DMA Insight

The DMA Sculpture Garden

The following is an essay by Dr. Steven A. Nash, Founding Director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, and former DMA Chief Curator/Assistant Director (1980-82); Deputy Director (1982-1987); and Acting Director (1987-1988), excerpted from the 2003 publication Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years.

It has always seemed to me that the most inviting and beautiful entrance to the Dallas Museum of Art is through the portal to its Sculpture Garden, along the front of the building on Ross Avenue. From a busy and not-all-that-attractive urban thoroughfare, one glimpses through a vine-covered gate a quiet and secluded precinct in which art and nature happily merge. A long wall with water cascading briskly down its rippled face dominates the view and forms an impressive backdrop for a work of sculpture-at different times an Auguste Rodin, an Aristide Maillol, or perhaps a Henry Moore-placed in front of it to one side. Over the wall are seen the tops of trees that stand farther into the garden. One's senses are simultaneously awakened and refreshed by this framed mise-en-scene.

The sculpture garden as a genre of museum design and function has proliferated rapidly over the past decade. Any new museum project or expansion runs the risk of appearing inadequate without an outdoor space for sculpture or site-specific works, even if the museum's collection of such works hardly warrants the effort or expense. These spaces take a wide variety of shapes and forms, but within the genre, the Dallas Museum of Art's Sculpture Garden is distinctive. Its signature is the balanced interplay it offers between formal ordered spaces and organic materials, hard edges and soft surfaces, stone and brick against water and greenery. This strong theme is immediately felt upon entering from any of its three gateways or looking into the garden from perspectives inside the Museum. The fact that it has successfully stood the test of time since the Museum building opened in 1984 speaks well of the collaborative skills of architect Edward Larrabee Barnes and landscape designer Dan Kiley.

In the early stages of his work on the new Dallas Museum of Art, Barnes conceived and drew several different schemes for an outdoor sculpture garden set into the footprint of the building at its southeast corner, contiguous with the dramatically vaulted galleries for contemporary art to the north, and a wing for temporary exhibitions and a restaurant to the east. Bounded by the walls of the building and its own limestone walls, the garden needed to be a space where, as Barnes put it in our recent phone conversation, "visitors could circulate without necessarily entering the building, but also could see it from inside the building and find it hard to resist." Barnes had collaborated before with the distinguished landscape designer Dan Kiley and greatly admired his work. He personally brought Kiley into the project, with the approval of Museum Director Harry Parker and the Building Committee.

Just a couple of years before, Barnes had created a sculpture garden at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis whose key feature was a series of outdoor galleries defined by tall hedges. For Dallas, Barnes and Kiley opted for a succession of viewing spaces organized by the garden's periphery walls, freestanding water walls, and geometrically laid-out green spaces with thick ground cover and oak trees. Narrow canals or waterways link the water walls with a reflecting pool and further demarcate the garden's zones. Each zone is generously proportioned to allow flexibility in the installation of outdo or sculptures and has a variety of backgrounds and viewing angles. The horizontal surfaces of stone and brick provide solid support for objects without the need for bases or footings. Successive spaces are linked visually, creating a graceful flow of circulation from one to another. In Dallas's sweltering summers, the waterways, plantings, and refreshing sound of the water walls help mitigate the heat, if only psychologically.

Especially due to the strong architectural quality of the garden, for it to realize its full potential it must be amply installed with major large scale works that can hold their own in the structured environment, an ideal yet to be achieved by the Dallas Museum of Art. A beautiful stainless steel "Rocker" piece by Ellsworth Kelly [1983.56], commissioned for the garden when it first opened, commands pride of place. Other strong works by Henry Moore, Richard Serra, Barbara Hepworth, Aristide Maillol, Tony Smith, David Smith, and Scott Burton provide a foundation for further collecting. Two temporary exhibitions with large components installed in the garden - A Century of Sculpture: The Patsy and Raymond Nasher Collection in 1987 and Henry Moore: Sculpting the 20th Century in 2001 - provided the abundance of powerful masterworks necessary to truly bring the garden to life. Both exhibitions stimulated the Museum to collect further in this area. In 2003 another major sculpture garden will join the Dallas Arts District. The Nasher Sculpture Center, located adjacent to the Dallas Museum of Art, will include indoor galleries and a large walled-in park. Together these two gardens help make outdoor sculpture a theme and focus for the cultural life of the city, attracting worldwide attention and showing the best, most ambitious work done for the out-of-doors.

Excerpt from

Steven A. Nash, “The Dallas Museum of Art Sculpture Garden,” in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years , ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 50.

Fun Facts

  • The DMA Sculpture Garden is 1.2 acres.

  • Two works were commissioned especially for the garden, Ellsworth Kelly’s Untitled [1983.56] and Scott Burton’s Granite Settee [1983.55.a-f].

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