Last Refuges

Art parks and public gardens decide whether they can give people safe respite when people need to isolate.

By Zach Mortice

The Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Image courtesy NCMA.

With the COVID-19 crisis, millions of Americans have been jolted from their daily routines, their social lives, and their public spaces. Social distancing is pushing people into virtual realms and individual experiences. Landscapes have become a final refuge.

Museums are closed, so across the country, sculpture parks and public gardens are figuring out how they can safely meet the needs of social distancing. When they can, they’re offering one of the few bits of unfettered culture still available. The ones that place nature first have some advantages others don’t.

The Clark Art Institute’s grounds in Williamstown, Massachusetts, are open; more than 100 acres of nature trails are dotted with a handful of sculptures by Giuseppe Penone, William Crovello, and Jenny Holzer, set in a recently expanded campus designed by Reed Hilderbrand. “We have a 140-acre campus and several miles of walking trails that go through the woods on campus,” says Vicki Saltzman, the Clark’s director of communications. “It has always been our policy that the campus is open to the public to use 24 hours a day, and there’s certainly plenty of room in the 140 acres for lots of social distancing. It’s always been a very central part of the Clark’s ethos to think about art in nature, and we make that connection on a daily basis no matter what’s happening in the world around us.”

The grounds of the Clark Art Institute. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute/Tucker Bair.

Smaller, potentially densely populated sculpture parks are closed. In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian closed the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the National Mall, “because we can’t ensure social distancing, especially during high-traffic times like we would expect when the surrounding museums are closed,” says Alexandria Fairchild of the Smithsonian’s public affairs office.

At the New Orleans Museum of Art’s sculpture park, a canal link bridge recessed partially below the water, which is only wide enough for two people to walk side by side, is the primary connector between the park’s two sections. Photo by Richard Sexton.

At the New Orleans Museum of Art, the institution’s director, Susan Taylor, closed the 11 acres of the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden because of its narrow and prescribed circulation paths. The sculpture garden covers two areas that radiate out from the museum, with a lagoon ringed by sections of boardwalk. In places, the paths are wide enough for only two people to walk side by side. “It’s a space where everybody congregates,” Taylor says. New Orleans has had an alarming spike in COVID-19 diagnoses and has been one of the country’s most beleaguered cities during the pandemic’s onset.

The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden is ringed by narrow sections of boardwalk. Photo by Richard Sexton.

Many sculpture gardens attached to museums remain open, including the Saint Louis Art Museum’s Grace Taylor Broughton Sculpture Garden, set in St. Louis’s Forest Park and designed by Michel Desvigne. Over in Kansas City, Missouri, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park by Dan Kiley remains open. The Weiss/Manfredi and Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture-designed Olympic Sculpture Park, part of the Seattle Art Museum, is still welcoming visitors. And the Civitas-designed 164-acre Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park at the North Carolina Museum of Art and its 30-plus sculptures are open, and has experienced a bump in visitation while the museum is closed, says the museum’s director, Valerie Hillings.

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park. Image courtesy the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Henriette Huldisch, the chief curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, says: “People are craving nature and art experiences other than the movies and TV that we have.” The Walker Art Center’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, designed by Peter Rothschild and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, among others, has works by Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra, Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero, and others, and remains open while the museum is closed.

“In times of stress, the opportunity to appreciate nature is a balm to everyone’s soul,” says Saltzman of the Clark Art Institute.

“I think [the pandemic] makes us think about our role as civic institutions, and what cultural institutions mean to people, and what it will mean to people when we’re closed,” Huldisch says.

The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Photo by Bobby Rogers, courtesy Walker Art Center.

The Getty’s landscapes in Los Angeles are closed because they’re gated within the Getty property. Much of the Getty landscape is accessed by tram, which can’t run with California’s current shelter-in-place mandate. The closure of the Getty museum means the closure of all its landscapes, including OLIN’s half-acre Fran and Ray Stark Sculpture Garden.  The small size of the sculpture garden also complicates things. “When people are in the garden on busy spring weekends, social distancing would be a challenge,” says Lisa Lapin, the vice president of communications at the Getty. Storm King Art Center in New York’s Hudson Valley (which usually opens in April) has postponed opening indefinitely because it uses a staffed and ticketed entrance, though the staff is exploring ways to give the public access to some or all of the campus. In San Marino, California, the Huntington Library (which includes a landscape by the Office of Cheryl Barton) and its 120 acres of gated gardens are closed. And because its landscapes are gated, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, closed its grounds after Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker issued a stay-at-home order beginning March 24.

The governor of Indiana, Eric Holcomb, issued a mandate that doesn’t outright preclude the closure of the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park: 100 Acres at Newfields in Indianapolis; the park has a separate entrance and parking lot for guests to use, but Mattie Wethington, the public relations manager at Newfields, said, “Our Art and Nature Park is not gated entirely. We are simply messaging the closure of the Art & Nature Park in all appropriate ways (signs, website, social [media], etc.) for the safety of our guests.”

Tony Tasset’s Paul at the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park. Image courtesy the Nate (Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park).

The confluence of art and nature is good for more than a breath of reflection and reprieve in the moment. It can also point the way ahead and beyond. At the southern edge of Chicago’s suburbs, Jeff Stevenson oversees a collection of sculpture from the early 1960s to today (Mark di Suvero, Bruce Nauman, Mary Miss, John Henry, Tony Tasset, and more), set on 100 acres of rolling prairie and still open to the public. He’s the director and curator of the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park on the campus of Governors State University.

“[Our founder Lew Manilow’s] early vision is how art allows us to imagine and to do great things. The pieces in the park enable you to get outside yourself,” says Stevenson. “They enable you to imagine what the artist did to make this thing come into being, and it allows you to imagine beyond your own current daily experiences—even when it’s a pandemic. It gives you a chance to get outside of whatever state of mind you might find yourself in.”

The campus of the Clark Art Institute is spread over 140 acres, and contains miles of walking trails. Image courtesy Clark Art Institute/Tucker Bair.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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