Currently required to social distance from our favorite art luminaries, in this age of Covid-19 museum shutdowns most outdoor sculpture gardens across the country are still welcoming visitors and are safe spaces to appreciate art.
Sculpture is the oft neglected step-child of the fine arts world, and now these splendid en plein air galleries, exemplifying the convergence of art, humans, and nature, provide an opportunity to get better acquainted with the impressive and provocative art by kingpins like Louise Bourgeois, Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama, Leandro Erlich, Andrew Goldsworthy, and Jesus Rafael Soto.
If you and your family are looking to get outdoors and enjoy art, these magnificent outdoor sculpture gardens are a must see. Before you go, check their websites or call to make sure they’re open, then pack a picnic and make a day of it.
de Cordova Sculpture Park and Museum
The de Cordova Sculpture Park and Museum is located 20 miles northwest of Boston on the former estate of Julian de Cordova, a self-educated son of a Jamaican merchant, this 30-acre sculpture garden on the shores of Flint Pond was established in 1950. It’s the largest park of its kind in New England with an emphasis on modern and contemporary sculptures by both national and international artists.
In the early 1980s, the de Cordova initiated a series of curatorial programs to strengthen its commitment to emerging New England’s artists. Best Of All Possible Worlds by Saul Melman is an etheric piece of eight translucent doors, suspended in the exact configuration of the artist’s Brooklyn apartment. With traces of paint and bits of wood clinging to the surfaces, it creates a liminal space between the material and immaterial, between life and death. Also on the property is Andy Goldsworthy’s Watershed, which is composed of granite stonework radiating in concentric circles. During heavy rain, water is channeled underground to pour from the wall’s central outlet, allowing visitors to experience the work come to life.
Olympic Sculpture Garden
Among the best-known sculpture parks in the world, featuring artists like Louise Bourgeois and Alexander Calder, the Olympic Sculpture Garden is opulent, yet tranquil. Its setting is made all the more extraordinary by the panoramic scenery of Puget Sound and the snow-capped Olympic Range. Viewed from above, the design of the park is itself a monumental sculpture; a Z-shaped creation where a pedestrian descends from the exhibition pavilion through three archetypal northwest landscapes: dense evergreen forest, deciduous forest, and shoreline garden, all reconnecting Seattle’s urban core to the revitalized waterfront.
Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park
Extending over two miles along the north channel of the Chicago River, the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park showcases more than 60 sculptures. The remarkable, large-scale, modern pieces incorporate materials ranging from concrete to clay, to wood, and even steel chains.
Open year-round, the park is traversed with biking and jogging paths, offers group tours, picnic areas, and is fully accessible to people with disabilities. Dogs on leashes are welcome. The park features both American and international artists, with standout works including Lincoln Schatz’s Pater Familias, composed of welded steel, tumbling wire chairs, and a tornado-like barbed wire cone symbolizing the turbulent relationship between the artist and his father. Another eye-catcher is Michael Grucza’s Shapeshifter, composed of mirror images of houses, one embedded inside a cage of steel mesh.
Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden
Stanford University, Stanford, California
The Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden, tucked away on the Stanford University campus is well worth the effort to track it down (at the corner of Lomita Dr. and Santa Teresa St., north of Lake Lagunitas). In 1994, a graduate student of Anthropology arranged for ten Papua New Guinea master artisans, aged 27 to 73, to carve several dozen wooden “totem” poles, drums and stone works. Nestled in an oak and cedar grove, a giant wooden eagle atop the shoulders of an ancestress emerges. Behind the eagle stands a cluster of a dozen tall wooden poles carved with exquisitely elaborate motifs representing Sepik mythology and creation stories.
A series of brightly painted Kwoma poles form another grouping, while another area consists of sculptures in pumice stone. At night, the grove is illuminated by ambient lighting, creating a wonderful interplay of light and shadow, revelation and concealment, nature and culture.
Murrells Inlet, South Carolina
Unlike others sculpture gardens, Brookgreen Gardens emphasis is on figurative rather than abstract pieces. Four hundred and thirty works are on display, many of them by women, including the renowned Anna Hyatt Huntington.
Additionally, there’s the adjacent Botanical Garden, preserving the natural and cultivated landscape of South Carolina’s coastal communities. The gardens also offer a Lowcounty Tour of the plantation and slave’s quarters, and even have the Lowcountry Zoo, featuring the region’s wildlife such as red foxes, otters, herons, and alligators. During the annual holidays Night of a Thousand Candles, Brookgreen is ablaze with some 3000 candles and countless lights set among the trees and sculptures of the garden.
Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden
New Orleans, Louisiana
Occupying five acres of New Orleans City Park, the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden is home to some 90 sculptures within grounds that evoke the intrinsic beauty of Louisiana’s semi-aquatic landscape. From the pair of cast stone and bronze pavilions flanking the formal main entry, limestone steps descend to the elliptical Pine Grove where late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century pieces are displayed.
Curving paths pierce through shrubbery to reveal sculptures around the lagoon, traversed by three bridges. Further on, the Oak Grove is the setting for large-scale contemporary works by French, British, Italian, Japanese, Israeli, and American artists including Leandro Erlich’s gravity-defying Window with Ladder; Elyn Zimmermann’s Mississippi Meanders—a 70-foot long bridge made from laminated glass and stainless steel; the whimsical Hank Willis Thomas’ History of the Conquest, a bronze-cast of a child riding a giant snail; and the marvelous, massive cast-bronze Spider by Louise Bourgeois.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art Sculpture Gardens
Los Angeles, California
Located in the heart of the city at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, visitors entering from Wiltshire Blvd into the 23-acre park are immediately confronted by 202 lamp posts making up Chris Burden’s iconic Urban Light. The concept is so simple—multiple rows of mid-20th century street lights all ablaze—that it’s pure genius. Penetrable by Jesus Rafael Soto is another favorite, an interactive work constructed of hundreds of suspended, colorful plastic tubes that visitors, both adults and children, will revel weaving in and out of.
Another charmer is Hello Girls; three large Alexander Calder mobiles rising from the pond. Being the largest art museum in the western United States, with over 150,000 art pieces, LACMA attracts a million visitors annually. In addition to art exhibits, the museum features films, lectures, and concert series.
Pratt Institute Sculpture Garden
Brooklyn, New York
It’s a well-kept secret, but the best place to see world-class plastic arts in New York City is at the Pratt Institute Sculpture Garden. Over 65 pieces of large-scale works by celebrated notables like Santiago Calatrava and Mark di Suvero fill the 25-acre campus, some are even on loan from faculty, graduates, and emerging artists.
The park’s curator describes the collection, “Our choices for the Sculpture Park are motivated by a search for the strongest of works, no matter the style. I liken the Sculpture Park to a symphony; our challenge is to bring all of the parts in harmony.”
Currently, a series of whimsical benches beckon in the shady trees. Tony Rosenthal, creator of Astor Place’s famous Alamo Cube, has an untitled piece reminiscent of a 3-D Mondrian that doubles as a sprawling bench. Cathey Billian’s Whispering Bench takes a traditional park bench design and contorts it into an Alice in Wonderland-like whimsy.
Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden
The entire family will enjoy the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch, and other beloved Dr. Seuss characters immortalized in life-size bronze statues at the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden. Though most of his books were penned across the country in California, Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1904.
After his death in 1991, his hometown commissioned his stepdaughter, Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, to cast sculptures of her dad’s menagerie (at a cost of $6.2 million), including beloved characters Horton the Elephant, Yertle the Turtle, the Lorax, and even Dr. Seuss himself.
Next door is the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss, with rooms painted in the familiar color palate replete with kid-friendly statues of Seuss characters. Upstairs is the “adult” floor, with artifacts from Ted’s California home such as his drawing table, his favorite chair, and his collection of 117 bow ties.
Lynden Sculpture Garden
The Lynden Sculpture Garden is a true hidden gem. The grounds of the former estate of Harry and Margaret Lynden Bradley includes 40 acres of pond, park, and woodlands, and is home to over 50 monumental sculptures.
Their Residency Program enables artists to immerse themselves in the Lynden sculpture collection, its landscape, and the surrounding community as they create temporary works, including performance pieces intersecting art and nature. In non-Covid times, they offer a range of art and nature programs for children and adults.
Since there are no paths, sturdy walking shoes are highly recommended.