It’s been a tough year for museums, and for the people who love them.
In Paris, the Louvre is still closed. All of Los Angeles’ museums are shuttered. In November, the New York Times reported, a third of U.S. museums were still dark due to the pandemic.
But sculpture gardens are open to the public. They offer a dose of culture with room to roam—touching often allowed, no indoor voices required. The pandemic makes sculpture gardens even more appealing: the fresh air and abundance of open space are ideal for social distancing.
Even if kids don’t seem interested in the sculptures, they’ll have the opportunity to run and play while absorbing color, form, and the ever-changing dialogue between art and the environment. Many don’t charge admission, so it’s a low-stakes activity. And sculpture parks and gardens are more abundant than you might think: there are said to be more than 200 around the U.S., in both urban and rural areas.
We rounded up six of the best for families, but don’t limit yourself to our list—there may be something wonderful in your own backyard.
Art Omi Sculpture & Architecture Park
This nonprofit arts center is set in the rolling farmland of the Hudson Valley, about 2.5 hours north of New York City. It’s serene, but not overly serious. Art Omi has dozens of contemporary works dispersed over 120 acres of forests, ponds, and glades, and guests are encouraged to explore in a hands-on manner. One of the newest interactive works is a site-specific concrete bowl conceived for skateboarding. (!) Giant M&M candies and an experimental rotating house will also keep the kids intrigued. Free, www.artomi.org
Besthoff Sculpture Garden
New Orleans, La.
At the Besthoff, part of the New Orleans Museum of Art, kids can soak in three-dimensional shapes as they skip, run, and frolic amongst shady footpaths, floral beds filled with native Louisiana irises, and vast lawns. It was expanded in 2019 to include several dozen new sculptures, including Jeppe Hein’s imaginative Mirror Labyrinth, which feels like a funhouse, skyline and maze all in one. The garden is currently operating at 25% capacity so advanced ticketing is suggested—but also means your visit will be crowd-free. The sculpture garden is also next to City Park, which offers mini-golf, boating on the lake, and an exquisite antique carousel. $5 for adults, free for visitors 19 and under, noma.org
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Children and grownups alike can delight in the oversized proportions and crayon-bright shown against the city skyline at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The fountain sculpture Spoonbridge and Cherry—a 50-foot-long spoon with a luscious bit of fruit on it—serves as the garden’s inventive centerpiece and has become a symbol of the city. There’s also a gigantic blue rooster and a geometric yellow mouse by Claes Oldenburg. Born from a partnership between the Walker Art Center and the local Park and Recreation Board, this garden is a model of how you can unite urban green space with culture. It’s also very easy to get to. Free, walkerart.org
deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum
Set on the shores of Flint’s Pond, just a half hour northwest of Boston, the deCordova’s lush 30-acre grounds are home to modern sculptures and site-specific installations by artists from around the world. Education is a primary mission here—family programming includes birdwatching tours and yoga classes. There’s even a nursery school onsite. Kids shouldn’t miss Lincoln, a grouping of massive steel cylinders piled on like Lincoln Logs and Musical Fence, a beam holding 60 vertical aluminum pipes, cut at varying heights. Compose a melody by running sticks along the pipes in this interactive meeting of sound and sculptural form. The park borders public conservation land with hiking trails and shady groves, so you can tack on a long walk or a picnic. Advance tickets only, $14 per adult, free for children under 12, thetrustees.org
Olympic Sculpture Park
Once an industrial site, this sculpture park combines fabulous sculptures with equally fabulous views of the Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, and Seattle’s cityscape. Operated by the Seattle Art Museum, the permanent collection includes Alexander Calder’s immense The Eagle, 6 tons of red painted steel with soaring curves and spikes that somehow manage to capture the delicacy of an origami bird. When little legs need a rest, they can have a seat on a series of granite Eye Benches—surrealist eyeballs that double as surprisingly comfortable benches. Free, seattleartmuseum.org
The Menil is one of the world’s most formidable private art institutions—yet has a kid-friendly outdoor area. Its sprawling lawn is surrounded by residential bungalows and sturdy oaks, and punctuated by sculptures. There’s only a handful of works, but kids will be impressed by the playground-like quality that a giant jack and vintage red swing bring to the area. Children are also invited to drape themselves across Bygones, a hulking industrial construction of unpainted steel girders. Free, menil.org