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Taking the Museum Experience Outdoors

This article is part of our latest special section on Museums, which focuses on new artists, new audiences and new ways of thinking about exhibitions.


A full moon backlit the colorful towers at Grounds for Sculpture on a recent evening, as families, small groups and couples strolled through the 42-acre contemporary art museum and sculpture park in Hamilton, N.J. Rounding the park’s guided loop, the visitors — many first timers to the institution outside Trenton — stopped to gawk at each light and sound installation, whipping out cameras and smartphones to take pictures along the way.

For most museums, it was after hours, but at Grounds for Sculpture the event had just started. The show, “Night Forms: dreamloop by Klip Collective,” a multisensory exhibit with a dozen works featuring sound design, lighting and projection mapping onto the garden’s sculptures, had opened at sunset. It would not close until 11 p.m.

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“Night Forms” is the first exhibit of a two-year series that offers the public a chance to enjoy interactive art in the evening, when Grounds for Sculpture was usually closed to visitors. The series will showcase the works of artists from around the world, built around the existing sculptures in the museum’s outdoor gardens.

Founded by the artist Ricardo Rivera, “Night Forms,” which includes nearly a dozen artists, is a collaboration with the Philadelphia-based Klip Collective, a studio that uses lighting, sound and design in its works. The next iteration of the program will open in the fall, museum officials said.

The nighttime show is a new initiative for the 30-year-old institution, driven by both pandemic concerns and the need to innovate to bring crowds back to the space.

“We wanted to drive attendance during winter because we knew, with the ongoing pandemic, that many people are hesitant about indoor activities,” said Gary Garrido Schneider, the museum’s director.

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“Night Forms” is one example of the outdoor programming that museums around the United States have introduced to attract audiences and meet the health and safety concerns that have kept many visitors away during the last two years.

While many cultural institutions have added virtual programs like online tours and lectures to satisfy the needs of their supporters, some, such as Grounds for Sculpture, are enhancing activities beyond the traditional four walls and standard museum hours. Initiatives include exhibits and diverse activities like nature walks, yoga classes and bike rides off museum grounds.

“The outdoors is giving museums a new way to tell their stories,” said Andrew J. Saluti, an assistant professor and program coordinator of museum studies at Syracuse University. “It’s become a medium to engage the community as well as global audiences.”

Because the programs launched on this broadened canvas are popular, they “are here to stay,” he said. “They’re a permanent part of the tool kit that museums will use to stay relevant.”

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Mr. Saluti added that outdoor programming could also bring in revenue to keep museums afloat. “Small museums or ones with limited or no endowments have taken a financial hit in the last two years, so they need funds to stay open,” he said.

At Grounds for Sculpture, which charges up to $20 for museum entry and up to $28 for “after sunset” entry to the gardens, the first nighttime exhibit was deemed a success. While the institution had as many visitors in 2021 — 250,000 — as it had before the Covid-19 epidemic hit in early 2020, “Night Forms,” which opened at the end of November and closed last month, drew 40,000 more visitors on its own, with 55 percent first-time visitors, museum officials said.

The Erie Canal Museum took a different tack. Founded in 1962 in downtown Syracuse, N.Y., and dedicated to the history of its namesake, it has limited outdoor space to offer on-site activities. So its head educator, Derrick Pratt, launched historical walking tours of Syracuse in 2020.

Last summer, he broadened the museum’s programming even more, offering a series called “Beers, Bikes and Barges” that involved partnerships with other organizations between Albany and Buffalo that have a connection to the Erie Canal.

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After the bike ride, which lasted more than an hour, participants were able to hang out together at — where else? — a local brewery. Each excursion cost $20, and most sold out soon after tickets went on sale.

In Buffalo, the museum collaborated with the Buffalo Maritime Center and the nonprofit biking group Slow Roll Buffalo for a two-hour ride along the Empire State Trail.

“There is no question that the rides have helped us financially,” Mr. Pratt said. “Truthfully, we would have had a hard time maintaining the museum as it was without the extra money.”

Beyond that, “they’ve also reminded people that we exist,” Mr. Pratt said, “and brought those out who have been hesitant about going into indoor public spaces.”

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For Charles Whitfield, a retired engineer who lives in a Rochester suburb, the rides were a way to re-engage with the museum, where he and his wife have been members for several years.

“We love museums in general, but we stopped going because of Covid,” he said. “The rides got me involved again and also let me indulge my love for beers and biking.” He said he attended every one of the eight rides in 2021 (seven are scheduled for this year).

Turning to the outdoors isn’t necessarily a novel concept for museums, said Lisa D. Freiman, a curator and professor of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Arts. “These programs existed before the pandemic but to a lesser degree,” she said. “Covid has accelerated them to another level.”

Case in point: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Ark. Founded by the philanthropist and arts patron Alice Walton, the museum is home to a collection of five centuries of American art. Set within 120 acres of Ozark Forest with five miles of trails, it already offered nature walks, concerts on its expansive main lawn and sculptures throughout the grounds by renowned artists such as Louise Bourgeois and James Turrell.

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This lineup has significantly increased over the last two years, said its executive director, Rod Bigelow. Additions include free weekly hourlong vinyasa yoga classes on the lawn, more nature walks, bird watching tours and weekly summer concerts featuring regional musicians.

The activities attracted more than 500,000 visitors to the outdoor areas of Crystal Bridges in 2021, a record high, he said. And, Mr. Bigelow said, the museum broke ground in March for a four-year project that includes gardens, fountains, gathering areas and a boardwalk.

“This is an initiative that was borne out of the pandemic,” he said. “When we saw how much our outdoor programs resonated with people, we were motivated to do even more.”

Even places with warmer climates are doing more with their outdoor space. The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., for example, introduced “Summer at the Norton” last year, which drew 17,500 people. The series included events for adults, as well as for families with young children, such as a kite-making workshop, storytelling, chess sessions, pétanque and other garden games and tours

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“We had never done anything this extensive outdoors before, but it became a necessity during Covid,” said Ghislain d’Humières, the museum’s director. “Our plan is to increase the options this summer and use the outside as a regular venue.”

The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth is launching a multiyear outdoor installation program this spring. The curator who conceived the idea, Maggie Adler, said that the pandemic inspired her to create open-air exhibitions that would be as attractive as what was in the museum.

“We had an extensive amount of unused exterior areas and lawns,” she said. “Our perfect setting was already there.”

Debuting on May 7 is “Testament,” a bronze obelisk by the Texas-based artist Darryl Lauster that’s inscribed with excerpts from pop and historical works from the United States.

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In June, the artist Justin Ginsburg, also from Texas, will create a glass sculptural work on the lawn. Admission is free.

At Grounds for Sculpture, the mild-March night drew a stream of visitors, with some completing the “Night Forms” loop twice. Sitting outdoors at the cafe and relaxing over coffees, fresh-pressed lemonade and sweets, they talked, laughed and watched as children played.

The museum said it hopes to draw similar crowds when “Night Forms 2,” as the next iteration is loosely called, opens.

“Not only are we open, but we’re thriving,” Mr. Schneider said.

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