History

Font Size: AAA

In 1984, J. Seward Johnson, sculptor and philanthropist, envisioned a public sculpture garden and museum in Hamilton, NJ. His desire was to make contemporary sculpture accessible and offer people from all backgrounds the opportunity to become comfortable with contemporary art. Grounds For Sculpture was conceived as a place where audiences could experience sculpture in a familiar, accessible, and informal setting.

Construction on the sculpture park began in 1989 on the site of the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds; Grounds For Sculpture opened to the general public in 1992. Since its inception, the park is now exhibiting over 270 works, including sculptures by renowned artists Clement Meadmore, Anthony Caro, Beverly Pepper, Kiki Smith, and New Jersey sculptor George Segal. Some of the works were commissioned specifically for the sculpture park, such as Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Space of Stone and New Jersey artist Isaac Witkin’s Garden State. Work on the park and sculpture acquisitions were financed by public tax-exempt bonds and private foundations associated with founder J. Seward Johnson.

Since 2000, Grounds For Sculpture is a public not-for-profit corporation with a Board of Trustees overseeing the successful operation of the sculpture park and museum. As a not-for-profit and public institution, Grounds For Sculpture relies on the support of visitors, art patrons, donations and grants to offer its rich programs and activities each year.

OUR FOUNDER

SEWARD JOHNSON

ARTIST. PHILANTHROPIST. SINGER OF SHOW TUNES. VISIONARY.

Seward Johnson’s impact on the world of sculpture has not been limited to his personal artwork, and includes the founding of The Johnson Atelier and the founding of the spectacular Grounds For Sculpture.

When Seward Johnson first started looking at the property adjacent to his Johnson Atelier Technical Institute of Sculpture, it was little more than rubble and weeds. In conversation with close friends and fellow artists, Herk Van Tongeren and Isaac Witkin, Johnson wondered if it might be possible to create a place to exhibit some of the art that was being created at the Atelier, as well as provide additional work space for artists. Soon, the idea began to take root. As Johnson recalls in A Living Legacy, “Little did we know that we were laying the groundwork for, and about to jump feet first into, a huge new project that would take all of us further into the world of sculpture than any of us had been before.”

For many, the potential of the barren landscape might have been difficult to picture, but Johnson had vision. He could see, and was ready to throw himself wholeheartedly into, realizing his dream. Over the years, with a keen eye, courage, and the help of some equally enthusiastic partners, Johnson began to build GFS. The collection grew, the property expanded, and the landscape started to take shape. All the while, people remained at the fore of Johnson’s vision, and countless stories speak to his generosity and playful sense of humor.

Quoting Picasso, Johnson has described GFS as a place meant to “wash away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” His commitment to creating an environment where all would be welcome and encouraged to develop more intimate relationships with art and nature has forever changed not only the grounds we stand upon, but also the cultural landscape of our region. Inducted in 2014 into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, the artist regularly adds works to all of his series, and invents intriguing new chapters of his oeuvre. At 87, Seward Johnson continues to create increasingly memorable works for the public realm.

 

OUR FOUNDING TEAM

BROOKE BARRIE

ARTIST. CURATOR. DIRECTOR. COMMUNITY BUILDER.

Brooke Barrie (1956-2015) had spent over a decade working as The Johnson Atelier’s Academic Director when she was named GFS’ first Curator and Director in 1992. In the fifteen years that followed, she oversaw the artistic development of the park, working with Seward Johnson to expand the collection outdoors while also focusing on engaging a diverse and impressive range of creative voices through indoor exhibitions. Many of the artworks acquired for the collection between the years of 1995 and 2006 were identified through these efforts, including sculpture by Magdalena Abakanowicz, Clement Meadmore, George Sugarman, and more.

As GFS began to shift its operating structure, becoming a public not-for-profit organization in 2000, Barrie was particularly adept at brokering deals to support the creation of new works by artists, contracting The Johnson Atelier to complete their fabrication, and using these opportunities to further grow the collection. GFS gained a reputation as a haven for sculptors, and this was in no small part due to Barrie’s dedication and the quality of experience she and her staff created for artists and visitors alike.

Like many of the individuals who have worked at GFS over the years, Barrie was also an artist in her own right. Her work Mary, on view in the garden, captures a figure in repose and is made with ribbon-like strips of bronze. In 2016, The Brooke Barrie Art Fund was created to honor Barrie’s legacy, supporting the conservation and acquisition of artwork, along with exhibition development. In this way, GFS carries on the work that Barrie started, and her name continues to be linked to our artistic growth.

BRIAN CAREY

ARCHITECTURAL AND LANDSCAPE DESIGNER. OBJECT MAKER. HORTICULTURE LOVER.

In 1985, three architecture firms were invited to create designs for the future GFS as part of a competitive process to find the right architect for the project. Two of the firms were based in nearby Princeton. The third was run by Brian Carey (AC/BC Associates), an architect and restaurateur from New York who had experience working at The Johnson Atelier on his own small sculpture projects. This connection to the site proved to be a critical advantage. As Carey says, “It started when Herk Van Tongeren, the Atelier’s director, invited me to enter a site plan competition, which surprisingly I won. I’ve been there moving and adding buildings, shoveling dirt, and planting trees ever since.”

Like Seward Johnson, Carey saw the grounds’ inherent potential, and the idea to utilize its existing buildings was an especially important component of his proposal for the park. While Carey’s plans initially focused on GFS’ architectural elements, he expanded his focus to include landscape design, seeing the structures and the land and living things surrounding them as strongly connected. Carey and GFS Project Manager Bruce Daniels worked tirelessly over many years to turn the abandoned environment into the lush and dynamic oasis it is today.

Grounds For Sculpture was honored in 2011 as one of the “150 best buildings” in New Jersey by the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which described it as “one of the most intriguing and provocative sites” in the state. Carey has also designed several healing gardens for the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Jersey.  He has served on the board of Metro Hort Group and the Queens Botanical Garden, where he currently is a member of the Advisory Committee and Horticultural Committee.

BRUCE DANIELS

PLANNER. PROBLEM SOLVER. PROJECT MANAGER. ARCHIVIST.

If GFS had a resident historian, Bruce Daniels would be it. His thorough documentation of the evolution of the grounds has resulted in a vast archival collection. However, this title would not begin to convey the magnitude of his contributions as a founding team member, which began when he accepted the challenge to shepherd the process of transforming twelve flat and nearly treeless acres of land into Seward Johnson’s resplendent vision. In 1984, while working as the newly hired property supervisor for the Atlantic Foundation helmed by Johnson, Daniels was asked to secure some recently purchased property. It was a place he had visited twice before, when the grounds were home to The New Jersey State Fair, but this third encounter was different.

“In 1984, when I was hired by Seward Johnson, I was a graduate student in Sociology waiting for a counseling position to open up. I took what I thought was going to be an interim job as the Property Supervisor of the Atlantic Foundation, and my first major assignment was to secure and stabilize the Fairgrounds property. Grounds For Sculpture held its inaugural exhibition and opened to the public in the spring of 1992. I have spent the subsequent 25 years acting as Project Manager and Facilities Director of the park as it evolved over time. And it really has been an extraordinary evolutionary process. Everything I know about building construction, landscape development, and sculpture installations, I learned on the job, and it has been an amazingly unexpected and wonderful career. ”