Curator Robert Murdock started at Walker

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 15, 2009 - 9:37 PM

The Walker's first curatorial intern used skills learned here to inform a career that took him to many museums.


Robert M. Murdock

Photo: Submitted photo, Star Tribune

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Robert Murdock, who began his career as a curator of early 20th-century and contemporary art at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, has died of complications from cancer. Murdock passed away Oct. 1 at his home in New York City. He was 67.

Upon earning his master's degree in art history from Yale University in New Haven, Conn., in 1965, Murdock was the first intern to be named to the Ford Foundation museum curatorial training program at the Walker Art Center. He learned the museum business under the tutelage of director Martin Friedman.

Murdock's experience in Minneapolis opened the door to a wide range of experiences in which he became a champion of emerging artists while working at some of the nation's finest museums, and he carved out a career as a curator, historian, critic and writer.

The Walker "was a key step in his career that afforded him opportunities subsequently," said his daughter, Alison Murdock, of San Francisco. There, "he really got exposure to artists that he might not otherwise have."

After his two-year internship at the Walker, Murdock worked as curator at Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., where he organized numerous exhibitions from 1967 to 1970. He was hired as the first curator of contemporary art at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. There his exhibitions included the first one-person museum show by postminimal artist Richard Tuttle, along with "Jess: Translations Salvages Paste-Ups" and "Berlin/Hanover: The 1920s" and "Poets of the Cities: New York and San Francisco, 1950-1965." He also won a National Endowment for the Arts research grant in 1973 to study Constructivist collections and the work of contemporary artists in Europe, his daughter said.

After working in Dallas from 1970 to 1978, Murdock was director of the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan. There he planned and supervised the museum's move into a renovated building in 1981 and curated the first show in the new digs, "Pioneers: Early 20th-Century Art for Midwestern Museums." He also spent time managing the museum's board of directors and fundraising, Alison said.

With a chance to be a chief curator full time, Murdock returned to the Walker Art Center in 1983. For two years, he organized several shows, including the blockbuster retrospective of Dutch Conceptualist Jan Dibbets.

"That is what he really enjoyed," Alison said. "He loved learning about the artists, discovering them and supporting them in their careers He took time to listen and hear their stories."

Before he left the Walker in 1985, Murdock also wrote essays for gallery guides used for the exhibition series, "Viewpoints," said Karin Gysin, a Walker spokeswoman.

Murdock closed out his career by founding the I.B.M. Gallery of Science and Art in New York, where he served as director and consultant from 1985 to 1994. In the past several years, he has been an independent curator at several galleries and a contributor to Art in America, Review and Drawing magazines.

In his spare time, Murdock enjoyed traveling and studying culture. He spoke German and French and was a New York Times crossword puzzle enthusiast, Alison said.

In addition to his daughter, Murdock is survived by his wife, Dez Ryan, and another daughter, Annie Murdock, both of New York City, and three grandchildren.

A private memorial service is scheduled for Oct. 27 in a New York gallery.

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