Sculpture Parks Display Art Amid Gardens

Sculptor Nina Akuma’s 24-foot-tall The American Horse graces Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Mich. This acclaimed outdoor museum’s pieces are sited so that visitors can appreciate their details from all angles and framed by varied landscapes.

Text by Jessie Anne Keith for the January/February 2016 issue of Horticulture.

Some of America’s finest art museums are gardens. Designed as expansive outdoor showplaces for art, sculpture gardens are unique in their horticultural display. All feature grand vistas of open landscapes created to enhance the art they serve, but some take a more intimate approach with carefully crafted garden enclaves designed to enhance the works. The best please both garden and art aficionados, housing works by the world’s most revered sculptors, such as Alexander Caulder, Mark di Suvero, Andy Goldsworthy and Maya Lin. For many, sculpture gardens are the best places to enjoy art and greenspaces—hence their growing popularity.

Modern sculpture gardens gained significant ground in the 1950s to 1970s, with the groundbreaking of sculpture parks/gardens such as Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1974) and Storm King Art Center (1960), but the concept of outdoor showplaces for sculpture is very old. It has been repeated throughout history. Just think of the grand displays of open-air art essential to public life and identity in ancient Mayan, Egyptian, Roman and Greek civilizations, or the palatial grounds of European royalty, such as the Sun King’s (Louis XIV) Versailles, with its hundreds of gardens enhanced with sculpture and sculptural waterworks. Classic themes can be found in some of the best modern sculpture gardens.

Many of the first American sculpture gardens were sculpture parks—open landscapes with impressive sculpture—and not so much true gardens. But more and more are breaking the mold by maintaining carefully designed real garden spaces for the display of exceptional art.

Sculpture parks new and old

Take one of the newer venues, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park (1995) in Grand Rapids, Mich. The garden’s Horticulture Director, Steve LaWarre, says, “We have created a series of outdoor garden rooms to house our art. Rich plant choice and design complement each work. Our garden offers a true marriage between the best sculpture and the best horticulture.”

Anish Kapoor’s Untitled (granite) and Deborah Butterfield’s Cabin Creek (bronze, 1999) are two fine examples. Kapoor’s sculpture is a carved granite work with three reflective discs that mirror the beautiful surroundings of the Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden. Its bold geometry contrasts with the garden’s soft lines, enhancing the space’s structure and focus. Butterfield’s bronze-branched Cabin Creek horse form stands on an open, raised berm covered with soft prairie grasses including little bluestem (Schizachyriumscoparium) and sideoats gramma (Boutelouacurtipendula). The open air and native grasses lend a natural play to the sculpture.

Beautifully crafted green spaces also support the art at Grounds for Sculpture (1992) in Trenton, N.J. According to Tom Moran, Chief Curator, “good garden and landscape design for sculpture manipulates the view and the movement of the land. At Grounds for Sculpture we use the landscape to show the art. Some of the staging is formal and some pastoral.”

The Nine Muses, a modern take on classic Egyptian, Greek and pre-Columbian sculpture by Carlos Dorrien (Vermont granite, 1990–97), presents a perfect example of formal staging. An enclosure of evergreens and striking grasses creates an outdoor room that sets the stage for two columns of nine distinct standing figures that reside on a broad slab reminiscent of an ancient temple base. A moat of water lilies surrounds the piece, adding to its formality and elegant calm.

In contrast, a seven-acre meadow offers a pastoral landscape for several monumental sculptures by Seward Johnson. Now composed of a custom mix of native short grasses and wildflowers like asters and goldenrod, the meadow began as a flat, open field. It was reshaped with added hills and swales to create movement and draw visitors to memorable sculptures such as Johnson’s Daydream. Inspired by Matisse's painting The Dance, Daydream comprises five cast-aluminum girls dancing atop a meadow mound alongside a reflective pond.

Designated a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, S.C. covers a 9,100-acre natural and cultivated property. It began as a 1700s rice plantation, and its famous allée of nearly 300-year-old live oaks (Quercus virginiana) dates back to that time. Brookgreen’s sculpture gardens began in 1931 with the Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington Sculpture Garden, which maintains classical sculptures in a formal setting, but modern sculpture was introduced into the gardens in the 1950s with the inclusion of The Fountain of the Muses Garden, named for the series of playful bronze sculptures by Carl Milles (1875–1955). Lush gardens surround eight major figures that playfully rise from the water atop jumping fish. Brookgreen boasts 1,200 works by 350 artists, making it well worth the visit for fine art as well as charming, venerable gardens.

Founded in the 1950s, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass. is another older United States sculpture park. The naturalistic 30-acre site maintains 60 sculptures in a landscape with lakeside, wetland, grassland and woodland. The Garden’s Director, John Ravenal, explains that “gardens weren’t in deCordova’s original plans, but the park’s focus is shifting toward the importance of landscape as well as sculpture that works with the landscape.” Oscar Tuazon’s Partners (reinforced concrete and sugar maple (Acersaccharinum) is a perfect example. The concrete beam supports one of the park’s sugar maples, creating an architectural yet functional piece.

Sculpture parks large and small

Acreage is an asset for grand sculptural display. This is best illustrated at Storm King Art Center (1960), a vast 500-acre sculpture park in the Hudson River Valley that combines world-class sculpture and immaculate natural and sculpted landscapes. Regal allées of native trees, to include 200 pin oaks (Quercus palistrus) and sugar maples, provide structure to the wide open spaces, while natural works of art—such as the rolling earth and grass sculpture by Maya Lin—play with the park’s wide open spaces and clean tree lines. More than 100 works by venerable sculptors, including Andy Goldsworthy, Alexander Caulder and Mark di Suvero, also reside there.

Top sculpture gardens can also maximize impact where space is limited. The Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden and Plaza (1974) in Washington, D.C. is a world-renown 1.3-acre sculpture garden located at the Smithsonian on the National Mall. Designed by revered American architect Gordon Bunshaft, the sunken garden stands 14 feet below street level with 2 flanking terraces and a rectangular reflecting pool. When it first opened in 1974, many perceived its pebbled ground, spare plantings and stark open spaces as unwelcoming. Shortly after, architect Lester Collins reimagined the garden, and it reopened in 1981 with turf greens, soft plantings and intimate spaces for its exceptional collection, which includes works by Alexander Calder, Juan Muñoz and Willem de Kooning.

These are just a handful of the many wonderful sculpture gardens the United States has to offer. All have their unique collections garden spaces—all worth seeking out.