“Where a Soul’s at Ease” Gardens, Museums, and the Urban Fabric: An Interview with Martin Friedman

Aerial view of the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

During Martin Friedman’s 32-year association with Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center (30 as its director), he transformed what began as a regional arts institution into a major national and international cultural resource. Under his leadership, the Walker became internationally renowned for its exhibitions, collection, publications, and programs in design, architecture, and the performing arts. Friedman has also been president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and has served on the National Council of the Arts. In November 1990, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in a White House ceremony.

In September 1988, Friedman oversaw the opening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. A joint venture with the City of Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, this 10-acre site was the impetus for the Walker to acquire many large-scale outdoor pieces. In addition, a number of artists were commissioned to create works for the garden, including Martin Puryear, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Jackie Ferrara, Frank Gehry, Judith Shea, Brower Hatcher, and Siah Armajani.

Since retiring from the Walker in 1990, Friedman has served as a consultant to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art and the Hallmark Family Foundation, and worked on the development of the Kansas City Sculpture Park. He organized the 1994 exhibition “Landscape as Metaphor” for the Denver Art Museum and the Columbus Museum of Art. He has been an art advisor to the American Center in Paris, the Virginia Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art. He is also an advisor to the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, and one of his current projects is an exhibition of Joel Shapiro’s sculptures for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, for the year 2000. During this month’s Sculpture Parks and Gardens Conference, sponsored by the ISC, in cooperation with Grounds For Sculpture, Friedman will receive an International Sculpture Center Special Award for his contribution to the field of contemporary sculpture.

Carol Sterling: Several years ago, when you were asked about the role of the Walker Art Center, you said, “I don’t care how significant or how avant-garde we might be, we cannot forget that our major constituency comes from this area and that we affect a community far greater than the 500,000 people who come to the museum each year.” Have you changed your point of view since your retirement?

Martin Friedman: No. I still believe that the first obligation of museums is to their immediate communities. Those constituencies, by their support and attendance, make it possible for the museums to be there in the first place. They are the ones to whom you owe the most. The best thing you can do for them is to present as varied and interesting a program as possible, and try hard to attract as many of its sectors as possible, and not focus on one group alone. This can be accomplished through varied programming—through a good range of exhibitions, education offerings, performing arts events, film showings, and so forth.

With a few million inhabitants, the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area represents quite an extensive potential audience. Of course, it’s small in comparison to New York, but what isn’t? In its community, the Walker was able to see some of the effects of its programs—the effects were measurable in attendance, critical response, and so forth.

The New York situation is, of course, different, because there are so many centers of artistic energy. The city is filled with great museums, great performing-arts organizations, and great theaters. By contrast, the Walker, for all its focus on contemporary art, is a constantly evolving entity devoted to many aspects of the arts—not just to the visual arts, which have been its dominant offering, but also to film and the performing arts, all of which have become highly specialized areas of the museum’s programs. We developed a strong design and architecture program that was unique.

From the beginning I felt the Walker had a strong obligation to the contemporary artist. Though we were soon perceived as a national and international museum, we continued to present and collect work by artists of the immediate area. The museum has always been, and continues to be, buoyed and energized by the efforts of young artists, many of whom have had their first major show there.

View of (foreground) David Nash, Standing Frame, 1987. Wood. (Background) Oldenburg and van Bruggen, Spoonbridge and Cherry, 1987-88.

CS: You made the Walker Art Center accessible to many sectors of the community. Could you talk about some of the programs that you used?

MF: We worked closely with schools, and offered weekend studio classes for children and parents. There were special programs for teachers to bring them up to speed on what we were showing in the galleries. These programs not only encouraged teachers to bring their students to the museum but also made them feel part of the arts community. We sponsored artist-run workshops, some run by young artists living in the region, and while most were held on the premises, some of the education department’s offerings were held in other spaces around town. Also, the Walker routinely collaborated with other arts organizations in presenting special programs; these included the Minneapolis Symphony, the University of Minnesota, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and many independent dance and music groups. Quite a few of the Walker’s events, including workshops, were held in other spaces around town. In these ways, we shared one another’s audiences.

CS: What strategies did you employ to make the Walker so different from other institutions of its kind?

MF: The idea was always to present our exhibitions in as clear and engrossing a manner as possible. Mainly, we felt that works of art should be allowed to speak for themselves as much as possible and, thus, they had to be shown under the best possible conditions of placement and lighting. We wanted to explore relationships of theme, form, and content among objects. How to encourage our visitors to make these connections on their own was a challenge we tried to meet by designing relatively simple, spacious installations. Explanatory materials, in the form of labels and extended captions, were always available nearby for those who wanted the information, but the idea was to let the work of art speak for itself as much as possible.

One of the most effective means of introducing the public to an exhibition at the Walker has been through the Information Room, just off the main lobby. It’s an especially welcoming space—carpeted bleacher seating for about 100 and a wide curved screen on which multiple images are projected. Some are of works on view in the galleries upstairs and others might be related to them in theme or style. These brief slide-tape programs are usually prepared by Walker curatorial interns and provide excellent general introductions to exhibitions currently on view, even for more knowledgeable visitors.

In addition to its offerings for young people, the Walker has long had an extensive evening lecture series for adults that brought many distinguished artists, filmmakers, architects, writers, choreographers, and composers to talk about their fields and their own work in particular.

CS: What effect do you think the design of the Walker Art Center’s building has had on its exhibitions?

MF: First, the Walker Art Center, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, has commodious galleries that are part of its helical layout and afford perfect settings for showing art, whether large or small in scale. The space is highly adaptable and lends itself admirably to all sorts of installations. The building, on the outside, is quite tough-looking. It’s a great cubelike volume sheathed in dark-violet brick, with only a few openings to the outside. The galleries are essentially closed spaces, but what an interior landscape these great white boxes offer! The galleries increase in height as you walk up the wide staircase that wraps around the elevator core. The interior vistas are impressive and keep luring you further into the space. Most artists respond enthusiastically to it and like to show their work in these areas.

I always felt it was important to give artists the opportunity to make new works. In fact, commissioned projects were a leitmotif through many of the Walker’s exhibitions. The first of these were for the 1971 “Works for New Spaces,” the opening show for the new building, for which many artists made special works for specific spaces within and outside the museum.

For the 1986 Frank Gehry exhibition (curated by my wife, Mildred Friedman), Gehry designed a series of structures that served as housings for his drawings and models. For the 1983 exhibition “Hockney Paints the Stage,” we turned over a large gallery to Hockney that he used as a studio in which he created variations on the extraordinary set designs he did for the Metropolitan Opera and for Glyndebourne.

For the exhibition “Tokyo: Form and Spirit” in 1986, the Walker commissioned a number of young, as well as established, Japanese artists, architects, and designers to make installations that responded to the exhibition’s theme, the continuity of Japanese design concepts from Edo times to the present. Some of these spaces, such as the theater area designed by Arata Isozaki and Eiko Ishioka were used for music, dance, and other performance events during the run of the exhibition.

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Spoonbridge and Cherry (detail), 1987-88. Aluminum, stainless steel, and paint, 354 x 618 x 162 in.

CS: Did your education department do many special projects in connection with Walker exhibitions?

MF: A great many. We had some very inventive leadership in that area. One of the most creative heads of the department was Adam Weinberg, now the director of the Addison Gallery of American Art, in Andover, Massachusetts. He brought in regional artists to work with groups of teachers and kids, especially in connection with special exhibitions and other events at the museum. While in town for their exhibitions, many artists would meet with students and teachers. When Roy Lichtenstein came to the Walker for his sculpture show, the kids honored him in an unusual way. They created an enormous jigsaw puzzle consisting of innumerable pieces based on one of his paintings. It took over the entire lobby. He was delighted by it and spent time talking to them about their work, as well as his. They were thrilled, of course. During the installation of their huge Spoonbridge and Cherry fountain sculpture in 1988, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen often met with groups of young students and participated with one of these classes in making a film about the works in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

CS: By 1988, the Walker already had a well-developed collection of sculpture. You succeeded in spotlighting the importance of contemporary sculpture even more prominently when you realized your dream of creating the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, at the time the nation’s largest urban sculpture garden. Can you tell us how that all came about?

MF: First, there was the unused land directly opposite the Walker. It was an area that had seen better days. In the early part of the century it was the site of an armory and was used for marching, drilling, and band playing. All sorts of events took place there—concerts, boxing matches, automobile shows, and, I think, marathon dancing. The land was largely fill, and it was on an ancient river bed. Then, little by little, the land’s history caught up with the armory. On the verge of collapse, the building began sinking into the fill. After many futile attempts to stabilize it, it was blown up in 1933. When we began eyeing it, this land was, and still is, under the jurisdiction of the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board. Not much was happening there. A big chunk had been sawed off to accommodate the width of an interstate highway. This process erased the formal gardens that at one time bordered the armory. Occasionally someone would fly a kite or do a little dog training out there, but there was little public use. I kept looking at it longingly but it was difficult at that time to convince the Park Board that we should be able to use it on a regular basis. They had allowed us to install a Mark di Suvero red-painted, steel-beam sculpture for the opening of the new Walker building in 1971. Even though our new building had three roof terraces that could accommodate works of art, that really wasn’t much outdoor space. So, of course, I began lusting for the Park Board’s space and thinking of ways to be able to use it.

It turned out that a member of the Minneapolis Park Board, a public-minded citizen, had also been thinking seriously about this space as the ideal spot for a ball-shaped fountain he was planning to donate to the city. I was informed that the former armory site was reserved for the fountain. In other words, we should just forget about it. It took some determined politicking to have the proposed fountain relocated to another park, and no one involved came out feeling too great after that bruising experience. But then what?

Instead of just being against something (the fountain), we realized that the Walker had to come up with a more positive approach to the Park Board and to the city in general. We began thinking about the land as a public garden where great works of art would be seen in ideal parklike surroundings. Further, we even had the guarantee of some serious initial funding to get the process moving. The Walker, thanks to a few generous supporters, felt it could raise substantial funds to create a sculpture park that would be designed by Ed Barnes. In effect, it would be an outdoor extension of the museum’s building.

Suddenly we got lucky. I met David Fisher, the young new superintendent, who had taken over the management of the city’s system of parks and lakes. He was as interested in how that DMZ acreage might be put to public use as I was, and he was fascinated by the idea of a sculpture park. Soon, we became partners on the big venture. The Walker Art Center would be responsible for all artistic programs and selection of works of art, and the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board would be in charge of the garden’s maintenance and security. Once that agreement became official, things really began to move and major support for construction and for gifts of works of art began to come in.

The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden turned out to be more of a success with the public than anyone could possibly have imagined. It became a wonderful welcome mat for the museum and for its next-door neighbor, the Guthrie Theater. Soon, one of several commissioned works in the garden, Spoonbridge and Cherry, took on special significance as the unofficial symbol of the city, a kind of Eiffel Tower of Minneapolis. It was widely illustrated, even landing on the cover of the telephone book. From the very outset the garden has had extensive use, in winter as well as summer, and it continues to be a popular destination for locals and out-of-town visitors. It’s been a great attraction on its own and, at the same time, it has enabled the Walker to attract broad new audiences.

CS: What does such a garden mean to the life of the community?

MF: It becomes part of the urban fabric. People visit the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden not only to enjoy sculptures in such a verdant setting; many walk though it daily on their way to and from work. It’s connected to downtown Minneapolis by the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, designed by Siah Armajani. Joggers and cyclists use the bridge constantly and groups of nursery-school kids are always being led across it. The garden is central to the city. I can’t imagine Minneapolis without it.

Martin Friedman interviews Claes Oldenburg.

CS: What did it do, and what does it still do, for the museum?

MF: Everything. It’s perceived as an inviting space, supportive of the museum. It attracts a great number of first-time and repeat visitors. Many who respond positively to the sculptures then decide to see what’s on view in the Walker itself. The garden encourages them to come in and look around.

CS: What made the sculpture garden so successful? Could you pinpoint a few key factors?

MF: Its location. Not just because of its proximity to the Walker, but because it’s on the edge of downtown. Then, there’s a passion for nature in the Midwest. The idea of bringing art and nature together this way has had great response, and, certainly, so has the variety and quality of the sculptures on view. There is a great range of objects, from the most descriptive to the most abstract. There’s a lot for everyone. Another reason the garden has such appeal is there are many areas to explore and many places to sit (on benches designed by artists) and look at art. The Cowles Conservatory has changing displays of flowering plants and, in the center, a shallow pool surrounded by tall palms. In the middle of the pool is the huge Standing Glass Fish by Frank Gehry. And the Armajani bridge doesn’t just span 16 lanes of fast-moving highway traffic; it also provides a series of viewing platforms at different levels overlooking the garden. The spaces are large but not daunting. Everything is approachable. I think it has human scale.

CS: Did you have any special challenges in commissioning site-specific works for the garden?

MF: Many of them. For one thing, commissioned sculptures, at least those we commissioned, were intended as permanent works; Martin Puryear’s tapered granite columns at the entrance, Jackie Ferrara’s wooden-deck seating area, the Oldenburg-van Bruggen fountain, and the Armajani bridge were to be there for the long haul. This meant that the Walker had special concerns, such as the durability of materials and maintenance issues, especially considering the effects of Minnesota’s long mega-winters. In fact, it soon became clear that installing sculptures outdoors requires quite a different mindset than placing them in the galleries. Compared to installing works outdoors, in the museum you have complete control. When you work outside the building on public land you soon realize that you are only one of many other specialists, who also have pretty good ideas about what can or cannot be done on that land. Lots of discussions, therefore, are necessary with city and state officials in order to arrive at constructive collaborative approaches.

Fortunately, the Walker’s partnership with the Park Board has worked out well and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is definitely perceived by the public as an ongoing joint venture. There were other important partnerships. I attended numerous evening meetings with concerned community groups, each with its own idea of what the garden should or should not look like, and, in some cases, whether there should even be a garden. Often, the next morning, I would arrive bleary-eyed for a 7:00 a.m. breakfast meeting (such meetings are a crucial ritual of business and civic life in the Midwest). Aside from the regulars from the Walker and the Park Board, there was a constantly changing cast of characters munching away: city and state representatives, city engineers, sidewalk and zoning specialists, all with definite ideas of their own and the authority to back them up. It was pretty territorial stuff. As I quickly learned, they were not obstructionists, in any sense, but simply wanted to know in full detail what we had in mind for the garden and bridge. They explained why some of our proposals were achievable, while others were not—but the atmosphere was always positive. Things moved along systematically but it was a long process—a series of negotiations. There were so many agencies whose approval was needed for clearances and variances. When you work as long and as closely as the Walker did with city, state, and park officials, you can expect to be constantly involved in such deliberations. But these were highly productive sessions during which it became clear that the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden project had considerable moral as well as technical support from these various agencies. In effect, they bought into the idea and helped make it happen.

View of the Isamu Noguchi gallery installation at the Walker Art Center, 1978.

CS: It is clear that you were a successful fundraiser. You brought a special talent to that role. What did you bring to the situation that led people to trust you with their resources?

MF: Actually, I think the idea of the sculpture garden largely sold itself. As to attracting substantial funding from private, corporate, and foundation sources, the Walker’s record of artistic accomplishments and the positive public response to these were the key factors. Of course, the notion of a sculpture garden as a public space had particularly strong appeal. Many of those who contributed substantially to its realization couldn’t have cared less about sculpture but saw the garden as a great new civic resource. Others were more interested in the park concept—a handsome tree-filled space near the center of town. Still others were interested in the garden as a place that would offer a variety of special programs and activities for various constituencies—young people, the elderly, and others. In raising funds for the garden we gave potential donors the options of supporting its construction, helping the Walker acquire important sculptures for display there, or sponsoring specific programs ranging from education activities to special exhibitions. Then, happily, a number of sponsors wanted to help the Walker acquire important sculptures for the garden, either through purchase of existing works or by commissioning new ones.

CS: Was the support mostly local?

MF: Yes, primarily. It was a broadly based local effort, with lots of generous support from individuals, corporations, and foundations—it was quite an expression of faith in the effort and reflected a strong sense of regional ownership of the garden. This sense of ownership was especially evident once the bulldozers arrived. As construction proceeded, it was fun to see how many people were attracted to the site, not just from the immediate neighborhood but from all over town, standing around and freely offering their opinions about what was going on. Things really got interesting once the works of art were being installed. Every sculpture was scrutinized and debated. Everyone had an opinion. There were visitors to the site at all hours of the day and well into the evening. The garden was claimed by the community. It was theirs. It will always be theirs.

CS: In your major exhibitions, you focused a lot on contemporary sculpture and on the work of new sculptors. What motivated you to spotlight contemporary sculpture and new sculptors so prominently?

MF: I’ve always felt especially close to sculpture. I have many sculptor friends. In a way sculpture has always been a kind of stepchild of the arts. It has often been viewed as something kind of clunky and hard to deal with, which is one of the qualities I like so much about it. I like the idea of works that displace space and share the space with you. Maybe I respond so strongly because as a medium it’s more “innocent” than painting, less susceptible to aesthetic disputation and art-world politics.

Saul Baizeman, Nike, 1949-52. Copper, 67.5 x 21.5 x 18 in.

CS: What led you to become involved with the Socrates Sculpture Park?

MF: Everyone involved with contemporary sculpture knows about Socrates. Mark di Suvero founded it in 1986 in Long Island City, near his studio on the East River, as a place for young sculptors to make and show their work. Since then, a number of established artists have also exhibited there. It’s an amazing piece of urban real estate, four and a half acres with a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline. It has just officially become a New York City park, which assures its continuity. I’m part of a small advisory group helping Socrates do some long-range artistic and administrative planning. It’s been an interesting way for me not only to get to know the work of many artists but to learn something about the rough and tumble situation of presenting art outdoors in New York. The Socrates Sculpture Park is basically a year-to-year, shoe-string operation, and a great community resource with many programs in art education, music, and other arts areas. It has managed to achieve considerable identity and has earned great respect among artists. Socrates has had a lively history and now is thinking hard about its future

CS: When arts education, including a strong visual-arts curriculum, is dropped from or marginalized by schools, what do you see as the long-term consequences to a community?

MF: The consequences are bleak. An indifference to the importance of the arts has negative effects well beyond an individual’s ability to understand and enjoy them. Exposure to them, beginning at an early age, has so many positive effects. It helps us to see everyday forms and events in imaginative new ways and to understand present day creativity as part of a historical continuum. The capacities for invention, imagination, speculation in any field are nurtured by exposure to the arts. Mainly, though, the arts themselves are a means of insight and a source of pleasure. We need more arts teachers who can open doors and show possibilities. You remember them all your life.

CS: What do you think happens to young people who don’t have arts in schools?

MF: It’s simple, and sad. They’ve been deprived. They’ve been cheated. Part of their brain doesn’t develop.

Carol Sterling is the Director of Programs and of the Resource Center at the International Sculpture Center.