The Grounds For Sculpture (GFS) is one of New Jersey’s best-kept secrets. We have lived in the area for decades and only heard of the GFS about a year ago. When the Grounds For Sculpture invited us to visit, we immediately made plans to go. As soon as we arrived, we saw the first J. Seward Johnson sculpture. It brought a smile to our face. Then at the top of the main building, we looked up to see Frederick Morante’s Nude Descending the Stare Case. It was clear that this was going to be a unique experience.
Note: Our trip was sponsored by the Grounds For Sculpture. All opinions are our own.
42 Acres Of Gardens And Sculptures
Founded by artist and philanthropist J. Seward Johnson, the Grounds For Sculpture opened in 1992 on the former site of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds. Conceived as a museum, sculpture garden, and arboretum, the first exhibition had 15 works on view.
Today, there are more than 300 pieces in the collection. Over nearly three decades, more than 700 artists have had their work displayed across the park.
Why Visit The Grounds For Sculpture?
There are at least 300 reasons to visit the GFS. That’s how many sculptures are usually on view. If you are looking for a family-friendly, outdoor cultural experience, GFS is the place to go. Here are our top 12 reasons to go to the Grounds For Sculpture.
1. Interact With Seward Johnson’s Art
Chances are that you’ve seen Seward Johnson’s work somewhere during your travels. Created in the trompe l’oeil painted bronze style, many of his sculptures were inspired by scenes from impressionist painters such as Monet, Matisse, and Renoir. His works are both whimsical and serious.
Almost every time you turn a corner, you’ll spy something unusual -- a couple lying on the grass under a tree or Winston Churchill working on a painting. Seward Johnson’s sculptures are designed to engage the viewer -- to draw you right into the scene. And they succeed in doing just that.
2. See An Exhibition Of Internationally Renowned Sculptors
GFS mounts exhibitions of some of the most important contemporary sculptors, including George Segal, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Bruce Beasley, Isaac Witkin, Beverly Pepper, and many others. The site-specific installations give a different perspective to the art. The playful Seward Johnson pieces interspersed among them change what could be an intimidating experience into a playful one.
3. Enjoy All Seasons At The GFS
The GFS is open all year round, and each season reveals another treat. In the spring and early summer, there are wildflowers. In the fall, the changing leaves bring another experience. In the winter, yet another view. In fact, we’d recommend going regularly to experience the gardens during all four seasons.
4. Take A Night Tour Of GFS
A nighttime tour of GFS is a special experience. Best in the fall, as the evening comes earlier, the sculptures are illuminated by lights (and your flashlight). It is yet another way to see the sculptures. In addition, there are many different types of daytime tours. Make sure to check in advance about availability (some tours are not currently being offered at this time).
5. Explore The Gardens
In the late 1980s, the area that was to become the GFS was an abandoned fairground with buildings in disrepair, lots of rubble, and a barren landscape. GFS started with only 15 maple trees. Through the years, much planning has gone into cultivating the park as an evolving landscape.
Today you will find an orchard with crab apple trees, magnolias, spruces, elm, cherry, pine, and many others. Trees, flowers, and shrubs were thoughtfully planted, providing shade, and incorporating the sculptures as part of the natural designs. Explore a free interactive map and take a self-guided tree tour. As you walk, you will come across meadows with wildflowers and butterflies, ponds with koi, sculptures, boats, and reflecting pools.
6. Spend Time Contemplating In The Sculpture Court
Once the site of horse and car racing, the Sculpture Court is a lovely spot to take a break. You can sit with a view of The Nine Muses by Carlos Dorrien. As you wander further through the curated outdoor “rooms,” you’ll enjoy discovering more sculptures. Do not miss the reflecting pool with Bruce Beasley’s Dorion -- a huge stainless steel sculpture measuring more than 20 feet by 30 feet wide. Walk into another room, and you will be surprised by George Segal’s Depression Breadline.
7. Take a Picture With The ‘God Bless America’ Sculpture
American Gothic by Grant Wood is a very evocative portrait of a farmer with a pitchfork beside his daughter. Now, picture a 25-foot-tall, three-dimensional version of the painting, and you get Seward Johnson’s God Bless America sculpture. Taking a photo in the scene is irresistible and a wonderful way to interact with contemporary sculpture and art.
8. Enjoy The Sunset In The Meadow
Make sure to save some time to visit the meadow. In the spring and early summer, you’ll see the sculptures set amongst the wildflowers. For a great sunset view, visit Seward Johnson’s Daydream sculpture (inspired by Matisse’s The Dance). The sun sets right behind the sculpture and will be reflected in the pond. A short walk will bring you to Ex-halations by Linda Fleming. The bed, made of steel and aluminum, looks inviting, but not too comfortable. Don’t miss The Awakening by Seward Johnson -- it’s on the walk through the meadows.
9. Introduce Children And Young People To Contemporary Sculpture
By creating a non-intimidating space for exploration and interaction with contemporary sculpture, GFS has become an ideal place to introduce children and young people to contemporary art. GFS offers many tours, workshops, and other family-friendly activities. For younger children, the ArtBox workshop encourages creativity in drawing and storytelling.
10. Dine In An Exquisite Setting
Rat’s, an award-winning restaurant, is just next door to the park. Like the grounds, you will come across some of Seward Johnson’s lifelike sculptures -- a charming couple walking under an umbrella, a woman hanging out of her apartment window, a pair of businessmen continuing their discussion after lunch, and more.
Ask for a table on the patio, and you will sit next to Rat’s pond with the perfect view of Monet’s bridge. Instead of water lilies, you will see koi and sculptures in the middle of the pond. Reservations are required for dining at Rat’s. Usually, you can walk through the grounds from GFS to Rats, but that is not possible now. For the time being, you have to leave GFS to get to Rats and cannot return to GFS.
11. Grab A Quick Bite At The Van Gogh Cafe
If you don’t have time for a sit-down meal, grab a sandwich from Van Gogh’s cafe and find a bench anywhere in the park. Or sit by the pond and enjoy watching as Van Gogh paints A Turn of the Century, a larger-than-life-sized dancing couple inspired by Renoir. There are many opportunities throughout the park to have a picnic and even blend in with some of the more whimsical sculptures.
12. Use All Your Senses To Experience Art
With so many interesting sculptures on view, it can be tempting to try to see them all. Since there are 300 sculptures on view, that is not possible. We recommend slowing down to savor the experience. Notice the surroundings with each piece of art. See them from all directions. Feel the breeze and smell the flowers -- let that change how you see.
- The Grounds For Sculpture is located in Hamilton Township, not far from Princeton and Trenton. Since it is just over an hour by car from New York City and Philadelphia, it can be a day trip from either city. While it is easiest to reach by car, public transportation is an option from both cities.
- Bring water and sunscreen as you will be outdoors for many hours.
- Most of the paths are paved and easy to walk. There are many benches for sitting.
- The GFS has a commitment to being accessible. Access Mobile tours use ADA-rated vehicles and can accommodate wheelchairs. In addition, wheelchairs are available for rental on a first-come, first-served basis. GFS offers Touch Tours for visually impaired visitors. Call ahead to confirm availability when you are visiting. (Due to COVID, there are no wheelchairs for rent or tours being operated at this time.)
- Make sure to reserve your ticket in advance.
- We recommend downloading the interactive map for the grounds prior to arrival.
The Grounds For Sculpture is a delight for all, whether you are a sculpture aficionado, garden lover, or just want to spend the day exploring an unusual place. Enjoy one of the best-kept secrets in the Garden State.