This New Jersey Town Is One Giant, Interactive Art Gallery
It doesn't take an art degree to be wowed by 26-foot-tall sculptures.
Art museums are, in theory, excellent places to go learn about art, but they’re not the most accessible to people who… don’t already know a lot about art. They can be intimidating and boring. You can’t look at the artwork from up close. You can’t touch anything. But in Hamilton, New Jersey, you don’t have to visit so sterile an environment as a museum to experience the town’s art—it’ll come to you.
Sculpture work is built into Hamilton’s outdoors everywhere you look, from the I-95 to the main public library. Located a short drive south of Princeton in the section of Jersey whose eye-popping greenery serves as a direct rebuttal to all the smokestack stereotypes that come to outsiders' minds when they think of the Garden State, roadside sculptures dot the highway as you approach the idyllic town.
They appear with increasing, unexpected regularity as you drive through, culminating in the town's coup de grace: a huge, interactive outdoor museum. Dubbed Grounds For Sculpture, the 42-acre garden and arboretum at any given time contains around 400 pieces of contemporary sculpture, all tucked improbably between warehouses in Hamilton’s industrial district on what used to be the New Jersey State Fairgrounds. As such, many of the installations at Grounds For Sculpture are designed for the outdoors. They’re hardier than an artifact in a museum. You can play with them.
“It’s a different experience than your typical museum experience because you can interact with the work,” said George Chevalier, Grounds For Sculpture’s manager of marketing. “You get that reaction [from] actually feeling the texture of the work, getting up close to the stone or to the steel.”
The art is purposefully designed to be interactive and to appeal to people beyond just art buffs. A set of 62 pieces by Bruce Beasley, on display through January 2022, feature some of the artist's most prominent sculptures. During his 60-year career, he's invented new techniques and materials to push the limits of sculpture, transforming the spectrum of human emotions into enormous works of art that'll impress you whether or not you went to art school. Plus, Beasley’s work has had serious influence both in and outside the art realm: his sculptures once helped advance the US Navy’s deep-sea exploration program, and more recently contributed to the development of the first studio-scale 3D printer.
Another upcoming exhibition, on view from May 2022 to January 2023, will display work from ceramicist and activist Roberto Lugo, who takes traditional European and Asian porcelain forms and reimagines them with graffiti and contemporary figures from BIPOC history and culture, including Basquiat and Tupac.
New pieces are added to the permanent collection each year—for example, a 26-foot enlargement of a 1986 piece by deceased artist Dina Wind, whose family worked on the project to memorialize her. “It’s really a monumental piece,” said Chevalier. “I’d say something like that comes around once every year or two and then we’ll see other smaller works rotate throughout the seasons.” The gardens also feature the work of late sculptor and Grounds for Sculpture founder Seward Johnson, whose life-sized (and sometimes larger) statues depict everyday people in the midst of their daily lives.
Grounds For Sculpture’s horticulture team strategically landscapes the gardens so that there are new kinds of sensory stimulation for every season except winter. “We have some really odd specimens that bloom in the fall or early in the spring, when you usually don’t see that much color outside,” Chevalier said. “And scent is really a big component—they’ve chosen certain plants and cultivars that really complete that sense of the visit.” People will come out in the springtime to see the apple blossoms in the orchard. Other flowers will bloom into November.
And you must not leave without a visit to Rat’s Restaurant, located on the grounds and open year-round. The move is to spend the day wandering the Grounds For Sculpture gardens and then head over to Rat’s for a drink and dinner when you’re done. Named for the water vole Ratty from The Wind in the Willows, Rat’s is a blend of traditional and contemporary French style—not just the menu, but the architecture and interior design, too.
“It’s definitely a trip to go in there,” Chevalier said. “It’s a really neat building. And for anyone who gets a chance to head to the kitchen too, that’s kind of wild. Anyone who’s been in a commercial kitchen knows it’s usually a very practical space, but it's actually just as beautiful in the kitchen as it is in the rest of the restaurant.”
The kitchen isn’t technically open to the public, but when you make reservations there’s a special room you can request with a view of everything going on in there behind the scenes. “That’s one of the few ways for the public to get to see it,” Chevalier said.