In the nascent stages of its development some 30 years ago, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden was hailed as a creative collaboration between an arts institution and a governmental agency— a new and unique partnership to create a public asset featuring privately owned artworks. But
what really matters is what it’s become in the 25 years since it opened: a beautiful place that not only makes the Twin Cities unique, but also represents what makes the entire state special— a deep commitment to the arts and to ensuring that everyone has access to these abundant cultural treasures.
With more than 8 million visitors since it opened, the Garden is one of Minnesota’s top attractions as well as a place that’s become integral to everyday life in the city. Since it has played such a meaningful role in many lives, we’ve asked a few people who’ve been familiar with the Garden since its earliest days to share their thoughts and memories. These interviews and others are available in a new audio tour produced for the anniversary. Look for “Community Voices” stops on artwork labels in the garden or on the garden website.
Martin Friedman and David Fisher
In the 1980s, Martin Friedman had an idea about the land across from the Walker Art Center. He reached out to Minneapolis Park & Recreation Superintendent David Fisher, establishing a groundbreaking partnership that led to the building of the Garden.
“Over the years,” says Friedman, “we had opportunities to install a few sculptures on the land across the street from the Walker, before anyone ever thought about a sculpture garden; however, I always worried about the future of that land. So I thought, why not an extension of the Walker, and maybe a creative partnership with the city? We would be in charge of all the artistic phenomena that would occur in this park across from what was then the Walker/Guthrie complex, and the city would be in charge of its maintenance. And that worked. I had a wonderful partner in David Fisher, a very canny bureaucrat whom I plied with popovers at the Minneapolis Club to get his vote. He was a tough trader and a terrific public servant. Working with him was great fun.”
Fisher has strong memories of those days also: “I was 35 years old when I came on the job, the youngest superintendent appointed by at least 20 years. It wasn’t more than two weeks before I got a call from Martin Friedman. He had this great idea about how to transform that area into a garden that was more a reflection of the Walker. I was
very patient, I listened very carefully. I understood the parameters of public policy, and quite frankly, I started to understand that Martin also understood the parameters of public policy. He knew that this had to go through a process. We worked at it very, very slowly. He’d call, and I’d go over to the Walker for lunch. He was probably the best-hearted and most intelligent person I’ve ever worked with. He whittled away at those ideas until he really came out with the words ‘sculpture garden.’
“We worked ourselves into a situation where we had both the public (my board) and the private (the Walker’s board) agreeing to a partnership that would develop a sculpture garden. The deal was that the park board and at that time, the University of Minnesota, would take care of the grounds, but the sculpture would be the sole responsibility of the Walker. It was a groundbreaking arrangement. I am very proud of that. I’ve spent 45 years in this business but the project I really remember as being the most gratifying, with relationships that are necessary to carry you through the rest of your life, was that of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.”
About its artistic contents, Friedman remembers, “At one point during the development of the garden, the city came up with drawings that would have had Siah Armajani’s marvelous Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, which connects the Garden to Loring Park, covered with green and white [traffic] signs: left turn for the Basilica, right turn for downtown, etc. I said ‘That’s out of the question, we can’t have that, we’ve got to have it pure.’ They bought into our idea, and we made a deal that the bridge would be maintained as a work of art. Of course it was and is that, and it’s highly used by everyone from little kids’ groups to joggers. It’s a great asset and a great convenience in every possible way.
“To me what was important about the Garden was that it made a cultural complex out of what was then the Walker and the Guthrie. So consequently, what goes on in one place is sometimes echoed in another. Very often one artist, say Richard Serra or Ellsworth Kelly, has work shown in the Walker itself as well as the Garden. It was interesting to the public to see artists working under formal conditions and then out in the wild, as it were, where the effects of climate and season and light are so important that they change the character of the sculpture, constantly. In other words, frozen indoors, but outdoors wild and constantly in flux.
“The public took to it instantly—that surprised and delighted me. People would be watching as the excavation was going on, then as pieces were installed. Everyone had a comment, everyone had something to say. They took ownership right away because it was a public space to begin with.”
Friedman was the director of the Walker Art Center from 1961 until his retirement in 1990. He has worked for numerous institutions, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the American Center in Paris, the Denver Art Museum, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, and has authored the biography Close Reading: Chuck Close and the Artist Portrait (2005). He has also been an influential advisor to the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s Art Committee.
Fisher worked for Minneapolis parks for 29 years and served as superintendent of the Park & Recreation Board from 1981 to 1999. From 2001 through early 2010, he was executive director of the Great Rivers Greenway District in St. Louis, Missouri.
Mayor R.T. Rybak
To me the construction of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden said a lot about who we were, and our maintenance and growing of it says a lot about who we are. This could have been a nice little bunch of sculptures sitting out there with freeway going by and a chain-link fence over the freeway. But it’s not. It’s a great urban place with one of the most inspirational bridges; walking over the freeway becomes this uplifting experience. Imagine if that was a chain-link fence? And isn’t it great that Siah Armajani is from here? You stand up there and look down into the Garden and it looks great, and you look over to the skyline and down into Loring Park, and the freeway strangely and wonderfully becomes part of the experience. That motion and energy becomes part of what animates the whole space and is part of the magic of that bridge; it really shows that we use art to lift us up.”
A lifelong resident of the City of Lakes, Rybak took office in 2002; he is currently serving his third (and last) term in what he calls his dream job.
My interpretation of “garden” was like in Japan. When you build a Japanese house, the garden is always a part of the environment, no matter how small it is. So this garden and the building was, to me, a strolling garden, or a garden to look at like a painting, or stroll as part of the sculptural experience and the four seasons. My understanding is one of living together with nature: garden dwelling, a dwelling garden, museum, okay, also a garden, you know? It’s a notion to have exposure to everyday life and sometimes ordinary material; ordinary people become extraordinary within that kind of environment.
Born in Tokyo and working in Minneapolis since the 1960s, Akagawa was a professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for 36 years. He was commissioned by the Walker to create Garden Seating, Reading, Thinking (1987), a bench that invites people to rest and reflect in the Garden.
Martin was totally responsible for the Walker Art Center’s beautiful building, and getting Ed [Edward Larrabee] Barnes to design it. And as Martin looked out from the terraces on top of that new Barnes building, he thought what a fantastic job Ed Barnes could do making that [empty field across Vineland Place] into a sculpture garden for outdoor works that would be very harmonious with the building he had already completed. So that’s how it all started. The very square brick building that Barnes did for the Walker’s indoor galleries was replicated in the four square garden rooms across the street. I think anyone who went up to that terrace with Martin [heard him muse],
“Think what we could do.” He again, as he always had been, became the Pied Piper that got many people interested in doing this thing, and having the satisfaction and the thrill of being part of one of the charms of our city.
A longtime Walker trustee and donor, Dayton has played a singular role in supporting the Walker for some 50 years. She and her husband, Ken, were instrumental in both the creation and expansion of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden; one of four tree-lined “rooms” is named after them.
In the 1980s, I remember walking across this muddy, weed-filled field to get to the parking lot, so it was very exciting when Martin announced the partnership with the Park & Recreation Board to do something fun and creative with this land, which would expand the Walker. There was a lot of talk about how it would be the largest urban
sculpture garden in the country. At first people kind of made fun of the Spoonbridge and Cherry. They didn’t know what to do with this funny-looking gigantic spoon. There was nothing else like it in the city. But a couple years after the Garden opened, I felt like it had been accepted when it showed up on the cover of the phone book—back when we had phone books.
That was major exposure. Then when I saw it on pop machines at the airport I knew it really had become an icon. So many kids who were born since the Garden opened have always had this place, so they’ve grown up thinking that sculpture is the symbol of downtown Minneapolis. How many people have taken their picture so it looks like they’re holding the spoon? Not to mention all the wedding shots …
As the Garden was getting ready to open, we had kids interview artists with work there. We found that artists would say things to kids that they wouldn’t to others, and it was wonderful to have them disarmed. I have this picture of Jackie Ferrara, who made Belvedere, after her interview: one of the kids was so taken with the math that went into that piece—the precise cutting of the planks, the stepped construction—so she and this kid were sitting huddled in the corner, and she was explaining the math to him. It’s been great to see how people use that space as a stage for everything from bluegrass music to Korean dance, or almost anything you can imagine. It’s one of the most used spaces in the garden.
Rotilie worked at the Walker from 1983 to 1988; she returned in 2000, working in the Education and Community Programs Department until her retirement in 2011.