Remembering Judy Dayton
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Remembering Judy Dayton

Judy Dayton, 2004. Photo courtesy the Walker Archives

Julia W. Dayton, who passed away on August 11, 2021, served as member of the Walker Art Center’s Board of Trustees with great distinction for 55 years. The importance of her philanthropic legacy to the institution was second only to that of founder T. B. Walker, who opened his art collection to the public 142 years ago.

When Judy joined the Walker board on May 17, 1966, she was 39 years old and hadn’t had any significant involvement with the institution up until that time. Her cousin, Mike Winton, became the president of the board that same year, and Phil Von Blon was a trustee then as well. These three friends helped to guide the expansion of the Walker’s campus, led large capital campaigns, and made incredibly generous contributions over the decades. Indeed, they formed the core of a group of trustees who helped the Walker evolve from being a family-run organization for nearly a century to a public institution in 1976.

Mike Winton, Judy Dayton, and Phil Von Blon, 2004.

During her inspiring tenure as a trustee, Judy served in every conceivable leadership capacity including as vice president and president of the board. In addition, she served on at least 15 different committees over five decades, chairing many of them. The Walker board recognized Judy’s extraordinary intellectual and financial contributions to the institution when they made her an honorary trustee in 1996, the same year this new trustee category was inaugurated.

Judy often recalled visiting the Walker for the first time in 1965 when the exhibition Charles Biederman: Retrospective 1934–1964 was on view. She always credited curator Jan van der Marck for taking the time to give her and her husband, Kenneth, a compelling tour of the show, which impressed them so much that they ended up purchasing the artist’s work and eventually gifted it to the Walker.

One year later, she joined the Walker’s board of trustees just as Martin Friedman was in the early stages of his own long tenure as the institution’s director. Importantly, Judy became one of Friedman’s greatest champions and provided significant financial resources and encouragement that enabled him to open the renowned building by Edward Larrabee Barnes in 1971, grow the institution’s endowment during the 1970s and 1980s, and create the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 1988.

Judy Dayton and Edward Larrabee Barnes, 1988.

Another of Judy’s earliest memories of serving on the Walker board was when the British fashion sensation Twiggy made her first visit to the United States in April 1967, with two cities on her itinerary: New York and Minneapolis. She chose to come to Minnesota thanks to Dayton’s department store, which was among the first retailers in the country to feature London’s trendy mod look. Twiggy’s visit caused a sensation in the Twin Cities with hundreds of teenagers greeting her at the airport and many more attending an appearance she made in the 8th Floor auditorium at the downtown Dayton’s store. Judy liked to say that when Ken, then an executive at his family’s company, contemplated on how he might impress the international supermodel and her manger, Justin de Villenueve, he decided to bring them for a tour of the Walker.

Kathy Halbreich, who succeeded Friedman as director of the Walker and served in that capacity for nearly 17 years, recalls: “Anytime I think of Judy, I think of an exclamation mark because her passion—actually, ‘love’ is probably a better word—for the Walker and its staff, artists and their creative aspirations, and the active engagement of Minneapolis citizens in the life of their city was both acute and tangible. She radiated joy! I remember she once told me, when I turned to her for some advice on how to solicit gifts for the uniquely large capital campaign we were embarking on to build the new Herzog & de Meuron expansion, to remember that giving was a pleasure as well as a privilege. It helped me get over any trepidation I had in asking people to contribute. And, with Judy often at my side, I even learned to delight in asking people to participate! Whenever we went out to solicit support for Walker, I would marvel how modest she was about her own patronage. She never trumpeted the immeasurable difference her own generosity made. She, instead, praised what a difference the Walker made to her and to the community. She was exuberant about the ideas that circulated throughout the galleries and garden; she always wanted to learn more and embraced artists of all stripes. Even the most difficult provocations interested her because she profoundly believed in the Walker’s mission.”

Halbreich adds, “Judy was a liberal in the old-fashioned sense of the word: she believed in the greater good, was catholic in her affections, and enjoyed the rewards of tolerance. I remember fondly the party she threw to celebrate the wedding of two gay staff members before these festivities became commonplace; we all were very happy for our colleagues and to be enjoying the splendid yet simple elegance of her home at sunset; however, perhaps even more importantly, each of us also shared that evening a sense that we were part of a remarkable place and time, led by a born and bred Minnesotan who was open-minded and caring. She was an unbeatable ambassador for what she believed in. And Minneapolis is the extraordinary place it is because Judy loved it so deeply and intelligently.”

Like Friedman and Halbreich before her, former Executive Director Olga Viso worked closely with Judy to raise funds and advance the Walker’s mission. “I have so many fond memories visiting artists with Judy, including a trip to see Jasper Johns at his home and studio in Connecticut in 2013,” shares Viso. “Only Judy could secure such a disarming smile from Jasper—indeed the same smile I saw on the face of Claes Oldenburg when he visited the Walker a year later to mount his survey of art works from the 1960s. Judy—or Jude—as Martin Friedman and many of her friends called her, made everyone smile and believe in the power of art to inspire and bring people together. There was no one ever more elegant and kind than Judy Dayton and I will miss her.”

Judy Dayton with Olga Viso and Cameron Gainer, 2013.

Judy welcomed Mary Ceruti to her home for a visit as soon as Mary began her tenure as executive director in 2019. Ceruti is the fourth Walker leader with whom Judy has shared her passion for the arts and strongly supported. “I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet Judy. As she warmly welcomed me and showed me around her beautiful home, she referred to the stunning works of art as ‘her friends.’ This is how some artists refer to the objects they make and it struck me that Judy’s great affection for the pieces she and her late husband, Kenneth, carefully collected over the years was deep and profound,” says Ceruti. “Judy exemplified the kind of enlightened philanthropy for which Minnesota is known worldwide and provided critical support that enables organizations like the Walker to truly champion artists.”

“Judy was as generous in spirit as she was with her resources,” shares Honorary Trustee Roger Hale, who served on the Walker board with Judy for 50 years. “Both she and her husband, Kenneth, contributed well over $100 million to causes they believed in with the greatest emphasis, by far, being on cultural institutions that have made Minnesota stand out as a beacon of light in the Midwest as well as the entire country. But the financial resources, however important, were just part of their leadership. Judy carried on the sense of strong organization governance Ken was so well known for, and her reputation for being a loyal supporter of every organization she was part of enabled her to open doors for multiple fundraising drives over decades in the Twin Cities.”

Hale adds, “Judy was the president of the Walker Art Center board in the early 1970s and as such one of the very first women to head a major cultural organization in Minnesota. In her ’80s she remained active at Walker, as honorary co-chair of the $75 million capital campaign to re-establish a welcoming entrance to the museum on Vineland Place and rejuvenate the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. During this six-year effort, there was no more diligent participant in the hard work and endless meetings to reach the Art Center’s goals.”

Judy not only supported four Walker directors and generations of staff members and trustees for more than a half century, she also amassed a blue-chip art collection that included masterworks by artists such as Siah Armanani, Alexander Calder, Philip Guston, David Hockney, Hans Hoffman, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Louise Nevelson, Claes Oldenburg, David Smith, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol. When the Dayton’s announced they were gifting their collection to the Walker in 2000, it was front page news in the StarTribune. The Walker has been extremely fortunate to receive more than 275 drawings, paintings, sculptures, and prints from Judy and Ken, which are as noteworthy for their quality as they are for their quantity. More importantly, the works serve as the backbone of the Walker’s world-renowned collection and will forever be part of the institution’s DNA.

Aside from gifting hundreds of works of art that she personally owned, Judy also contributed significant sums of money to enable the Walker to acquire key pieces over the decades. She and Ken, for example, made a major gift in 1988 to help acquire 229 prints by Jasper Johns, making the Walker the most complete repository of the artist’s graphic work. Their gift also made front page news at the time. It also helped to inspire the artist to give 119 additional prints to the institution since 1989, bringing the total number currently held by the Walker to 348.

Judy Dayton standing with Elsworth Kelly
Judy Dayton and Ellsworth Kelly, 2005. Photo: Cameron Wittig

Judy had a special fondness for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, a unique partnership with the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, and she and Ken made by far the largest gift by any individual to make that beloved place possible during the 1980s. Moreover, she established an acquisition fund in 1986, which has provided monies to specifically acquire works for the Garden. Monumental pieces by Dan Graham, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero, and others currently grace the landmark park thanks to Judy, who both provided the lead gift to create this beloved space and helped to seed it with art for all to enjoy.

One of Judy’s greatest gifts to the Walker was the establishment in 1998 of a trust in support of operations and programs that is currently valued at $29 million. Judy and Ken created the trust before the Walker doubled in size in 2005 with the completion of the addition designed by Herzog & de Mueron. The Daytons correctly assumed that it would be easier for the Walker to secure funds from others to pay for the new building than to raise monies to pay for the increased operating costs of the expanded facility. The trust they established is now part of the Walker’s endowment and currently yields $1.1 million annually and has no strings attached. It is used by the Walker for general operating support, which includes everything from staff salaries and utility bills to leading visual arts exhibitions; exciting dance, music, and theater performances; stimulating film screenings; and innovative educational programs for people of all ages. Without question, it is a remarkable gift that will allow the Walker to remain responsive to the needs of artists and audiences for decades to come.

Judy Dayton, 2004. Photo courtesy the Walker Archives

Over the years, the staff and board at the Walker have tried to recognize Judy Dayton’s astonishing legacy at the institution by naming major parts of its campus after her, ranging from a gallery space to a 130,000-square-foot building. Every time someone from the Walker asked her to allow the institution to thank her for the extraordinary amount of time, talent, and treasure she contributed to this organization, she politely but firmly declined. The truth is that there could be many places in the Twin Cities that are named after Judy Dayton, but it was not something she required or coveted. The Walker and other institutions have respected her wishes over the years by not highlighting her philanthropy in that way. Instead, members of our community can perhaps think of Judy the next time the soprano finishes her aria, the conductor raises his baton, or the museum director welcomes the public to a new exhibition. She was one of a kind and has left an indelible mark on the Walker that will live on long after those who knew and loved her have also departed.

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