A visionary impresario, Martin Friedman created the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and transformed Walker Art Center from a regional venue into an international powerhouse of innovation.

During his 30 years as director, the Walker expanded from painting and sculpture to theater, dance and film. It showed Picasso’s private hoard of art before it debuted in New York, hosted movie star Clint Eastwood, staged shows by Laurie Anderson and David Byrne, and welcomed Friedman’s pal Vincent Price.

Friedman died Monday at his home in New York City. He was 90 and had lived in Manhattan since his retirement from the Walker in 1990.

At the Walker, Friedman mentored a generation of curators and directors who went on to run major museums in New York, Los Angeles and Detroit. And he was the prime mover behind the museum’s brick-clad wing whose minimalist galleries were revolutionary when they opened in 1971.

“Martin understood that the power of a museum comes from giving voice to artists as well as showcasing their art,” said Adam Weinberg, director of New York’s Whitney Museum and a Friedman protégé. “He was a major voice for artists and a real champion of freedom of expression.”

Friedman had recently undergone chemotherapy treatments but congestive heart failure was probably the proximate cause of his death, said a family friend. His death was announced by his daughter Lise.

“It’s all so bittersweet,” said Walker director Olga Viso, who is scheduled to break ground Tuesday on a $10 million renovation of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

The garden, which opened in 1988, was a capstone of Friedman’s tenure as Walker director from 1961-1990. He loved working with artists and commissioned signature sculptures, including the “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, that became a Minneapolis icon and popular selfie site.

Always forward looking

“Martin and Mickey [his wife, who died in 2014] were all about the future,” Viso said, recalling their response when she showed them plans for the garden renovation. “Mickey took my hand and said, three times, ‘You’re going to hear a lot about preserving our legacy. You must know that we’re not putting that on you. We’re all about the future and we support you in that.’ That was so important to me and to the artists — knowing that it’s OK to build on their legacy but take it to the next level, which is what they wanted.”

Friedman was legendary for his self-deprecating humor, his sharp wit and his compulsive attention to detail. During construction of the 1971 building, he rejected truckloads of bricks because their glaze didn’t perfectly match. Keenly attuned to color, he would have galleries repainted to improve a shade of white or gray, and occasionally ordered the maintenance crew to reshovel dirty snow.

“Martin believed in making everything perfect,” Weinberg said. “If the snow was not white enough, because dogs or passing cars had soiled it, he had staff turn it over.”

He lived and breathed the museum, calling staff in on Saturdays to rewrite catalog essays or on Sunday evenings to polish a grant application.

“I could have killed him three times a week because he was so relentless,” said former Walker curator Graham Beal, now retired director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. “But from Martin I learned that you don’t start with compromise in mind. You start with what you want and don’t settle for anything but the best.”

Friedman hated ruminating about his career. “It’s boring,” he said in a 1988 interview. “I’m a private person and I hate this retrospective aura. If you want to talk about ideas, projects, I’m happy to do that.

“I’m a conceptualist of sorts. An impresario,” he continued. “I like dealing with artists and material in an unconventional form. I like dealing with abstract ideas and taking a chance on an artist. I like complicated issues that involve a lot of people. I like living on the edge and scaring myself.”

Visionary drive

Born in Pittsburgh on Sep. 23, 1925, Friedman was interested in art from an early age and took art classes at the Carnegie Institute of Technology while in high school. He entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1943, but his studies were interrupted by WWII. Chosen for a naval ROTC program, he was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in suburban Chicago. After the war, he earned a B.A. at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1947 and a M.A. in studio art and art history at UCLA.

He met his future wife, Mildred “Mickey,” at UCLA and they married in 1949. She died on their 65th wedding anniversary, Sept. 3, 2014. He is survived by their three daughters, Lise of New York City, Ceil of Verona, Italy, and Zoe of Seattle, and their families.

In Los Angeles, Friedman taught art for a year at a Watts-area high school and for six years at a community college in East Los Angeles. Dissatisfied with teaching, he secured a 1956 internship at the Brooklyn Museum followed by a grant to study African art in Belgium.

He was hired as a Walker Art Center curator in 1958 and became director in 1961 when his predecessor, Harvey Arneson, moved to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

“He really had a vision for what Walker could be and he developed it over 30 years,” said Roger Hale, a longtime friend and Walker board president during the 1970s. “He was controversial and could be difficult and snappy, but he had a very big core of board and staff who thought he was nonpareil.”

Friedman played a long game. He oversaw the Walker’s 1976 transition from a private museum, supported by the family of founder T.B. Walker, into a nonprofit organization, and then increased its endowment to roughly $50 million at his retirement.

Throughout, he continued to organize exhibitions, including a 1976 bicentennial tribute to the Mississippi River, the 1980 Picasso extravaganza, a 1983 David Hockney event, and “Tokyo Form and Spirit,” a 1986 show that cost $1.2 million, featured new work by 11 Japanese designers and architects, and debuted in a Tokyo beer warehouse.

After retiring from the Walker, Friedman continued to write and consult, especially on artist selection and the design of sculpture gardens at the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City and Madison Square Park in New York.

Over a recent dinner, Friedman became uncharacteristically philosophical, Beal said. “He was puzzling about life, what it meant and what really happens in terms of infinity,” Beal recalled. “It was, in my experience, quite unlike him. He obviously had a spiritual side, but this was much more direct.”