The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

(Foreground) Mark di Suvero, Arikidea (detail), 1977–82. Cor-Ten steel, steel, and cedar, 316.5 x 510 x 450 in. (Background) Siah Armajani, Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, 1988.

“And now I cannot remember how I would have had it. It is not a conduit(confluence?) but a place. The place of movement and an order…”
– John Ashberry
(Inscription on Siah Armajani’s Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge)

From the sleek Gallery 8 restaurant at Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden appears to be a logical, organic extension of the severe Modernist museum and its three bold, rooftop terraces. Once inside the Garden, however, the sculptural scape is a world unto itself. The sharp edges of urban life recede, although never disappear. Here, large pieces of sculpture in every medium actively alter the urban environment, commingling with a variety of flora ranging from flowers to hedgerows to linden trees, confronting the steady hum of 16 lanes of traffic at the Garden’s eastern edge. Let there be no mistake. The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is a vibrant urban context for art, a flat expansive space in the center of human interaction. Storm King it is not.

With more than 40 permanent works of art on view, made from glass, metal, wood, stone, and concrete, dating from 1926 to 1998, the Garden is intimate and provocative when walking alone, accommodating when standing in a crowd. Represented artists include Richard Serra, Jenny Holzer, Ellsworth Kelly, Henry Moore, Sol LeWitt, Isamu Noguchi, Jacques Lipchitz, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Louise Bourgeois, among many others. Mark di Suvero’s huge Arikidea draws both children and adults to lounge on its swinging platform. Dan Graham’s Two-way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth, is a house-of-mirrors conundrum.

One reason for the rigorous but symbiotic relationship between museum and garden is that both were designed by the Modernist architect Edward Larrabee Barnes. The Walker, with its violet brick cubelike forms, spiral floor plan, and flexible white-walled galleries was completed in 1971. The garden, designed by Barnes in collaboration with landscape architect Peter Rothschild, opened 17 years later and occupies 7.5 acres of city land directly across Vineland Place from the Walker. The formal geometry of the garden’s design includes four 100-foot square outdoor “galleries” bisected by gravel-lined allées and bordered by evergreen hedgerows planted in low carnelian granite walls. The overall design was inspired by Renaissance and 18th-century Italian gardens, and the four discreet spaces echo the museum galleries. A more informal space directly behind the “galleries” features a small pond in the shape of a linden seed that plays host to Claes Oldenburg’s and Coosje van Bruggen’s monumental red and white Spoonbridge and Cherry. Although there are choices, one’s path is directed, just as in the museum, but here one can rest on benches, two of which were created by Twin Cities artists Kinji Akagawa and Philip Larson.

Marking the east perimeter is Siah Armajani’s Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, a striking pedestrian walkway that links the garden to Loring Park, 379 feet of traffic away. The green, yellow, and blue steel bridge incorporates a poem by John Ashbery and is a primary artery for walkers, bladers, and bikers. To the west, the garden is defined by the Sage and John Cowles Conservatory, a shimmering glass architectural jewel that features Frank Gehry’s 25-foot-tall Standing Glass Fish, perched among Mexican fan palms in its central hall. The Regis Gardens, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, run the full 164-foot length of the Cowles Conservatory’s interior corridor.

Brower Hatcher, Prophecy of the Ancients, 1988. Cast stone, stainless steel, steel, bronze, and aluminum, 202 x 246 in. diameter.

Two recently acquired works include Mario Merz’s Città Irreale, a red neon script punctuating the roof of the conservatory. Città Irreale, or Unreal City, is a phrase from T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland.” Merz’s conceptual work references not only the garden as a unique environment, but also its actual and metaphorical place within the larger city. According to Chief Curator Richard Flood, who oversees the garden, “The Merz is like a beacon at night. It makes sculpture of language.” The other work, Atelier van Lieshout’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, is an idiosyncratic, interactive work that is part full-scale wooden house and part sci-fi aluminum and fiberglass mobile unit that will travel out into the community.

In 1992, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden was expanded to 11.2 acres, making it the largest urban sculpture garden in the country. More open and flexible, the expansion design by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. comprises a large granite plaza for both art and performances, curving walkways, and the 300-foot-long Alene Grossman Memorial Arbor and perennial garden at the garden’s north end.

After 11 years, it is difficult to imagine the Twin Cities without the garden. But there was a time, in the 1970s and ’80s, when the site was an open expanse of land coveted by kite-flying enthusiasts and bordered by baseball diamonds. The site, which is to the north of Walker, was historically the home of the Kenwood Armory built in 1907 and the Armory Gardens (1923–67), a swampy unstable site that never lived up to its civic expectations. After the Armory was condemned in 1933, only the gardens graced the site.

The garden was collectively masterminded in the mid-1980s by former Walker Director, Martin Friedman, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Superintendent, David L. Fisher, and a few risktaking funders such as Judy and Kenneth Dayton, the late Frederick R. Weisman, and The McKnight Foundation, whose initial belief in and $5.4 million financial support of the public sculpture garden concept allowed the project to get off the ground. Soon thereafter, the initial $12.8 million project budget was raised to fund Friedman’s vision.

“The site’s history was one of gardens,” states Friedman. “When I-94 went through, the Armory gardens were erased. It was awful to watch it happen.” According to Friedman, the Walker’s sculpture terraces, although great for sculpture, “just didn’t do the job we wanted to do. Creating the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden was a marvelous use of public land and a great way to show art.”

Jenny Holzer, Selections from The Living Series, 1989. Granite, 17.25 x 36 x 18 in.

A hybrid concept for both a museum and a city park, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is a unique mixtureof public, private, and civic accountability. The City of Minneapolis owns the garden and the Cowles Conservatory, and is responsible for maintenance and security. Both the state of Minnesota and city of Minneapolis are responsible for the Armajani bridge, which is state-owned. The Walker oversees the selection, installation, and maintenance of all works of art, as well as the garden’s public programming. Miraculously, this collaborative management style works, so well, in fact, that more than 3 million people have visited the garden since it opened.

When the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden opened to the public amidst great fanfare on September 10, 1988, I was a skeptic. Would the garden really be “public” as the Walker claimed, or was it just an outdoor appendage of the museum? Its four room-like quadrants seemed too much like the restrained, Minimalist museum it fronted, just without a roof, and attired in a set of new outdoor togs.

As the rest of the art world raved about the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, I puzzled. In infancy, the Garden was stiff and private, not open and public. The art was substantial, the Cowles Conservatory impressive, and Armajani’s bridge was both practical and visionary. But would this ever evolve into an accessible public space, psychologically independent of the Walker? Or just be admired from afar?

Moreover, did the rest of the world really believe that Oldenburg’s and Van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry was a significant work of sculpture? A gay, breezy logo, maybe, but good art? I concluded the Garden had the look, but not the soul.

Of course, time changes all things. The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden has matured into one of the most remarkable public spaces in the country. The still loopy Spoonbridge and Cherry has achieved emblematic status, a recent stroll confirmed that not only is the garden a place to ponder prime pieces of 20th-century outdoor sculpture, but it is also an inspired lesson in how art and site can enhance each other, how flowers can embolden steel, how the sky can animate the inanimate.

Judith Shea, Without Words (detail), 1988. Bronze, cast marble, and limestone, 78 x 80 x 118 in.

Unlike inside the Walker, weather and the time of day change everything outside in the garden. If Serra’s Minimalist Cor-Ten steel sculpture Five Plates, Two Poles, is imposing on a sunny morning, it is borderline sinister on a stormy November afternoon. Moreover, in 1988 the plantings had such a long way to go to reach lush maturity, a maturity that would prove to soften the edge between garden and traffic, a maturity that would differentiate experiencing garden art from gallery art, a maturity that would make the site not only physically, but emotionally accessible. And public.

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Walker Art Center

Vineland Place, Minneapolis, MN
Admission: Free Outdoors in Sculpture Garden
For more info: (612) 375-7622

Mason Riddle is a writer living in the St. Paul, Minnesota and a frequent contributor to Sculpture and other periodicals.