New Orleans Museum of Art Unveils 6.5-Acre Sculpture Garden Expansion

Landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand faced multiple challenges in designing the expansion, which occupies a site damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
New Orleans art Museum Sculpture Garden Expansion

The new sculpture pavilion, with Frank Stella’s Alu Truss Star, 2016 Courtesy Richard Sexton

The New Orleans Museum of Art’s Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden had only been open for two years when, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated The Big Easy. The sculptures survived the hurricane, but the garden, located inside the 1,300-acre New Orleans City Park, was severely damaged along with the rest of the park, which languished under one to eight feet of water for nearly four weeks. Though the site reopened in 2007, its adjacent land remained battered and unmaintained. Fast forward to 2017, when City Park leased 6.5 acres of underutilized and damaged property to the museum for a hundred years. (The lease to the art museum is part of a wider City Park revival project, which includes a new Louisiana Children’s Museum, slated to open in September.) Repairing the expansion site and connecting it to the existing garden would be no small feat. “We were thrilled to be offered this massive site trust; however, we faced issues surrounding drainage and accessibility after Katrina,” says museum director Susan Taylor, who oversaw the ambitious expansion project with Cambridge, Massachusetts–based landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand.

The biggest challenge, Taylor tells Metropolis, was connecting the existing garden and the expansion, as a lagoon had separated the two areas. The Reed Hilderbrand team offered an innovative solution, opting to carve a “canal walk”—a sunken concrete walkway that traverses the water—to bridge the expansion and existing garden.

New Orleans art Museum Sculpture Garden Expansion

Pedestrian walkway, with Katharina Fritsch’s Schädel/Skull, 2018 and in the background, Fred Wilson, The Mete of the Muse, 2006 Courtesy Richard Sexton

The lagoon area underwent some additional landscaping to make way for a new exhibition pavilion and to create several small islands dotted with cypress trees. Among the works displayed outdoors is Katharina Fritsch’s Schädel (2018), a massive bronze replica of a human skull, which perches by the lagoon bank. “It was our intention to create landscape as a work of art in its own right, and to build a sculpture garden that doesn’t distract the visitors from art with a cluster of bridges, paths, or dams,” notes Doug Reed of Reed Hilderbrand, which has previously worked with other art institutions, such as Parrish Art Museum and Clark Art Institute. “The landscape design is in delicate conversation with location, acquisition, and commission of each sculpture.”

Restoring wildlife habitat was also an objective. The architects built a system of swales that help drain and direct rainwater from the park to the lagoon—infrastructure that will help to both clean the incoming water and generate new habitats for wetland species. Taylor says she anticipates a growth in local wildlife activity in the upcoming months. Still, for all its sensitivity to landscape, the art remains a focus. Taylor underlines the deliberate curatorial decisions made to enhance the works’ harmony with the landscape. Take, for example, two new works in the expansion: Shirazeh Houshiary’s Exuviae (2016–17) and Larry Bell’s Pacific Red VI (2016–17) are positioned to overlook the lagoon through an open vista—an arrangement that helps the pink and purple glass sculptures blend into the greens that predominate. The expansion also hosts three new site-specific commissions by artists Teresita Fernández, Maya Lin, and Elyn Zimmerman, who were invited to create work that responds to natural and historic textures of New Orleans and the broader Louisiana region.

New Orleans art Museum Sculpture Garden Expansion

Shirazeh Houshiary, Exuviae, 2016-17 Courtesy Richard Sexton

Of the many new installations, Zimmerman’s Mississippi Meanders (2019), perhaps best merges art with function. There, winding lines of color run the span of a glass bridge, their twists and loops meant to recall 20th century military cartographer Harold Fisk’s maps of the Mississippi, which recorded the evolution of the river over thousands of years. The 70-foot-tall bridge also connects the garden’s North Lawn to a new indoor sculpture pavilion designed by local firm Lee Ledbetter & Associates. The massive wall outside the pavilion’s entrance features Fernández’s impressive mural Viñales (Mayombe Mississippi) (2019), an expanse of blue, green, and brown ceramic tile. With the mural, the Cuban-American Fernández, who will be the subject of a survey at the New Orleans Museum of Art next year, depicts a massive malachite mineral rock in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. The image of the rock weaves together a tapestry of cultural, geographical, and historical threads between Africa, Cuba, and New Orleans, and builds “stacked landscapes” made from millions of hand-glazed porcelain tesserae, according to the artist’s statement.

Inside the pavilion, Lin’s installation Folding the Mississippi (1938) (2019) replicates the Mississippi River with marble glass balls that wind across the wall and through the ceiling, evoking the river’s serpentine journey through the United States. An avid advocate of sustainability and increasing awareness of issues surrounding climate change, Lin emphasizes the natural course of nature. “Water wants to flow, and I’d like to emphasize its natural run, not letting the interior of the space affect the work,” Lin tells Metropolis. “Because the other side of me is an architect, I want to be site specific, but I don’t want to be too manipulated by the architecture.”

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Categories: Landscape