Outdoor Sculpture Parks Offer the Best of Both Worlds: With the Earth as Its Floor and the Sky as Its Ceiling, Sculpture Displayed Outdoors in Park-Like Settings Has Become a Natural Alternative to Traditional Museums

By Mehta, Julie | Art Business News, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Outdoor Sculpture Parks Offer the Best of Both Worlds: With the Earth as Its Floor and the Sky as Its Ceiling, Sculpture Displayed Outdoors in Park-Like Settings Has Become a Natural Alternative to Traditional Museums


Mehta, Julie, Art Business News


Summertime. For many, a visit to a museum or gallery can't compare to the lure of basking in long-awaited warm weather. Outdoor sculpture parks bring these worlds together, allowing visitors a way to soak up great art along with the sun's rays.

"Sculpture parks are growing in popularity in a big way," said Nick Capasso, curator of DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park near Boston. "First, there are more artists working outdoors these days. Also, certain museums have open land attached to them and have found this is a good idea for programming those lands. And some municipalities have seen they can give an economic jumpstart to a neighborhood through beautification. Outdoor sculpture is a very visible way to do that."

Thousands of outdoor sculptures are on display all over the country at privately owned parks, public art museums, universities, corporate headquarters and annual shows, featuring works ranging from antique to contemporary, figurative to abstract, miniature to monumental.

A Sampling of the Best

As its name implies, Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, N.Y., is royalty among sculpture parks. About an hour north of New York City, Storm King features more than 100 sculptures set on 500 acres of sprawling farm fields surrounded by the Hudson Highlands. "Our collection is post-1945, mostly abstract, mostly American artists," said Director and Chief Curator David Collens. "Historically, American artists have been the ones who have reacted to vast landscapes like Storm King. European artists have been more formal. This is a wild, natural landscape especially suitable for artists like Mark DiSuvero and Alexander Calder."

A temporary exhibit of 18 of Calder's later works is in its third and final year at the park. Calder's "The Arch," a 50-foot-tall black-painted steel structure, is in the permanent collection, as are works by Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, Barbara Hepworth and David Smith, whose 13 metal works kicked off Storm King's sculpture collection back in 1967. Though they compose only a fraction of Storm King's holdings, site-specific works make the most of the stunning terrain. A site-specific 2,278-foot-long stone Storm KingWall by Andy Goldsworthy snakes through the woods, and the four giant steel plates of Richard Serra's "Schunnemunk Fork" rise out of the gently rolling grasslands.

Site-specific works are the core of the collection at Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis. "Mary Miss's Pool Complex: Orchard Valley" is a series of wooden pavilions and paths set around an abandoned pool, which visitors can experience directly by walking through it. Beverly Pepper's "Cromlech Glen" is a sort of earthen amphitheater planted with trees.

"The topography here is dramatic with an upper ridge cutting across from north to south and then the land dropping off in layers," said Director Glen Gentele. "It's a very different kind of museum--the earth is our floor, the trees our walls, and the sky our ceiling."

The park's land belonged to Henry and Matilda Laumeier, who bequeathed the property to the people of St. Louis with the stipulation that the natural setting be kept intact. Laumeier opened to the public in 1976 and today displays more than 80 works on its 100 acres at any given time. A two-year exhibit of four monumental steel sculptures by Mark DiSuvero opens this October. "You can see rabbits, birds and trees at the same time you look at the art," said Gentele. "These works are not behind Plexi-glass. They have the natural lighting of the sun and are exposed to the elements 365 days a year. They withstand rain, wind and sleet."

One thing outdoor sculptures are usually protected from is human contact, since visitors are asked to refrain from touching most sculptures. Not so at DeCordova. "If sculptures can stand up to what winter does to them, they can certainly withstand what people do. Gently touching the sculptures lets people experience them tactilely as well as visually," said Capasso. …

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