Rarely can one look in a rearview mirror, glance back 20 years, and bask in the satisfaction of making all the right turns. But former Walker director Martin Friedman still marvels at the confluence of vision, collaboration and timing that lead to creating the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
“ It exceeded my expectation, and every time I see it, it’s a thrill,” said Friedman, who left the Walker in 1990 and now lives in New York City. “ It brings back all sorts of memories, but there’s also a real sense of currency.”
Nearly every element Friedman envisioned for the garden has come to pass. It’s a home to important, iconic artwork, a stage and setting for performances, a magnet for community gatherings, a field for play, a soft spot for reading, reflection, and romance, and a welcome mat into the Walker building. The “ currency” Friedman speaks of threads this summer’s 20th anniversary garden celebrations: Performances from the Trisha Brown Dance Company, a new Walker on the Green mini golf course, an outdoor exhibition of socially conscious design, a piece of site-specific theater from Australia, Rock the Garden concerts, the installation of the Walker’s new FlatPak House and activity center, a range of Free First Saturday events, and a project by the Walker’s Teen Arts Council.
That kind of eclectic activity was only a concept in the early 1960s, albeit a vivid and colorful one from behind Friedman’s glasses, when the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board first studied future uses for the 7-1/2 acres of parkland on the Walker’s northern border. Originally home to a United States Army Reserves armory, the Walker began installing temporary sculpture on the site in 1970. One of those sculptures–Siah Armajani’s 85-foot covered wooden bridge, featuring a gabled peak at the center sheltering a lone pine tree–proved a beacon for the land’s coming evolution.
The Walker commissioned Armajani, who lives in Minneapolis, to design a pedestrian bridge reconnecting the old Armory Gardens to Loring Park. While Mark di Suvero’s Arikidea (1977-82) was the first artwork installed in the garden, Armajani’s bridge was a more widely visible sign of the garden’s permanent transformation. The Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge (1988) features two swooping, steel arches of light blue and pale yellow – one the reverse shape of the other – running along the sides of a raw, wooden walkway. The poet John Ashbery composed a piece stamped into the bridge’s upper beams.
“ As far as public art is concerned, that is the best piece I have ever done,” says Armajani, who isn’t one for hyperbole. Detailing how he measures the bridge as his best work, he cites a poem by Wallace Stevens, The Anecdote of a Jar. In the poem, Armajani explains, a man from Tennessee comes upon a piece of landscape that appears disorderly and disunited. In the poem’s final stanza, the man places a fruit jar in the middle of the landscape, steps back and sees a unified, organized landscape. To Armajani, it symbolizes “ a permanent separation between manmade objects and nature.”
“ Every piece of public art I had made up to that point, I looked back and was sick to my stomach, because there was something that didn’t coalesce around the unity,” he says. “ But this bridge, for me, made a unified whole. It doesn’t leave anything unfinished or unresolved. It doesn’t mean it’s the most beautiful thing in the world, but it is unified, it is complete and, for me, that is a gift from God.”
Soon came Martin Puryear’s Ampersand (1987-88), the yin-yang granite columns standing as sentries at the park’s southern entrance. Frank Gehry’s Standing Glass Fish (1986), commissioned for Gehry’s Walker retrospective, anchored the central Palm House of the Cowles Conservatory. The central walkway between the garden and Walker, on Vineland Place, came from the mind of Sol LeWitt. But it was Spoonbridge and Cherry (1985-88) by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen that held center stage–physically and metaphorically–becoming an instant identifier for both the garden and the Walker. It has also endured as a symbol for the vibrant blending of culture and nature that is the signature of the Twin Cities. Other modern and contemporary art museums around the country had sculpture gardens–even the Caponi Art Park, in Eagan, predated it–but none fused the community’s involvement with the museum’s mission to the degree of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Friedman saw the garden realizing his vision as “ a front door, a great mediator between the museum and the city.”
“ That’s always been very gratifying from day one, that the public took possession of it,” Friedman says. “ They watched bulldozers come in, they watched the trees being planted, they watched the artwork come in, and they had opinions about every part of it. But the public never had any doubt the garden was an extension of the museum.”
New director Olga Viso wants to strengthen that connection, drawing on her observations and experiences at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington, D.C., to cast a strategy for the next phase of the garden. She and Walker curators are discussing balancing the garden’s most iconic pieces with fresh work, creating more year-round garden programming tied to happenings inside the museum, and considering commissions for temporary work for the sloping open space on the Walker’s western border. That last piece, Viso says, would both test the possibilities there and open ground for the myriad ways contemporary artists are working outdoors.
“ Artists are breaking down these rigid notions that sculpture must sit on a pedestal or concrete pad. I’m interested in giving artists the freedom to explore that open space in a more experimental way before we commit to a long-term game plan,” Viso says. “ This will help us better understand the potential of the space and see things that perhaps aren’t yet visible.”
IMAGE: In 1987, Martin Friedman (right) observed the bare canvas that would become the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.