The Yard Man: Meet Madison Square Park’s Secret Weapon

How the father of the modern sculpture park helped transform the Flatiron greensward into a museum

On May 31, the Madison Square Park Conservancy will assemble 300 art world luminaries to toast a man who prides himself on having recently been called “boneheaded.” Two months ago, the park named a curatorial post, its first, in honor of this same man.

“I will treasure forever being described as a bonehead,” said Martin Friedman, who is in his late 80s, and who served as director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for 26 years before retiring in 1989 and, eventually, becoming an advisor to the park. He was sitting in his art-filled apartment (Claes Oldenburg sketches and sculptures, Sol LeWitt wall drawings) on the 12th floor of a building in Greenwich Village last week, reminiscing about the incident that earned him his epithet. When the park displayed life-size sculptures of naked, standing men by Antony Gormley on rooftops two years ago, The New York Post fretted about their being mistaken for potential suicides in an article bearing the headline “Jump Dummy Jump,” that referred to the exhibition’s “boneheaded organizers.”

In a career devoted to helping artists realize improbable projects, and in so doing creating a cultural mecca in an improbable part of the country, being called a bonehead is easy enough to laugh off. In 1971, less than a decade into his tenure at the Walker, Mr. Friedman overhauled its campus, putting up a new, column-free, warehouse-like building built to suit the way artists were working on challenging, large-scale pieces—at what he still boasts was the low, low cost of around $4.5 million, which, even adjusted for inflation, is still modest compared to today’s museum buildings, which clock in in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And he created a sculpture park—he’s always, he said, “had a particular thing for sculpture,” and when he started at the Walker the public knew more about painters, “hero figures” like Jackson Pollock. He turned the Walker into a museum that focused on the art of its time, and built a world-class collection.

“Should I tell you how much they paid for it? Martin hates it when I do that,” Chuck Close said to The Observer mischievously over the phone. In 1969, Mr. Friedman made the Walker the first museum to buy one of Mr. Close’s paintings, Big Self-Portrait (1968). He paid $1,300. As for that warehouse-like building, “he learned that from our studios,” Mr. Close said. Mr. Friedman would make regular visits to New York in the ’60s and ’70s. “None of us had any money. He would say, ‘Let’s go to Chinatown and have Chinese food,’ and then we would just collect every artist we saw while we were walking. We’d start out with two or three and by the time we got there we would have 20, and he’d happily pick up the check.” He bought them dinner and they gave him tips on which artists to visit, whose work to buy, who to bring to the museum—artists like Richard Serra and Keith Sonnier.

“He wanted to know what was going on and what we thought,” said Mr. Close. “It’s not often that you get a museum director who will follow you almost anywhere you want to go. Now that role would be maybe described as an art consultant or something. Now there are people who are paid to take people around, and see the art you are supposed to see.”

He wasn’t keen just on visual art. The Whitney may be lauded for giving dance pride of place in this year’s Biennial, but that sort of thing was old hat for the Walker by the late ’70s. Mr. Friedman brought in Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Meredith Monk and Twyla Tharp and gave them residencies. “With Philip Glass, in the beginning, we were lucky if we could get one row”: he’d seat his two small children “and people from the neighborhood.” He started a department and hired curators for performance at a time most museums treated it as an ancillary activity, or part of the education department. “I got him to bring Ray Johnson out to give a lecture,” said Mr. Close. “Ray never did anything the way someone expected him to do it. He called it ‘A Thoreau Away Lecture,’ and he threw the lecture all over the audience. He streaked his own lecture, naked.”

Mr. Friedman booked acts like “The Once Group”—“they were like a traveling circus”—sight unseen. “I don’t think many museums would do that. I still don’t know why I did it.” The Walker, he concluded, philosophically, “was a playpen.”

A serious one. He gave a talk recently “where he was asked him what his role was at the Walker, and he said, ‘To a large extent to be a nuisance,’” said Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden director Richard Koshalek, one of a number of museum professionals Mr. Friedman mentored over the years—they include Graham Beal, now director of the Detroit Institute of Arts; Jan Van Der Marck, the first director of Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival. “He also said, ‘I like to see people change their minds.’”

Which is maybe why he helped Christo and Jean-Claude in their 18-year quest to wrap the Reichstag in fabric. (They did, in 1995.) Headway was made during the Carter administration, Christo told The Observer, thanks to Mr. Friedman, who was close to Walter Mondale’s wife.

At a time when museums are increasingly beholden to celebrity, to money, to crowd-pleasing shows that amp up attendance—with directors as businessmen, or Barnum-style showmen—Mr. Friedman’s leadership, with its emphasis on research and dialogue with artists should, Mr. Koshalek says, be a model. (Sometimes he served as a model, cast in plaster for George Segal several times. He’s waiting in a breadline in the 1997 FDR Memorial; it looks a little like something out of Dante.) “Art can sometimes be entertaining,” Mr. Koshalek remembers Mr. Friedman saying, “but entertainment is never art.”

Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg, a former photographer, spent the ’80s at the Walker, first in education and then as a photography curator. “What hit me when I got there was that I could be a lover of objects but also a lover of artists’ processes.”

Mr. Friedman was the first person Mr. Weinberg met who passed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s test for a first-rate intelligence: the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time. “And that’s what artists do in many ways,” Mr. Weinberg said. He was also a marathon worker. “Everybody was exhausted. It was like working in a law firm or Wall Street. At 10 at night he’d be laughing, he’d say, ‘Isn’t this fun?’ He’s 60 years old, and I’m 35, and he’s thinking it’s fun.”

In 1988, the year before he retired, he installed on the Walker’s grounds a 30-foot-tall, 50-foot-long spoon with a cherry at its tip, by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje von Bruggen. Its image is on posters in Minneapolis’s airport. If Minneapolis is the Paris of the Midwest, the Walker is its Louvre, D’Orsay and Eiffel Tower.

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