By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley
Those looking for a unique cultural experience or just a nice day in the great outdoors might visit the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Here they’ll discover a 37,000-square-foot subtropical Sculpture Garden for socially distanced enjoyment.
The garden was part of a major museum revamp overseen by award-winning architect Lord Norman Foster, the founder and executive chairman of Foster + Partners. He was behind the expansion of the museum and the creation of the garden, which opened in February 2019.
That’s when visitors were welcomed to what once was the museum’s 20,000-square-foot parking lot but now transformed into a verdant sculpture gallery.
“This lush outdoor space has now become the protagonist for the museum and is quintessentially Floridian,” Foster said in an email from his London headquarters.
He felt the garden space was so integral to the museum experience that he wanted it to flow seamlessly from the naturally lit indoor galleries. To ensure success, he worked on the garden himself, making this the first public garden he designed.
From the beginning, the garden was imagined as a subtropical paradise with shape, scale, color, texture and movement as focal points, explains Amber Mathis, the Norton’s former director of horticulture who oversaw the garden’s planting.
But this gallery also displays more temperate elements.
Sweeping lawns are used as gathering places, especially when schoolchildren can visit. Hedges block the view of the surrounding cityscape, enabling visitors to focus on the artwork. And the garden’s axis runs east/west along a path that ushers people past works of art set in natural alcoves and rooms.
“When you look into these alcoves and rooms, you may see a sculpture, but your perception is you don’t know what’s behind its backdrops of foliage. It could be more jungle or it could be a house,” Mathis explains.
This adds an air of mystery and wonder to the garden.
Working with Foster, Mathis understood his desire to immerse the viewer in his design philosophy. It went so far as his creating the benches. They look like they are made from teak but are Sipo Mahogany, or utile, a sustainably sourced wood.
As the garden matured, Mathis discovered that although most of the plantings had flourished, some did not.
To replace them, she selected more natives, so that today about 40% of the species used in the garden are native.
During the creation of the garden, some specimens were moved into new settings on the property — such as the gumbo limbos that came from the parking lot. Other plants were hand-picked from native nurseries or, like the mahoganies, moved from people’s yards on flatbed trucks.
For a good example of how this sculpture garden enhances your experience of the art, take a look at the stainless-steel sculpture titled Six Random Lines Eccentric II, by George Rickey.
Wait for a breeze to propel the steep arms of the statue into a kinetic frenzy. Then look beyond the statue where wind rustles through the thick background foliage to mimic the shape and movement of the sculpture, suggests Mathis.
This effect is created by a wall of plants that not only sways in the breeze but also focuses your attention on the artwork.
In this moving backdrop, there’s an Everglades palm that was already on site but moved to this spot under a stately live oak. The oak along with a nearby mango are older trees originally on the property and never moved.
“The native Everglades palm has extremely slender trunks that move in the wind. When the wind comes through, the sculpture moves and all the trunks move, so the whole space moves. That’s this palm’s contribution to the garden,” says Mathis.
There also are the yellow flowers on the giant leopard japonica, its oversized leaves reminiscent of lily pads. Peperomia provides its dark green leaves as do the lady and needle palms. Meanwhile, the native silver saw palm contributes a silvery shimmer to the moving phalanx.
“Contrasting the art against the lush organic forms of the garden invites contemplation and allows you to experience the art in a whole new context, at your own pace,” architect Foster says.
If You Go...
Where: The Sculpture Garden at the Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach
Information: Norton.org; 561-832-5196
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The first hour of each day is reserved for Norton members and their guests.
COVID-19: The museum requires you to wear a mask and have your temperature taken. For more information, visit the museum’s website.
Admission: Advance, timed-ticket reservations are required and can be scheduled on the museum’s website. Free for residents on Saturdays; always free for members; general admission $18; seniors 60 and older, $15.
Parking: Museum lot, 1501 S. Dixie Highway, $5 per car per day, with revenue funding museum programs. Free for members.
You can reach Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley at email@example.com.