Remove a museum’s walls and roof, and rules seem to disappear, too. We’re talking about artfully curated spaces where food, drink, running or loud voices aren’t just allowed but encouraged. Spread a family picnic below an iconic hanging mobile by Alexander Calder. Or take laps with your pup around a bronze horse cast by Deborah Butterfield, one of the most-recognized American sculptors alive today.
The welcoming, come-as-you-are vibe in sculpture parks such as the Walker Art Center’s in Minneapolis is no accident. It’s city planning (and sometimes rural strategy) at its finest. Art and design transform empty plots of land into engaging gathering places for art buffs and newbies alike.
Whether you want to contemplate and reflect or simply enjoy the sunshine, check out one of these five harmonious spaces.
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (walkerart.org)
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
A fresh remodel reinvigorates the Walker Art Center’s 11-acre garden, where visitors pose with Gary Hume’s Back of Snowman sculpture and survey Theaster Gates’ 20-foot-tall pillar made of brick, granite and steel, Black Vessel for a Saint. Updated landscaping replaces formal, pristine hedgerows with native plants that let sunlight stream into every corner of the park. Spoonbridge and Cherry remains an icon.
Don’t Miss Artists design new holes in the garden’s technicolor mini golf course each year ($19 per game).
Wichita Art Museum’s Art Garden (wichitaartmuseum.org)
Wichita Art Museum's Art Garden
More than 70 species of trees and plants, most native to Kansas, line earthen berms and interwoven paths that provide varied vantage points of the sculptures. “Viewing art from a lower elevation feels more intimate,” says Terry Berkbuegler, whose firm Confluence designed the park. “A higher elevation has sweeping views of the river.” The result: an artistic choose-your-own adventure.
Don’t Miss Derek Porter’s Pulse Field features 119 poles with blinking, solar-powered lights.
Ariel-Foundation Park, Mount Vernon, Ohio (arielfoundationpark.org)
Ariel-Foundation Park. Photos courtesy of Ariel-Foundation Park.
Artists used high-concept recycling to reinvent the 250-acre site of the abandoned Pittsburg Plate Glass factory, about an hour from Columbus. Salvaged steel makes up a cherry red, Hydra-like sculpture. Frosty blue crushed glass “flows” down a man-made grassy platform. And the redbrick wall ruins from the circa-1902 plant are so strangely beautiful, people have gotten married there.
Don’t Miss The park’s centerpiece, the Rastin Observation Tower, is the tallest structure in Knox County at 280 feet (airplane pilots use it as a navigational feature).
Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, University Park, Illinois (govst.edu)
Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park. Photo courtesy of Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park.
A 30-foot-tall Paul Bunyan slumps in the middle of a field, his fiberglass-and-steel frame reflecting exhaustion. Or perhaps dejection? After all, Illinois’ “museum-in-the-prairie” contains little forest for the lumberman to chop. Instead, Paul and 28 other large-scale sculptures sit scattered across more than 100 acres of tallgrass at Governors State University. See a piece made from a railroad tank car, a concrete-and-steel flying saucer, and more.
Don’t Miss Bruce Nauman mimics farm sheds in House Divided, featuring an interior that’s split diagonally, at Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park.
John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Des Moines (desmoinesartcenter.org)
John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. You can spot horse figures by Deborah Butterfield in at least seven Midwest parks; this one is her largest piece.
In 2009, local philanthropists John and Mary Pappajohn donated 25 sculptures to the city, inspiring the transformation of a flat, nondescript green space into a community hub. Today, office workers take noon walks along the winding paths, and teens snap photos inside Jaume Plensa’s Nomade. Four geometric berms form subtle galleries that make the park seem bigger than its 4.4 acres. The biggest one provides the perfect hill for kids to roll down.
Don’t Miss On warm days, food trucks park by the garden. Grab a bite and dine amid the art.
Please Touch the Art
Some parks encourage people to experience art with touch as well as sight. St. Louis’ Citygarden features two dozen sculptures—and no Do Not Touch signs. Self-taught artist Wayne Porter allows people to climb some of his pieces, such as the goldfish bowl, at Porter Sculpture Park in Montrose, South Dakota. And at Stevens Point Sculpture Park in central Wisconsin, guests interact with sculptures along a trail in the forest.