Martin Weinstein, whose populist eye built a reputation for his tiny Minneapolis gallery, is celebrated in a show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
From his modest gallery in a former grocery store in south Minneapolis, photo dealer Martin Weinstein has built a national — even international — reputation as a shrewd businessman with a keen eye and a generous, down-home instinct for what he calls “killer” pictures.
Over the years he has nurtured the careers of several Minnesota artists and given more than 500 photos to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in addition to other art. An eclectic selection of about 70 of his photos — of New York street scenes, boxers, musicians, workers, nudes, abstractions and funny stuff — will be shown at the museum in “31 Years: Gifts From Martin Weinstein,” which opens Saturday.
When he left his partnership in one of Minneapolis’ top law firms and launched the gallery 17 years ago, Weinstein’s ambition was modest. He didn’t plan to compete with big operators in New York, Los Angeles or Paris. He just wanted his sunny little spot four blocks from Lake Harriet to be as well-known as the hardware store across the street.
“If we can be to art what Guse is to hardware, we’ll be successful,” he said back in 1996.
His namesake gallery has more than trumped the neighborhood shop. Weinstein has shown and sold photos by 20th-century luminaries — Annie Leibovitz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gordon Parks, Man Ray, August Sander, W. Eugene Smith — and such celebrities as dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and musician David Byrne.
An international clientele flocks to the gallery’s booth at high-end photo fairs in New York and Paris, and out-of-towners make pilgrimages to the gallery.
“It’s not a very imposing place compared to most galleries, but very interesting, and he represents some very important photographers,” said Elliott Erwitt, a legendary New York-based photographer who sought out Weinstein while on assignment in Minneapolis.
“You don’t expect to see that quality of work outside New York, Chicago or L.A., but there he was. He didn’t know me from Adam, and I didn’t know him. So we went around the corner and had some sandwiches and a chat. He’s a big chatter.”
Their casual encounter led to Erwitt’s 2010 show at the gallery and Weinstein’s recent gift of an Erwitt photo to the Minneapolis museum. That picture is vintage Erwitt, an amusing shot of a dog jumping straight up beside its trenched-coated owner standing flat-footed on a Paris street.
“It’s just a great image,” Weinstein said in the show’s catalog. “It makes you warm and fuzzy and smile and be happy. What more should a photograph do?”
Weinstein’s gift photos are wide-ranging, from a huge 1939 gathering of Detroit union workers, to a homeless L.A. family living in its beat-up car, to boxers Sugar Ray Robinson and Carl “Bobo” Olson slugging it out in the 1950s. He’s given a classic Edward Weston nude, a Garry Winogrand picture of Jackie Robinson and an Ansel Adams image of a girl in her ruffled graduation dress leaning against a tree.
“Martin’s contributions have added a certain amount of personality and fun to the collection,” said photography curator David Little, who organized the new exhibit. “I tried to pick the most interesting and best work, but also to reflect his eclectic tastes.”
From Brooklyn to Minneapolis
Weinstein, 72, loves pictures of New York City, especially Brooklyn, where he grew up in a politically liberal family “of very limited means.” He remembers watching boxing matches on TV with his dad.
He worked his way through college and Brooklyn Law School in sundry union jobs, and developed a taste for blues, jazz and popular musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Little Richard, both pictured among his gifts to the institute.
That diversity reflects Weinstein’s concept of photography.
“I honestly believe it is really the populist medium, and I am a populist,” he said. “I don’t know of another medium where an image can reach out and grab you so directly; you don’t need art-speak to interpret it for you.”
Weinstein’s involvement with the museum started in the 1980s. He and his wife, Lora, had settled in Minneapolis in 1971 when he went to work for U.S. District Judge Miles Lord. The following year he joined the firm Maslon, Edelman, Borman and Brand, where he handled antitrust cases and eventually rose to be a managing partner.