
Not long after the foundation began supporting the Walker’s exhibitions, Bush approved the Bush Artists Fellowships. The foundation’s executive director, Humphrey Doermann, was deeply skeptical about much of contemporary art, based on an almost complete lack of exposure. However, he did respect what Martin was accomplishing with the Walker. I arranged, with Martin’s help and participation, a lunch seminar for Humphrey, which also included curators Graham Beal and Lisa Lyons. In a wonderful three hours, they walked Humphrey through the development of contemporary art, using examples from the Walker’s collection, with no hint of artspeak or condescension. While Humphrey didn’t leave as a convert, he at least lost some degree of cynicism and took with him respect for their scholarship and passion. I was deeply grateful—and it was a lot of fun for me.
Kathy Halbreich, director, Walker Art Center (1991–2007); Associate Director and Laurenz Foundation Curator, Museum of Modern Art (2008–present)
Martin was universally recognized as an inspired, synthetic, and progressive leader; under his stewardship, the Walker became a magnet for all of us everywhere who cared about artists, performers, filmmakers, and designers of all stripes. He created a museum that was more than willing to share the risk of making new work with creative practitioners from around the globe: it, along with supporting artists early in their careers, was a mandate. I visited the Walker way before I became director in 1991; once, I came because Martin agreed to host a survey of Elizabeth Murray’s paintings and drawings I had organized with Sue Graze from the Dallas Museum. Despite his success and status, Martin also was willing to take a risk on younger curators, and many of the very best were trained by him. It meant a lot to receive his blessing, as we all knew his standards were exacting and pure. I never forgot the thrill of seeing that exhibition at the Walker.
Martin always set the pace for artistic and administrative innovation. Believing museums were civic entities rather than privileged enclaves and publicly supporting artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe when their art became political fodder for the right, he never ran from controversy. Martin was an intrepid leader, almost singularly so in the late 1980s when the culture wars sent a shudder through the field. I am sure there were things that kept him up at night, but he always appeared to be confidant, a characteristic that made him unusually persuasive. I suspect these qualities, as well as his superb eye, drew people to him and to the Walker. It never has been easy to elicit support for contemporary art, but Martin was a wizard; the Walker’s endowment was unique among contemporary museums, providing a foundation for all sorts of experimentation. Martin was brilliant at all aspects of being a director, but perhaps his most crucial talent was in developing a board that was as engaged with new ideas and as welcoming to new people as he was. Many of those trustees became his dear friends and the most devoted patrons of the museum during his tenure and beyond. As Judy Dayton often repeated, “It was a joy to support dear Walker.”
Many people told me that it was foolish to try to follow Martin, and in some ways it was taxing to follow a legend. But, in all the important ways, Martin and Mickey cared about—loved—the Walker so deeply that they left behind an immensely stable, elastic, and forward-looking institution. This made it possible for those of us who followed to be inventive and ambitious, to break some rules, and to dream big. I felt very lucky when I became director of the Walker. That sense of opportunity and good fortune only grew stronger during the 16 years I spent there, happily working with a staff and board in a community that were unparalleled, special. The Walker was a place where good governance was practiced every day and a director had unusual support. I came to realize that Martin’s profound commitment to creative people, in tandem with his belief that museums truly mattered, made everything past, present, and future possible. His work will not be forgotten because it has informed all museums of contemporary art. So many of Martin’s original ideas ultimately became accepted as routine practice. For example, when people wonder why the presence of performance in museums has suddenly become ubiquitous, I remind them that the Walker created a department of performing arts in 1970.
I always will be very grateful to Martin for cultivating the museum field so that people such as myself wanted to be part of it and could find a place to grow within it.
Ann Hatch, Walker family member; she has served on the Walker Art Center board since 1975
I was quite young when I started attending the big annual Walker family meetings at the museum. Jade Mountain was in full view then, but there was so much more to take in. At one meeting we were introduced to the new directorial candidate who was up for vote by the board and family. That young confident individual was Martin. I had gone to museums all my short life, but I’d never thought our family had started such a world-class institution, and I didn’t think about the people directing or the leadership it took to make an institution great. Mostly I wanted to stay away from the smelly guards.
Martin’s presentation was inspiring: he spoke of the TB Walker legacy, the collection, and how he intended to make a world-class institution in Minneapolis. That introduction made me realize what I was invited to be a part of at the Walker, as a world class museum, going forward. Martin never stopped.
Whenever I went back for board meetings, he always took time to show me around and remind me in a passionate way of the importance of the legacy and my potential role in its future. That made a huge impression on me. Martin always sent me catalogues with personal notes. He encouraged me to read and see work. I loved the Walker shows and was so proud of the Walker for being the best museum for artists imaginable.
I went on several trustee tours where we met great artists in a very personal and meaningful way. Isamu Noguchi, and all the artists we saw, really respected Martin. I realized the relationships needed to build an institution. It is highly personal, taking great integrity and vision. Martin saw the big picture and had acute attention to detail.
When I started Capp Street Project in 1983, I asked Martin for his opinion of the program. His vote of enthusiasm was empowering. He wanted to know all about who was coming to be in residence and suggested artists and advisors. I was very grateful to Martin and his vision, dedication and unwavering enthusiasm for the arts.
I’m glad I knew both Martin and Mickey.
John Killacky, curator of Performing Arts, Walker Art Center (1988–1996); executive director, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts (2010–present)
Four loving memories of Martin
First day hired: He showed me a map of the US with pins in it showing where former staff members were working. “Someday you’ll be a pin on this wall.”
Favorite Martin memo to all staff: “There was a dead fly in the stairwell this morning.”
Shiva: Hearing Isamu Noguchi had died, I sat in the darkened gallery, joined by Martin.
Lunchtime: January 1990 interdisciplinary Cultural Infidels festival opened with Karen Finley. Martin and Mickey attended the performance, as did the vice squad. The next day Martin asked me to lunch off-site. I thought I was fired. His comment: “I think that woman needs therapy.”
Jonathan Lippincott, author of Large Scale: Fabricating Sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s
I only had the opportunity of speaking with Martin Friedman twice over the years, but his writing and his work as a curator were inspiring to me in writing my book, and in many projects since. His catalogs captured the excitement and innovation of their times, and his deep interest in artists’ motivations and ideas comes through in his essays and interviews. Of particular interest for me, in thinking about sculpture, were 14 Sculptors: The Industrial Edge, a survey exhibition that took place in 1969, and Oldenburg: Six Themes, a show delving into six recurring images in the work of Claes Oldenburg, from 1975. The former explores the major directions that sculptors were pursuing at the time, within the larger realm of industrially fabricated sculpture. The latter looks at the work of one artist in depth, considering the whole body of work and the threads of interconnection among these works. In both catalogs, Friedman’s clear critical eye and genuine interest and affection for the artwork offer a model of how to think and write about art.
Kirk McCall, exhibition technician/carpenter/draftsperson, Walker Art Center (1987–present)
We were installing the exhibition Foirades/Fizzles in 1988. I had only been at the Walker for a year or so and had felt the power and decisiveness of this small giant of a man who really deeply cared about every single aspect of the art, the artist, and its presentation. He would come in a day before an exhibition opened and always change a work (or 10) around. We called it “One-Hour Martinizing.” I remember Martin having a hard time figuring out a particular room layout. It was days going back and forth—switch, switch, switch. We’d just leave it to come back and get fresh eyes the next day. The next morning I went in and switched them the way I thought they should go to settle my own curiosity. Martin came in and looked puzzled. I felt really nervous and honestly afraid for my job. He looked up at me and didn’t say anything but winked and smiled and said, “This could work.” I knew he knew I had rearranged them, and from then on he trusted me with a question or two once and a while. It made me feel on top of the world, sincerely validated and encouraged. I knew I was in the right place and have called it home ever since.
Peter Murphy, media specialist, Walker Art Center (1972–present)
When I first started working at the Walker I would cheerfully take on any task assigned, filling in anywhere there was a need. On snow days I came in at 5 am to shovel snow, and later I would be painting galleries or doing building maintenance or donning the guard uniform of the time. My first encounter with Martin Friedman was when he abruptly led a contingency of us guards down to Receiving in the basement where items from the Native American show were accumulating. He gave us an impromptu lecture on what was about to emerge into the galleries. That day I was so struck by:
a. how egalitarian he was to include us nobodies,
b. how unbelievably intelligent and engaging he was (his narrative was engrossing!), and
c. how contagious his enthusiasm was. He wanted to share it with us, for this place, and what he was doing here.
Pretty good first impression! It fostered a lasting loyalty. He wanted everyone to participate and believe.
In those times—in the tailwinds of the Sixties—when the classes met full-circle (at wild, Breakfast at Tiffany’s–like parties and events), there were more intersections among all types of groups. Martin would scoop up all us hangers-on—anyone present at the end of the event, his “entourage”—and we would end up at his house. While the positions I held were not prestigious, I must have been at Martin’s at least four times. (It was there I was honored to meet and shake hands with none other than Robert Rauschenberg!) It didn’t matter who you were. He was always very direct and seemed to expect that you would rise to his level of conversation.
His expectations were high and sometimes awkward. If he walked by you and saw some refuse on the floor, he would tell you clean it up. You might think: that’s not my job, but it was clear, it is now. We should care about our own pride in the place, not just protect his. Some of his demands could be puzzlingly cryptic. I remember when I was a projectionist, Martin running into the booth saying, “We need more air!” I was perplexed as to what I was expected to do. I laughed to myself as I pictured blowing more air in—whew! whew!!
Still, I always felt we were in good hands with Martin and Mickey. You could feel the acceleration of the place in those times. He made us proud to be part of it.
Claes Oldenburg, artist
I remember meeting Martin on the terrace of the newly finished Barnes building, where we installed a yellow and blue twelve-foot high Geometric Mouse to keep an eye on its twin at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
Later, when the Seventies set in, Martin and I spent days in cafes along Sunset Boulevard developing my interpretation of ordinary objects, such as a giant ashtray and three-way plug, into the exhibition Six Themes.
In 1988 came the placement in the sculpture garden, laid out by Martin, of the 50-foot-long shining spoon to which Coosje had added the red cherry that glistens with running water as spray from its stem emits rainbows.
Martin caused things to happen, and I consider his presence essential to the art of our time.
David Ryan, curator of Design, Minneapolis Institute of Art (1999–2009); librarian and assistant coordinator, Performing Arts, Walker Art Center (1965–1968)
I had the exceptional good fortune to begin a 40-year museum career with Martin Friedman at the Walker Art Center in 1965. It was the beginning of a bond that lasted until his death. As with so many colleagues, his influence as a lifelong mentor is unshakeable.
At the beginning of Walter Mondale’s tenure as vice president, his wife, Joan, asked Martin to come to the VP mansion to see what he could do to lay out preselected art works in the home’s public spaces. She and her husband were the first couple to inhabit the residence on the grounds of the US Naval Observatory, and it was Joan’s wish to turn the home into a showcase for American art.
By this time she had traveled extensively, attending museum exhibitions, dedicating new works of art, and otherwise directing national attention on artists. During her tenure as “Second Lady” of the United States, President Carter named her honorary chairman of the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.
Prior to visiting Washington, Martin asked me to assist him in working out logistics at the Mondale’s residence as we had worked together on many past museum installations. At that time, I was assistant director of the Museum Program at the National Endowment for the Arts.
We began early one bright morning in the spring of 1977, soon after the Mondales had moved in. Aside from their lovable dog following us about, no one was home. Without losing a step, Martin begin moving art works and furnishings around, bustling about without hesitation.
“Let’s move that over there.” “And this one over here.” “Good.” “Hmm.” “No, no.” “Not there” “Over here.” “How about this one?” “What do you think?” “Not too bad.” “I think if we move that stuffed chair out of the way—how homely can it be?” “Now then, we’re getting somewhere.” “And, that chest of drawers! That has to go!”
“Uh, Martin,” I said. “This is the vice president’s home. Perhaps, we should slow down a bit and give some thought as to what the Mondales might want in the way of a comfortable atmosphere. It’s their living quarters!” “Hmm, yes, well, we’ll just make a few subtle changes.”
Not much later, Martin was asking the VP staff to take furniture downstairs to storage and bring up other pieces in exchange, furniture that better complemented the art. This went on for quite an extended period. Eventually, we enjoyed a quiet lunch served by the staff while surveying a thoroughly redecorated vice president’s living space from top to bottom.
The immediate reaction from Fritz and Joan upon first coming coming through their door is not on public record, but they certainly took pride in extending a welcome mat to all thereafter. Joan’s wish was fulfilled. Overnight, their home had indeed become a showcase for art.
One instance, one episode of a perfectionist at work. A lesson learned—a true perfectionist knows few bounds. I am immensely grateful for that invaluable lesson and many, many more at the hands of Martin Friedman over the years, forever indebted our paths crossed early on.
John Walsh, director emeritus, J. Paul Getty Museum
Martin was the museum director I admired the most. He was a dear friend, too, but I hardly ever saw him at the Walker. I did see him often at the Getty Museum in the 1980s and 1990s, where I was its thoroughly inexperienced director and needed all the help I could get. So we put him on an advisory committee of luminaries. We convened them once a year to review our plans for creating a brand-new museum, which we’d started to do, and for devising programs for the public, which lay a few years in the future. The best moment for Martin came when the new Getty was under construction and over budget. At its meeting the advisory committee learned that the Trustees were thinking about charging admission after the opening. It was only fair, the argument went, and besides, most museums charge, and people expect to pay. We had never conceived of doing that. The endowment was somewhere close to $6 billion. Admission to the Getty had always been free. When the issue arose at the meeting, Martin asked a few practical questions but mostly leaned back and listened to the discussion. After a half hour or so, he said to the head of the Getty Trust, “I think you people have a death wish.” Not much was said after that. The issue of an admission charge was never raised again.
Penny Winton, longtime Walker Art Center supporter: her husband, Mike Winton, was a Walker Trustee who served as president of the board
Mike and I had known Martin ever since he was appointed director, about the time Mike joined the board. We knew how perfect Martin was for the job. We knew how miserable he could make staff and crews feel. (Picture Mickey at Wuollet’s bakery the minute it opened the morning after a Martin number, filling a box of mea culpas to assuage the wounded.) We knew his strengths and his weaknesses. We knew how loyal Justin Smith [a Walker family member and longtime trustee] was to Martin through some awkward times early on. We knew how amazing he was. We became very close to Martin and Mickey up to Mike’s last day and now to Martin’s.
The strongest glue that kept us close was Martin’s ever active sense of humor. He was at his most basic self a droll man, exceedingly droll. He loved telling funny stories even when he was the butt of them. There was the bespoke gentleman from South America Martin was certain would end up a major contributor, and of course he’d be happy to show him around. The gent asked if the Walker had any Flegers, because he was such a Fleger fan and always looked for Flegers at every museum he visited. Eventually, Martin figured out he was taking about F. (Fernand) Leger and excused himself for a meeting he had forgotten. He was a tease. At a board meeting a staff member was pouring coffee for the members around the table, “No, no, no, not for Winton. He’ll just roll hand grenades across the floor!” He was mischievous. Not too long ago, he and Mickey and I went to see a show on the art of Islam at the Met. Mickey quickly disappeared for a moment of peace, and I trotted after Martin. Now rather deaf, he was practically shouting, “Now where is that vase. I must show you this beautiful vase. You will love it and I am going to give it to you for Christmas,” as he leaned over its vitrine with an eighth of an inch to spare, while I watched guards racing toward us.
His love of the human comedy was constant.