No need to wait for April showers to bring the flowers that bloom in May. At sculpture gardens and parks, you can enjoy a head start on enjoying the outdoors well before spring officially arrives. Most are open year-round.
Almost any sizeable U.S. art museum has a sculpture garden. Sometimes that means only a handful of statues on a lawn. Others are well known, such as the one at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The best take full advantage of their outdoor setting—like the open-air Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, New York—in part by featuring artworks that change appearance according to the time of day or season.
Here, the focus is on outstanding options that may be less familiar for various reasons. So get some culture with nature. Parks filled with art are also a fun and welcoming way for families to enjoy the outdoors. Bonus: All but one of these are free to visit.
The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden
Where: New Orleans, Louisiana
The Besthoff sculpture garden in New Orleans is a true must-see. But in a city where notable food, drink, music, and history vie for visitors’ attention, it can get overlooked. It’s easy to access: take a Canal Street Line streetcar (one that says “City Parks/Museums”) from downtown for a ride of a few miles.
Among the features that distinguish the Besthoff from many sculpture gardens: Its 11 acres are part of long-established City Park, which is nearly twice as large as Central Park in New York City. That means mature trees—including magnolias and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss—surrounding two lagoons. And yes, you’ll find artworks in the trees and water. The Besthoff’s tagline—“Art and nature in harmony”—sums up the ambience. The focus is on contemporary art, such as Pablo Casals’s Obelisk, a tower of bronze cellos, by Arman. But you’ll also find works from the 19th century, such as Diana by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Right before the pandemic began, the Besthoff doubled in size; it now includes more than 90 works. Besides work by such well-known artists as Maya Lin and Anish Kapoor, you’ll find (and use) Mississippi Meanders by Elyn Zimmerman. This long, colorful glass and metal bridge is one of several bridges in the garden. Highlights among the international collection include several works inspired by local history, including Hurricane Katrina.
How to visit
The Besthoff Sculpture Garden is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. between April and September and until 5 p.m. during winter months. The grounds are wheelchair accessible. Admission is free; donations are welcome.
Laumeier Sculpture Park
Where: St. Louis, Missouri
Launched in the late 1970s, this St. Louis park features some 70 sculptures among its 100+ acres. It’s located a 20-minute drive west of the city’s famed Gateway Arch. The park opens at 8 a.m., so you can get an early start. Diversity is the word to describe the range of artwork here: Some sculptures are colorful or playful, some are geometrical metal or wood. There’s even a augmented reality app, Time Fork by Van McElwee; at dusk the cheerful message of Laumeier Lamps by T. Kelly Mason is transformed by an LED display. Overseeing all is a giant Eye by Tony Tasset.
Here, as at other places displaying art, hands-off is the general rule, but the Laumeier offers a guide to 20 works that visitors can walk or sit on (but not climb), including a playful few that invite interaction, like Tom Huck’s two Bugs and Vito Acconci’s Face of the Earth #3.
For 2023, the visiting artists in residence, Lanka Clayton and Phillip Andrew Lewis of Pittsburgh, are sculpting a kite.
How to visit
The Laumeier Sculpture Park is open daily from 8 a.m. until 30 minutes after sunset. Entry is free. And dogs are welcome, as long as they’re on a leash.
If you go this spring, check out a temporary indoor work, Narcissus Garden by Yayoi Kusama (February 11–May 14). And in May, there’s an annual art fair over the weekend of Mother’s Day; in 2023, it’s Friday evening, May 12, and opens at 10 a.m. Saturday the 13th and Sunday the 14th; admission charge for fair is $10 for those age 11 and up.
Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park
Where: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Michigan’s second largest city, Grand Rapids, calls itself “Beer City USA” in recognition of its dozens of craft breweries. But it’s also home to the Frederik Meijer Gardens, one of the best sculpture parks in the nation. The more than 200 artworks in its permanent collection are located both indoors and outside on its 158-acre site. The 50 works outdoors date from the mid-19th-century up to contemporary art, Auguste Rodin to Ai Weiwei. Other notables represented include Henry Moore, Barbra Hepworth, and Louise Nevelson, plus Jim Dine, Alexander Liberman, and Chakaia Booker; she uses found objects and her two works here are made of recycled tires.
Tram tours are also an option; they encircle the sculpture park as well as the large Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden, which opened in 2015. Unlike most Japanese gardens, this one incorporates several large artworks, among them the granite Existence by Masayuki Koorida, the steel and copper Long Island Buddha by Zhang Huan, and Guiseppe Penone’s bronze of a tree trunk and human hand, It Will Continue to Grow Except at That Point.
How to visit
The Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is open daily (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day) Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m., with late nights on Tuesdays until 9 p.m. Sunday hours are 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission: $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and students, $10 for children age 3 to 13.
Bonus: Through March 26, check out the indoor work of two sculptors who have won MacArthur Fellowships, Mel Chin and Elizabeth Turk.
Lynden Sculpture Garden
Where: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
If you traveled west on Lake Michigan from Grand Rapids, you’d land in Milwaukee, another city famous for brews—and an appealing park full of statues.
At Lynden, some 50 works of art, figurative and abstract, grace the 40 acres, which include a lake and woodlands. Both U.S. and international artists are featured. Barbara Hepworth, Linda Howard, and Ernest C. Shaw are among the artists represented by multiple works. Most of the art dates from the 1960s to the end of the 20th century.
The grounds originally formed the flat farmland estate of Harry and Margaret Bradley. In the 1930s, they hired a gardener to transform cornfields with 13 oak trees into rolling hills with a variety of trees, some 4,000. Large pieces of art began to be added in the 1960s; in 2009, the Bradley Family Foundation decided to open the grounds to the public.
How to visit
The Lynden Sculpture Garden is open daily, except Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors can roam the grounds freely (there are no trails); docent-led group tours are also available for $12 per person.
Bonus: For $10, take part in a monthly 90-minute full moon walk in the park. Or if you’d like some extra daytime outdoor exploring, the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center is only three miles away, on the shore of Lake Michigan. In addition to birds galore, it offers six miles of trails through its 185 acres. (Fun fact: It was once home to the Schlitz Brewery draft horses.)