Say Goodbye, Mister Hip

A generation ago at the contemporary art museum, Dad and Billy could admire the big, bright outdoor sculpture, Mom could bathe her eyes in color field painting and little Sue could buy a board game designed by a conceptual artist. Now the same institution is seen by many as a nuisance if not a menace. The art on display either hectors the viewer about social problems or baits the vice squad. Civic funding is being cut back, corporations are bailing out on controversial shows . . . so who wants the aggravation?

Minneapolis, that's who. The Walker Art Center and its adjacent sculpture garden pulled in 683,000 visitors last year--10th in attendance among all U.S. museums. That's in the country's 19th most populous urban area. And the Walker's offerings are hardly pictures of fluffy kittens: the empty-room sculpture of Robert Irwin, visionary Japanese architecture and the performance art of Karen Finley are more like it. The instigators of all this--with a great spillover effect on Minneapolis's lively cultural life as a whole--are director Martin Friedman, 65, and Mildred Friedman, his wife and the Walker's design curator. But after an amazing 29 years at the helm Friedman is retiring this month to the relative backwater of New York City. The art scene won't be the same without the man who could tweak the establishment and still keep his executive dignity.

Friedman was a grad student at the University of Minnesota in 1958 when he was asked to be senior curator at the somewhat sleepy private collection. A year later he found himself acting director. "My policy," the slim and energetic Friedman recalls, "was to make it up as I went along." (One of Minneapolis's virtues, says Suzanne Weil, the Walker's performing-arts coordinator in the late 1960s, "is that nobody any good ever dies there." Translation: talent gets its first break there, then leaves. Friedman got his break but stuck around.)

Radical intuitions: Ten years later the leaky Walker needed a whole new building. Unable to get a site from the parks department, Friedman had a thermonuclear idea: disperse the collection's oldies, raze the building and put up "guerrilla" shows in parks, banks and department stores until a new edifice (by Edward Larrabee Barnes) could be completed. A laissez-faire dictator, Friedman inspected every load of bricks for proper color, but encouraged his curators to follow their radical intuitions. The off-premises 1970 exhibition, "9 Spaces / 9 Artists" (organized by Richard Koshalek, now director of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art), was an early venture into off-premises site-specific sculpture that challenged not only the audience, but safety inspectors. "I got very involved in environmental art," Friedman explains. "I commissioned lots of things, which might be one of the salient points about my time at the Walker."

Just as salient has been the Walker's transformation into an internationally famous museum with a $50 million endowment. To most artists who can imagine their retrospectives without giggling, the Walker is as good a venue as New York's Museum of Modern Art. And no other museum has mounted such trenchant shows of contemporary architecture as Mildred Friedman's.

The Walker's salutary effects aren't confined to the art world. It made Minneapolis aware earlier than most cities of the importance of urban design. Longtime Star-Tribune columnist Barbara Flanagan credits Mildred (called Mickey): "She brought in architects. She hosted conferences. She made people see the possibilities." The Walker also gave the Minnesota Opera its start and donated the land for the famed Tyrone Guthrie Theater, housed in the same building. Martin credits the city in return: "Nobody in Minneapolis tells you why something can't be done." Three decades of moving and shaking have, however, left behind some sore toes. Flanagan concedes, "Martin has often been heavy-handed." Local blue-chip art dealer John Stoller declares bluntly, "I don't like him at all. He's been a fantastic influence here and all that, but I'm absolutely delighted to have him leave the city."

The Walker's new director, Kathy Halbreich, inherits the uncommonly sophisticated audience nurtured by the Friedmans, but also the 1990s' thornier art. "The arts today," Friedman observes, "are heavily charged with psychological, sexual and political force . . . For better or worse, art is invigorated as well as deeply disturbed by politics." It was one thing, he means, to get people to appreciate a work of art so abstract, like Irwin's, that it's no longer an object, but it's quite another to get them to calm down in front of a photograph by Andres Serrano. How the Walker copes with art in the newly electrified climate will say a lot about how our whole contentious society does it. "The main thing," Friedman advises curators who might find the peace of self-censorship tempting, "is not to lose your nerve."