The gardens of museums: sculpture gardens

Gardens of Museums | Sculpture gardens
Photos credits: see image captions

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Tom Claassen’s “Rocky lumps” in the Kröller-Müller Museum garden. Courtesy of Kröller-Müller

The gardens of museums: sculpture gardens
Shade, mist, lawns and hedges, secular oaks or rosemary shrubs, calm ponds, and spectacular fountains; a place to relax and contemplate, or a lively venue. Gardens have always been special places for those lucky museums that have one. But not all gardens are created equal, everyone is actually different from another, and has its own personality. History, culture, climate, scope, available space, and urban vs rural contexts are all elements that concur to create an incredible diversity in those green spots, or large parks, that are often associated with museums. Nevertheless, we can, for the readers’ convenience, identify some families to which most gardens belong. What I offer you here is a brief, hopefully relaxing and refreshing, journey through some of the most fascinating museum gardens.

The first garden typology is one of the most appreciated by museums’ visitors; sculpture gardens are green spaces where art museums create real open-air permanent or semi-permanent galleries, often of outstanding quality. This does not mean that all museums’ sculpture gardens are similar. There are various interpretations of the matter, indeed; and we present some of them in this article.

The garden of the Kröller-Müller Museum, the Netherlands
The sculpture garden of the Kröller-Müller museum is one of the most celebrated in the world. Its main peculiarity, along with the quality of the artworks and micro-architectures it houses, also by Rodin, Gerrit Rietveld, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Richard Serra, and Jean Dubuffet, can be found in the complex fascinating experience it produces on visitors.
The garden, actually a 25-hectare park, though precisely designed by J.T.P. Bijhouwer and subsequently renovated by Evert van Straaten and West 8 Landscape Architects as well as carefully maintained, is apparently a completely natural environment, where sculptures rest on lawns, emerge from the middle of a pond and can be found also in locations you don’t expect. Groups of large trees of various local species create artworks-inhabited environments that, in different seasons, could be shady and refreshing spots in Summer, translucent spaces filled with reddish light during Fall, or mysterious and misty places in Winter.


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Top. The museum building. Bottom left: “Igloo di pietra” by Mario Merz.  Bottom right:  “Jardin d’émail” by Jean Dubuffet. Photos courtesy of  Kröller-Müller Museum

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Top: foreground the sculpture “Otterlo” by Marta Pan. Photo by American_rugbier. Bottom: foreground: “Landschaps-Zonneproject” by Piet Slegers. Background: “K-piece” by Mark Di Suvero. Photo by Johan Wieland. Photos courtesy of  Kröller-Müller Museum

The Billy Rose Art Garden at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
The Billy Rose Art Garden is a space where nothing appears to be left to chance; it was planned indeed by the famous designer Isamu Noguchi and the influence of the Japanese Zen gardens is clearly perceivable here. Thus sculptures by Rodin, Picasso, Lipchitz, Moore, Judd, Oldenburg, and Serra, just to name some from an impressive collection, are arranged in a precise sloped framework of small terraces, neat footpaths lined with trees, carefully placed rocks, surfaces made in bare concrete, stone and water so creating a fascinating interplay between art, design, and nature.

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The Billy Rose Art Garden, “Negev” by Magdalena Abakanowicz (photo Derek Winterburn (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Ahava (Love) by Robert Indiana, Billy Rose Art Garden, Jerusalem

“Ahava (Love)” by Robert Indiana; photo Edmund Gall (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Big Bambú by Doug and Mike Starn, Billy Rose Art Garden, Jerusalem

“Big Bambú” by Doug and Mike Starn; photo Edmund Gall (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, USA
The celebrated garden of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington is one of the most typical examples of an urban sculpture garden. The garden was realized simultaneously with the museum building, designed by Gordon Bunshaft from Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. Usually, because of their locations, such museum gardens can’t simply be as large as those of countryside museums like the Kröller-Müller or the Maeght Foundation.
The sculpture garden of the Hirshhorn, which is located in the heart of Washington, has indeed a surface of 11,000 square meters surrounding the circular museum building, thus acting like a physical and psychological “buffer” between the museum and the city noise and traffic. The garden is divided into sectors like a citrus’ fruit; every sector is shaped like a wedge with a slightly different height from one another; here, lying on grass beds and lined with flowering and honey locust trees, sculptures by artists such as Rodin, Smith, Calder and Jeff Koons are exposed.
A second, 5,000 square meters rectangular garden, where major sculptures are exhibited on a rotational basis, is located just in front of the museum, two to four meters below the street level.

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From top to bottom, from left to right: The opening of Doug Aitken’s “Song 1” from the Hirshhorn garden. Sculptures by Juan Muñoz, Francisco Zuniga, Arnaldo Pomodoro, Willem de Kooning, Giacomo Manzu. Images courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Italy
The open-air space at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, although not large as other outdoor sculpture galleries, is nevertheless a unicum in the world. Not only because it faces the Canal Grande but also for the absolutely peculiar atmosphere pervading it. The external area dedicated to sculptures includes the Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Sculpture Garden, a terrace overlooking the Canal, and other fascinating courtyards. The integration between art and nature is an exemplary one here and it seems that the sculptures were grown in this place not differently from the surrounding flowers and trees. Furthermore, the personality of Peggy Guggehmeim still informs the entire site, it is clear that she once lived here and this makes you feel the gallery is an almost domestic place. Even if a plaque remembers you that Peggy Guggenheim’s ashes are buried in the garden, you probably would be not totally surprised to see her going out of the building and asking if you would like a cup of tea.
This should not lead the visitor to deem the Peggy Guggenheim Collection’s garden simply a pleasant haven, it is also an impressive open-air gallery of masterpieces by artists such as Arp, Duchamp, Ernst, Giacometti, Holzer, Marini, Minguzzi, Merz, Moore, Noguchi, Ono, Paladino and Kapoor, just to name a few, partly coming from the museum permanent collection and partly from long-term loans by other institutions.



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Top to bottom: The Peggy Guggenheim outdoor space and the sculpture garden with “Working Model for Oval with Points” by Henry Moore. Photos © Collezione Peggy Guggenheim, Venezia. Ph. AndreaSarti/CAST1466. Left: the plaque signing Peggy Guggenheim’s resting place.  Photo Sarah Rose. Right: the sculpture garden with “Untitled” by Anish Kapoor and “Leone urlante II” by Mirko photo by Charlotte Chen. “Pomona” by Marino Marini, photo Sarah Rose.
Images courtesy of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

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Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The Kröller-Müller Museum is an art museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands, world-famous for its Van Gogh and modern art collections and its sculpture garden

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
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The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. is a famous museum of modern and contemporary art and a notable example of US Brutalist architecture

Israel Museum | Jerusalem | מוזיאון ישראל
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The Israel Museum in Jerusalem ( מוזיאון ישראל) is one of the most important art museums in the world, with collections ranging from antiquity to present day

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is world-renowned museum in Venice, housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, dedicated to 20th century art

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