Judy Dayton, Twin Cities arts patron and grande dame of philanthropy, dies at 94

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The painter Jasper Johns is known for his taciturn bearing, but when arts patron and philanthropist Judy Dayton walked into his Connecticut studio about a decade ago, he lit up. “She drew the sunshine out of him,” said former Walker Art Center director Olga Viso, who was part of the […]

The painter Jasper Johns is known for his taciturn bearing, but when arts patron and philanthropist Judy Dayton walked into his Connecticut studio about a decade ago, he lit up.

“She drew the sunshine out of him,” said former Walker Art Center director Olga Viso, who was part of the visit. “It was clear that he felt great about not just what she had done for him, but for artists and arts institutions.”

A quiet grande dame of Twin Cities culture and philanthropy, Dayton supported bedrock Minnesota arts and cultural institutions such as the Walker Art Center, the Minnesota Opera and the Minnesota Orchestra with her treasure, creativity and time. She died Wednesday at home of congestive heart failure. She was 94.

As matriarch of a family known for its civic contributions, Dayton was the first female president of the Walker and served on its board for 52 years. She led capital campaigns and served on boards including the orchestra, the Blake School, the Science Museum, and the Minnesota Women’s Campaign Fund, a PAC supporting women running for political office. The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, to which she and husband Ken Dayton donated art and money, is one of her legacies. She underwrote the Walker’s acquisition of Jasper Johns’ collection.

“The Dayton family members are a huge part of why we have the vibrant arts scene we have in the Twin Cities, and we wouldn’t be who we are without them,” said philanthropist Penny Winton. “Judy and [late husband] Ken were so modest about what they did, never hungering for accolades but always hugely generous to community. They really wanted to get rid of — and put to good use — that stuff called money. It was hot in their hands.”

That ethos was common to all five brothers who founded Target Corp. and instilled a civic engagement and communitarian spirit that lives on. Judy Dayton embodied that ethos, said philanthropist Margaret Wurtele.

“They were a model not only of financial support but also the kind of personal involvement and embedding in organizations, not in an obnoxious way, but in ways that were supportive, positive and really about service,” Wurtele said.

“If you try to talk with her about all she’s done for the Walker or any organization, she would turn the table on you and talk about what the Walker did for her,” Walker Art Center director Mary Ceruti said. “Art was what filled her life and she appreciated. Her philanthropy came naturally out of that.”

That love of the arts came by education and upbringing.

Dayton was born April 26, 1927, in Spokane, Wash., to Henrietta and Charles J. Winton Jr., a lumber magnate. The family moved to the Twin Cities when she was 2. She attended the predecessor to the Blake School before graduating from Connecticut College. As a graduation present, she and best friend Mary Vaughan went on a three-month sojourn to Europe.

“We stayed in a little hotel in Paris,” Vaughan said. “We were testing out our schoolroom French, going to the opera and exploring the city. It was all very exciting and instructive.”

Vaughan, her lifelong friend, added that Dayton had a sly sense of humor.

“In grade school, we thought we were the greatest figure skaters you ever laid your eyes on, performing on school programs in our little twirly skirts,” Vaughan said. “Well, about 15 years ago, we laced up our skates and went to Lake of the Isles in the middle of the day with nobody else around. As we were struggling around in the rink, another woman came by and we asked her to take a picture of us. Judy said, ‘We used to be in the Ice Follies,’ and she believed it. Later we laughed so hard.”

Dayton worked for three years in New York in publishing at Time Inc. She married Ken Dayton in 1953. That was the start of a love of family and of community service.

For years, the couple lived in a Wayzata house designed in the 1960s by New York architect Romaldo Giurgola. In the 1990s, they lived in an award-winning Minneapolis house designed by architect Vincent James.

“She was a great mom and civic leader who believed that it’s nice to help financially but where the rubber hits the road, it’s the people doing the work at various nonprofits who should get the credit,” her son Judson Dayton said.

Dayton’s death is part of the passing of the torch to a new generation of philanthropists and civic leaders, intimated Mark Dayton, her nephew and Minnesota’s former governor.

“Judy, the last surviving member of a generation, was a hero to our family for her wise leadership and many generous gifts to our community,” Dayton said.

In addition to son Judson, of Wayzata, she is survived by son Duncan of Waccabuc, N.Y., and many grandchildren. A service is being planned for a later date.

“She was beautiful, warm and monumental in what she did for the cultural community,” Viso said. “Judy Dayton is an exemplar of how to age with grace, how to be a good citizen, model patron and community leader.”

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

Twitter: @rohanpreston

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