Combing picturesque settings with contemplative works of art, sculpture parks and bucolic galleries are emerging as a new force in the art world.
OUR CITIES ARE BRIGHTER than ever thanks to a global influx of sculpture, graffiti and other public art, but increasingly we are choosing to brighten our souls by leaving the urban sprawl behind to blend the restorative powers of art and nature.
It’s a combination that has a long history. We have sculpted our gardens to look like paintings for centuries, and we’ve been adding aesthetic delights to our natural surroundings for as long as humans have been human. The growing trend is an accentuation of both these activities – immersive experiences of art beyond the white cube.
Perhaps the best example of this art-meets-nature ethos is the ever-evolving Benesse Art Site Naoshima, a sprawling museum-cum-contemplation complex spread across three diminutive Japanese islands, Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima. Displaying its first permanent sculpture in the 1989, the extraordinary locale has harnessed the architectural acumen of Tadao Ando, among others, to craft an environment that aims more explicitly than anywhere else on Earth to facilitate the connection between man-made beauty and natural splendour.
A similar principle is at work at Segera Retreat, the conservation and safari park in Kenya opened by Jochen Zeitz in 2013, several years prior his Museum of Contemporary African Art in Cape Town. With site-specific commissions as well as changing displays by contemporary African artists, it is a place, says Zeitz, where “we have installed the art…to allow for very personal experiences – moments of surprise and moments of intimacy. We want our guests to become immersed in both the landscape and the art and the relationship between the two.”
The rolling, bucolic landscapes of the British countryside are equally well suited for intimate moments – and the wildlife is considerably less fearsome – creating a natural home for places like the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a haven for three-dimensional art which, as director Peter Murray says, “was actually quite controversial” when it opened 40 years ago. “We were the UK’s first sculpture park,” he notes, and now it is “one of the largest open-air galleries in Europe”, spanning more than 200 hectares and welcoming a new £3.8m visitor centre this year, to be followed soon by a plush hotel in the stately home at the heart of the property. Jupiter Artland, in Scotland, is another established destination, marking its first decade this year with permanent on-site commissions by artists Phyllida Barlow and Joana Vasconcelos. Head of Exhibitions John Heffernan says the that the outdoors are not just good for patrons: “We find that artists love the challenge of working alongside nature, to enhance an already beautiful space, rather than inside a gallery, so there is some really exciting work being produced.”
The pastoral ambiance is not entirely free of commercialism: Cass Sculpture Foundation, set an hour southwest of London, has an expansive sculpture garden with works both for sale and on permanent display, while the nearby New Art Centre at Roche Court combines an large sculpture park with a gallery that houses up to 10 selling exhibitions per year. To the west, Messums Wiltshire is the recently opened offspring of Messum’s in London, a renowned Mayfair showroom, which director Johnny Messum says has become a sort of pilgrimage site for urban-based clients: “Coming to Messums Wiltshire is an experience…set in an ancient landscape once owned by one of the greatest collectors, William Beckford.” A little farther west still, Hauser + Wirth Somerset is the first of the global powerhouse galleries to open a space outside a major metropolitan area, with artist residencies and opportunities for interested clients to stay overnight in a renovated farmhouse. It is truly a new model of experiencing and collecting art.
In France, Domaine du Muy has prime selling position, situated between Monaco and Marseille and featuring an impossibly diverse range of sculptures for sale, including works by Claude Lalanne and Yayoi Kusama. Started by gallerist Jean-Gabriel Mitterand, nephew of the former French president, and his son Edward, the four-hectare spread began drawing visitors in 2015 and emerged last year as one of Europe’s leading sculpture showcases.
Southern France is also home to two of the premier non-selling art parks in Europe. The Maeght Foundation in St Paul de Vence accentuates a museum-quality selection of modern paintings with a sculpture garden that features pieces created in-situ by Georges Braque and Joan Miró as well as others by Alberto Giacometti and Alexander Calder. An hour away, in particularly picturesque slice of Provence, Chateau La Coste began with superlative wines, then added site-specific art installations by Ai Weiwei, Tracey Emin and others, a building by Tadao Ando, and now an exquisitely charming hotel – whose message matches the farmhouse at Hauser + Wirth and the luxe refuge under development in Yorkshire: come to escape the city; stay to enjoy the art.
There are other idyllic vineyards with ample aesthetic bounty – in Italy, both Castello di Ama and Ceretto have significant artistic programmes, while the five-month-old Point Leo Estate in Australia is aiming for an international profile with its sculpture garden – but some projects in less traditionally celebrated environs have risen to extraordinary heights as well. Las Pozas, for instance, was created by Englishman Edward James over nearly four decades, starting in 1949, in the Huastecan jungle of Mexico as a 32ha, out-of-this-world sculpture park that he considered a “Surrealist Xanadu” and remains open today. In the Brazilian tropics, meanwhile, Inhotim displays first-rate contemporary sculpture amid a botanical garden of extraordinary diversity.
Not quite so verdant but much easier to reach, the hills and plains north of New York City are home to two of the globe’s most prominent displays: Storm King Art Center boasts more than 100 sculptures in the Hudson Valley, while the PepsiCo Sculpture Gardens until recently bore the name of firm’s former CEO Donald Kendall, who spearheaded the sprawling collection, set just north of the city.
The landscape across the country, the barren wastelands of west Texas, couldn’t be more different, but it was here in the 1970s that American artist Donald Judd set up a makeshift creative colony, in a small town called Marfa, which remains vibrant today, largely centred around Judd’s Chinati Foundation. It is a landscape where works of monumental scale make sense and those of a contemplative turn are allowed space to breathe – a perspective that is proven true by Seven Magic Mountains, a compelling technicolor monument in the equally desiccated desert plains south of Las Vegas by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone.
Even more out of the way, Gibbs Farm, on New Zealand’s North Island, represents a profound connection between land and art. Owner Alan Gibbs has given an open brief to global artists ranging from Anish Kapoor to Richard Serra to create whatever their vision compels them to make – all financed by Gibbs himself and on-going for the foreseeable future. It is a potent antidote to the increasingly business-like world of urban art and a serene setting in which to contemplate nature’s beauty and our own feeble, wonderful, sublime creations.