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A combination of fantastic artwork and a gorgeous landscape makes Grounds for Sculpture one of the most creative attractions in greater Philadelphia. Located 45 minutes away from the city in Hamilton, New Jersey, the 42-acre site provides a home for over 400 sculptures among the trees and flowers of a certified arboretum. There is no better place to enjoy art outside.
Winding paths, sculptures hidden within the landscape, and abstract pieces mean you never quite know what to expect around the next corner at Grounds for Sculpture. And that is the beauty of the place. We have visited twice—once on a summer day and once on a late fall evening—to enjoy the best of what it has to offer.
The beginnings and the benefactor
The first work you’re likely to see in the sculpture garden is a life-sized artist painting a café scene. It’s easily recognizable as a homage to van Gogh at work in the south of France. Just a few feet away is A Turn of the Century, a 20-foot-tall dancing couple inspired by figures in a Renoir painting. Both works by sculptor Seward Johnson are a perfect introduction to the art here because Grounds for Sculpture would not exist without him.
The idea for the sculpture garden began in the late 1980s at the abandoned New Jersey State Fairgrounds. The land, which had only a few dilapidated buildings and gnarled maple trees, was transformed with ponds, groves of trees, and an ever-growing collection of contemporary sculpture. It was Seward Johnson’s vision and some of his funds (he was part of the family behind Johnson & Johnson) that helped it come to life.
Dozens of Seward Johnson’s sculptures form the base of the collection of Grounds for Sculpture. The works that are displayed and their locations change periodically, but they are unmistakable as you explore the property.
Like the sculptures near the entrance, many of Johnson’s works are inspired by paintings while others involve people going about daily activities. Some practically blend in to the surroundings and beg to be discovered.
Whether it’s an unassuming girl reading on a bench or a giant depiction of dancing nude figures from a Matisse painting, Johnson’s influence is everywhere. We particularly like the sculptures where the landscape is part of the work like Sailing on the Seine II where a couple is seated next to a boat in the water or Midstream in which a fisherman expectantly casts his line into the pond.
Day and night exhibits
There is nothing stuffy about the exhibits here. In addition to Johnson’s contributions, hundreds of other sculptures interplay with the landscape. Many even invite visitors to touch them. Some are abstract and angular while others are cartoon-like. Walking around the property feels nothing like the typical museum experience.
From styrofoam and wood to bronze and stone, the sculptures are made from a wide range of materials. Many of the pieces were created by some of the world’s most notable sculptors and multimedia artists, including Kiki Smith, George Segal, and Isaac Witkin.
For the last three years, Grounds For Sculpture has worked with Klip Collective to add a new dimension to the sculptures as part of Night Forms. Using sound, light projections, and movement, the artists create an experience that transforms the works after sunset.
As we walked through the nighttime exhibit, it was fascinating to see how the pieces changed with the addition of the lights. Some seemed to swim and move while others added radical new dimensions of color. The current season runs November 24, 2023 to April 7, 2024.
The grounds and arboretum
In addition to the sculptures, the property’s layout and landscaping play a huge role in making Grounds for Sculpture what it is. Its evolution has continued since the garden opened in 1992. The space is now covered with over 100 species of trees, some of which were recovered from abandoned sites and nurseries that had gone out of business. It’s a beautiful story of making something gorgeous from discarded pieces.
Now an accredited arboretum, the grounds feature thousands of rose bushes and trees as well as lots of flowers, shrubs, and other plants. There are also reflecting pools, ponds, and other water features that amplify the art and create a serene environment as you explore.
One of our favorite areas was the lotus pond, which we found just past the peak of its summer bloom. An artist was painting en plein air, creating new artwork inspired by the setting and giant blooming flowers. Adjacent to the pond, a gazebo and two-story observation tower provide great views of the pond and beyond.
Another one of the most scenic areas is Monet’s bridge and Rat’s pond. The bridge over the koi pond is designed to replicate the setting of Monet’s Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, so the area surrounding it has weeping willows and water lilies in a lush, green setting that makes it feel secluded despite its popularity. (We’ve visited the actual bridge that still stands at Monet’s estate in Giverny, and the New Jersey version does a faithful job of recreating the verdant landscape.)
Even if you’re not a lover of sculpture, there is a lot to enjoy about the setting that has been so thoughtfully created.
Have a plan. The site is large, so it’s helpful to know which parts of the property you want to visit or if there are particular artworks you want to see. Downloading the interactive map may help. Even having visited twice, I know I haven’t seen it all.
Stay awhile. Tickets have specific entry times, but you can stay as long as you’d like.
Consider mealtimes. There are two cafes and the beautiful Rat’s Restaurant to enjoy, so there’s no need to go hungry when you visit. Rat’s also offers a “picnic in the park” package so you can eat among the artworks.
Don’t miss the indoor galleries. Yes, the outside works are the stars, but there are eight indoor spaces worth visiting for special exhibits.
Our visit to Night Forms was sponsored by the sculpture garden.