A Congregation of Legends, From Christo to Frank Stella, Honored Martin Friedman at Madison Square Park Benefit

Martin Friedman with wife Mickey
(Photo © BFA)

NEW YORK — Claes OldenburgFrank StellaChristoCindy ShermanMartin PuryearDavid HockneyLynda Benglis, John BaldessariLawrence Weiner. The list may sound like a postwar art history curriculum, but in fact, it is just a small handful of the nearly 300 people who gathered on Thursday evening to fete Martin Friedman, the former director of the Walker Art Center. As was made abundantly clear during the event, Friedman is the best-loved arts advocate you may have never heard of.

“He’s a very unusual museum director,” Chuck Close, one of the evening’s hosts, told ARTINFO. “Not only did he train other museum directors, but he also had a very special relationship to artists. These people wouldn’t show up for anybody else, I’ll tell you that.” (As a collector remarked to us later in the evening, “I’ve never seen as many good artists in one place.”)

The event, organized by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, benefited Madison Square Park’s public art program, which Freidman helped establish after he retired from the Walker in 1990 after 28 years on the job. His work building up the Walker’s now-famous sculpture garden (you can thank him for Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s unforgettable “Spoon Bridge and Cherry”) and developing Madison Square Park’s program has earned him the designation “father of the modern sculpture park.” A new endowed curator position for the park’s art program now bears his name, and Thursday's event raised $1 million for its endowment fund.

Over Sicilian eggplant caponata, lasagna with mushrooms, and wine-braised beef, visitors were regaled with stories of Friedman as a tenacious, exacting, and utterly devoted arts advocate. (“Martin Friedman is a control freak,” pronounced Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg, who worked under Friedman at the Walker before coming to the Whitney.) There was the time Friedman called the grounds crew in early to turn the snow in front of the museum in order to keep it pristine white and hide any marks left by dogs. Then there was the time current Hirshhorn Museum director Richard Koshalek dragged Freidman to McDonald’s for the first time. He ordered a hamburger, rare. When the kid at the counter informed him that “we don’t do them that way,” the Friedman reportedly stepped back, crossed his arms, and said, “I’ll wait.”

That assuredness also served him well in his work with Madison Square Park. Asked to recall his favorite moment from his time with the conservancy, he chose the program’s biggest controversy: the installation of Antony Gormley’s figures on rooftops that locals worried would be mistaken for possible suicidal jumpers. “The article about it described us as boneheads,” Friedman told ARTINFO gleefully.

The evening’s tributes also came in the form of sculpture, a fitting nod to Friedman’s lifelong passion. Next to every plate lay a small, mushroom-shaped wooden sculpture about the size of a popsicle stick by artist Ursula von Rydingsvard. “I had to make 320, and then 10 extras,” she told ARTINFO, a bit wearily. “But I’d do anything for Martin.”

And then there was Philip Glass. Over the pasta course, the legendary musician appeared on stage to give a surprise performance. Before he sat down on the piano to play the lush, entrancing “Metamorphosis 2,” he recalled the many times he played the piece for Friedman at the Walker. “The first time I came, there were six people in the audience,” he said. Friedman was among the first museum directors to invite other performing artists — including Glass, Merce Cunningham, and Steve Reich — to come to his institution, a practice that is now commonplace, but was almost unheard of in the 1960s.

“No one has been a greater champion of the art of our time,” Glass said. 

To see a selection of photos from the event, click on the slide show