Fall 2023 issue: Destinations

Nature meets sculpture in a reclaimed setting

by Nancy Parello
Posted 10/1/23

Once the barren remains of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds, today it is a spectacular bouquet of natural and artistic treasures.

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Fall 2023 issue: Destinations

Nature meets sculpture in a reclaimed setting


Once the barren remains of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds, today it is a spectacular bouquet of natural and artistic treasures that harmonize together to stimulate the senses, soothe the soul and nurture reflection.

The brainchild of Seward Johnson, sculptor and philanthropist, Grounds For Sculpture is a 42-acre oasis in Hamilton, N.J., that meticulously and naturally blends a sculpture park, museum and arboretum and welcomes more than three million visitors annually. 

Paved terraces, pergolas and courtyards juxtapose natural woodlands, ponds and bamboo groves. Lawns are framed by sculptured rose-covered berms, while thousands of exotic trees and flowers thrive throughout the grounds. Strategically placed among all this natural beauty are nearly 300 contemporary sculptures, marrying art to nature. 

Visitors are invited to wander the grounds and take in the sculptures, explore rotating exhibitions in six indoor galleries, enjoy performances and lectures from top creative minds and produce their own art in one of the park’s many hands-on workshops.

Seward’s vision was to provide a public place where people from all backgrounds – no matter what age, ethnicity or knowledge of art – could visit to commune with nature and appreciate artistic expression. Opened to the public in 1992, the site has grown into one of New Jersey’s most-visited and cherished cultural destinations. 

And it’s less than an hour’s drive from Chestnut Hill.

When construction began on the site in 1986, it was empty except for three dilapidated exhibition buildings and 15 gnarled maple trees. Today, the grounds are home to more than 2,000 trees, encompassing 100 species and cultivars. In addition to typical nursery stock, many of the rare and unusual trees found around the property were collected from estates and abandoned nurseries or were salvaged from construction sites. 

Take the Fairground Woods section. This area contains some of the oldest, largest trees at Grounds for Sculpture, dating back to the early footprint of the former fairgrounds. Within this grove of trees, visitors can find “Bicycle Beech,’’ a tree estimated to be around 100 years old. 

The name was adopted after a prankster from the early days of the sculpture park thought it would be amusing to carry a bicycle up into one of the trees here. “Bicycle Beech” has since grown around its two-wheeled invader. 

The linden and locust trees in this location were transplanted here over the years and share the space with unusual shrubs, such as Illicium and Pawpaw and other woodland specimens, creating a vision of natural beauty.

The sculpture park, which started on 15 acres with 15 works of art on display, has expanded to 42 acres containing nearly 300 contemporary sculptures, some whimsical, some abstract, and all thought-provoking. More than 700 artists have had their work on display here. The current collection contains sculptures by 150 artists, including founder Seward Johnson. 

Committed to supporting artists in growing through their work, Grounds for Sculpture each year invites artists to create new pieces specifically crafted for the galleries and outdoors.

There are a variety of ways to explore the grounds. 

Visitors are always welcome to create their own experience and wander at will through the park and are invited to touch certain sculptures with care. An interactive map is available at gfsmap.org and can help visitors plan a visit in advance. Paper maps are also available to download at groundsforsculpture.org or at the welcome center.

For those who prefer a guide, various free walking tours are available daily starting at the welcome center, offered on a first-come, first-served basis and led by experienced Grounds for Sculpture docents.

The 45-minute outdoor tour centers on sculpture and explores different facets of the park. Indoor tours of special exhibitions are available across the campus, depending on each exhibition’s schedule and content. The 75-minute HortiSculpture tour explores the relationship between the art and landscape. Led by specially trained docents, the tour delves into the science of individual plants, while guiding participants’ exploration of select works on view.

To sign up for a tour or multiple tours, visit the information desk in the welcome center. 

With its dual commitment to the artistic community and to educating the public, Grounds for Sculpture offers a rich array of engaging and educational programs all year long for all ages. 

Program participants can find inspiration and insight into the artistic process during lectures and meet artists during salons, tours and talks. Hands-on classes and workshops for adults, children and families invite participants to create their own art. Contemporary dance performances, concerts and film viewings are also among the offerings. Some programs require registration; others are free with your paid park admission.

You won’t go hungry while at the park. Although outside food or drink (except water) are prohibited, there are three restaurants on the grounds, including its signature eatery – Rat’s Restaurant. Like the rest of the park, Rat’s is built to blend with the landscape, with spectacular views of the surrounding gardens from both inside and the outdoor patio. 

Named for the cherished character Ratty from the classic children’s storybook The Wind in the Willows, Rat’s Restaurant feels like a cozy French countryside café, serving up everything from soup and sandwiches to roasted duck and braised short ribs. Visitors can start the day here with coffee in the café or enjoy lunch, brunch, happy hour and dinner. Rat’s will even pack a picnic for visitors to enjoy in the park. Reservations are recommended.

Sandwiches and other light fare are also served up at the Van Gogh Café and the Peacock Café. 

Entry to Grounds For Sculpture is by advance timed ticket and capacity is limited. Reservations are strongly suggested. The park is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Visit groundsforsculpture.org or call (609)-586-0616.