Visiting outdoor sculpture parks is a healthy and enjoyable way to see world-class art minus the enclosing walls of a museum. What could be better than diving into nature, with tree-covered hills, gardens, and all the flora and fauna — along with exercise, inspiration, and social distancing? Here are my favorite sculpture parks within a 2.5-hour drive of New York City.
1. Grounds For Sculpture
Hamilton, New Jersey
Called “charming, whimsical, inspiring,” and “just plain fun,” Grounds for Sculpture is like no other sculpture park I have visited. Popular in every season, this outdoor wonderland is particularly wondrous in autumn, when statues and art pieces are surrounded by foliage exploding with color. This is a place that will delight visitors of all ages, from small children to older folks.
Getting To Grounds For Sculpture
Grounds for Sculpture is about a 1.5-hour drive from New York City (and about 45 minutes from Philadelphia). The train from Penn Station in New York City will take you to Trenton or Hamilton, and then taxis, Ubers, or buses can transport you to the park from there. Check dates and times: Entry to Grounds for Sculpture is by advance timed ticket only, available online. Count on taking 2.5 to 3 hours to see everything and perhaps picnic on the grounds in good weather. Currently no wheelchair tours are available.
Originally part of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds, Grounds for Sculpture was founded in 1992 by artist and philanthropist John Seward Johnson II. His whimsical pieces were inspired by scenes from impressionist painters such as Monet, Matisse, and Renoir, many of which have become interactive art experiences.
Nearly 300 contemporary sculptures dot the landscape across 42 landscaped acres. The collection contains sculptures by 150 artists, including such luminaries as Anthony Caro, Kiki Smith, George Segal, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Isaac Witkin, among others. A favorite work of ours — and of the iPhone photo brigade — is a 25-foot-tall, three-dimensional model of Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic painting.
Editor’s Note: For more on this unique destination, consider Sue Davies and Regina Ang’s 12 Reasons Grounds For Sculpture Is New Jersey’s Best Kept Secret.
Rat’s Restaurant, named for a famed Wind in the Willows character, is a charming (and expensive) restaurant that offers French cuisine and a lovely view of a Monet-inspired garden. Make reservations as far in advance as possible. The casual and moderately-priced Van Gogh Cafe (complete with real peacocks in season) is currently seating and serving outdoors only.
2. Storm King Art Center
Cornwall, New York
Storm King Art Center, one of the leading sculpture parks in the United States, is quite different from Grounds for Sculpture. Spread over about 500 bucolic acres in the south Hudson Valley, Storm King features 100 monumental sculptures by such luminaries as Alexander Calder, Louise Bourgeois, Mark di Suvero, Donald Judd, Maya Lin, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Serra, Louise Nevelson, and others. The grounds cover several different kinds of terrain, from rolling meadows to wooded areas, on gravel, grass, and paved paths. Maya Lin’s famous Storm King Wavefield, a 240,000-square-foot expanse of rolling waves of grass, occupies one area of the park.
Getting To Storm King
Storm King is an hour north of New York City by car, in the town of Cornwall, New York (Note: For GPS purposes, use the address of 1 Museum Road, New Windsor, NY). Metro-North from Grand Central Terminal in New York City has trains to Beacon station, which is about a 30-minute ride to the park via taxi or Uber. Advance tickets are required (and go like hotcakes) for all visitors and are available online; check for changing open days and times. In decent weather, about two to three hours will suffice to see the grounds, although you could easily spend an entire day wandering, sitting, and gazing at the surrounding hills. It is a very peaceful place, even when it is crowded. Note: Trams have not been operating in early 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns.
Wheelchairs are available for use free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis and can be requested from a staff member upon arrival.
3. Art Omi Sculpture And Architecture Park
Ghent, New York
Yes, Storm King is fabulous, but only Art Omi allows visitors to cross-country ski, bring their dogs, or ride a golf cart in the parks. Even better, visiting Art Omi is free, and no tickets are required. It is open all day, every day.
Situated on 120 acres in the Hudson Valley, Art Omi presents about 80 large works of internationally important contemporary artists and architects in an area called The Fields. Plan at least one hour to visit sculptures in all areas of the park, with surprise sculptures tucked away in the woods. There is a downloadable self-guided audio tour (although Wi-Fi reception in the park is not prime, so you might want to wait until you are at the park’s Benenson Center to download).
Because there are no paved walking paths, exploring The Fields means walking up and downhill through and over grassy fields, paths, and footbridges. Make sure that you wear sturdy footwear and weather-appropriate attire, especially in rain or snow.
Omi is 2.5 hours on the Taconic Parkway from New York City, a very scenic drive. There is also a train from Penn Station to the Hudson Amtrak station, with a taxi ride of about 20 minutes from there to Ghent.
The Hudson Valley is prime New York State farmland, so you’ll pass roadside stands with farm-fresh groceries. Visit Love Apple Farm (for apple-picking), Kinderhook Farm (for farm-raised beef, lamb, pork, and eggs), and the Farmer’s Market at the Chatham Berry Farm, for, well, everything. There are scores of rooms, houses, studios, lofts, and farmhouses available on Airbnb in the town of Ghent and environs.
Editor’s Note: For even more Hudson Valley inspiration, consider The Best Things To Do In The Hudson Valley: Where To Eat, Stay, And Play.
4. Opus 40
Saugerties, New York
Opus 40, a sculpture park and museum, is a simply amazing place and space. Herem Harvey Fite, the visionary artist, worked 40 years to create ramps, pools, and fountains from millions of pieces of stone — not to mention a nine-ton monolith emerging from the center of the bedrock. Surrounding the piece is a 6.5-acre park with a lodge, studio, blacksmith shop, and museum.
You have to go about 2.5 hours north of New York City on I-87 to reach Opus 40. Trailways bus service will drop you off about 11 miles from Opus 40 in Kingston, south of the site. From there, you can flag an Uber or taxi.
Due to COVID restrictions, guided tours are only available by registration for groups of five or fewer. Make arrangements by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Wheelchairs and walkers are not permitted on the sculpture, nor is it recommended that those with vision or mobility issues visit without aid.
Places to stay near Opus 40 include the rustic luxury of Barn on the Pond in Saugerties, with space for up to 12 guests; Diamond Mills in Saugerties, with an upscale Tavern featuring all-day meals and a special brunch; and the boutique Herwood Inn in Woodstock. There are also many Airbnb choices.
Editor’s Note: If you make your way to Woodstock, consider these 10 places to visit in the Catskills for a Woodstock weekend getaway.
5. Socrates Sculpture Park
Queens, New York
Close to Manhattan — just a quick ferry ride across the East River — the quirky, inspiring (and free!) Socrates Sculpture Park is in Astoria, Queens (especially known for its great array of Greek restaurants).
Built from an abandoned landfill in 1986, the park is largely populated with works of emerging artists from all over the world. With the Manhattan skyline on the horizon and the Harlem and East Rivers steps away, you can wander amidst the five acres of sculptures there and return again and again since the artwork on display changes regularly. Or, in good weather, you can sunbathe, stroll the gardens, or wander down to the banks and gawk at the view. Socrates is open 365 days a year from 9 a.m. until sundown.
Driving to Socrates is probably the most challenging way to reach the park, especially since there is no local street parking. There is a subway station eight blocks away (the N/W Broadway Station), along with several bus routes, but the easiest and most scenic way to arrive is by NYC Ferry’s Astoria Landing stop, about a five-minute walk from the park.
Make it a full day of great art by taking the two-minute walk south on Vernon Boulevard to visit the Noguchi Museum, which features both indoor and outdoor sculptures by the famous and elegant Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
Another Pro Tip For Those In NYC
If you are staying in New York City, make sure that you make your way to iconic Central Park near the 66th transverse to see the latest sculpture addition: the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument by Meredith Bergmann. It portrays three activists at work: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Installed in August of 2020, it is the first sculpture in the park to honor actual women.