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Outdoor socializing has become the new norm around the country and as Covid-19 overstays its ‘welcome’ families and friends look for new ways to get together safely. Outdoor museums, sculpture gardens and botanical gardens are fun for all and most are open year round. Some of these open-air museums have a small indoor component, but most of these, either near NYC or around the country, let you enjoy works of art outside.
Although I missed indoor museums when the coronavirus shut down most of NYC, I have only headed back inside to see a few of my favorite works of art since the reopening of indoor museums. My new way to get a culture hit is to walk around the outdoor museums and sculpture gardens in and around New York City.
Most outdoor museums are open year round, although they still require face coverings during Covid-19.
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Outdoor Museums in New York City
Museum of Modern Art Outdoors
New York City’s venerable Museum of Modern Art has outdoor museums at both of its branches.
The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden at the main Manhattan branch offers free early hours year round and the small Sculpture Garden is open at 9am for early bird culture seekers.
At MoMA PS1, the contemporary art outpost in Queens, an annual outdoor summer series combines live music with art in the courtyard.
The High Line Public Art
The High Line, a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side, has rotating contemporary art exhibits, including sculptures and murals.
During the pandemic, access is restricted, with limited entrances and exits to help ensure social distancing. To walk the High Line on a Saturday or Sunday, you need free timed-entry passes. Impromptu visits are still OK on weekdays.
The High Line Plinth, the newest section of the park, currently has Brick House, a 16-foot-tall bronze bust of a Black woman.
Historic Richmond Town, a Living History Museum
Historic Richmond Town, in Staten Island, is a living-history museum with a farm and 45 historic buildings spread over 100 acres. The museum has private Candlelight Tours on Saturdays from November 28 to December 19 for groups of up to six.
Outdoor Museum Day Trips from NYC
Storm King is King
Storm King Art Center in Orange County, New York, has one of the largest sculpture gardens in the United States. It is both a contemporary art museum and hiking or biking destination. If you want to cycle around the 500 acre sculpture garden you have to rent a bike from Storm King. Social distancing is easy here, with 500 acres and limited capacity.
You need advance reserved tickets to visit. The collection includes large scale and site specific contemporary art. If you can’t visit, check out Storm King’s at home experiences, including ways to bring the arts and nature home.
TravelingMom Tip: The outdoor museum at Storm King is a great place for little ones. But if yours are still in a stroller, bring the heavy duty one. The paths are gravel and the outdoor spaces have varied, hilly terrain. Here are our 13 favorite strollers for traveling. Strollers are not allowed in the Galleries of the Museum Building. Bring a baby carrier instead.
Nassau County Museum of Art
The Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, New York, has a sculpture park throughout its 145 acres. You can see the 40 sculptures, hike the six miles of nature trails and explore the arboretum for free. You can also bike on the paved path.
Many of the artists here also have works at Storm King, so you can teach a little art history to your kids or spouse, seeing if you can find which sculptures ‘match.’
TravelingMom Tip: Go before you go; the only bathrooms here are in the museum, and you have to pay full admission to use them.
Garden State: Grounds for Sculpture in NJ
Grounds for Sculpture, in New Jersey, has a small sculpture garden, as well as indoor galleries (currently closed). It’s on the site of the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds, and near Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park.
I once dropped my husband and the kids off at the amusement park and had a quiet day to myself at Grounds for Sculpture. But it’s also family friendly. Kids will like the 3 story bamboo tower, which you can climb and see the sculptures. There are also gardens and a pond.
Mural Arts Philly
Mural Arts Philadelphia, the largest public art program in the United States, uses the exterior walls of buildings around the city as its canvas. You can take a paid guided tour, or a free self guided tour through different downtown neighborhoods.
Outdoor Museums Farther Afield
Clark Art Institute
Clark Art Institute which is set on 140 acres of woodland trails and meadows recently opened its first outdoor exhibition, Ground/work. The art, commissioned by The Clark, is designed to change with the environment.
Repeat visits to the Williamstown, Massachusetts museum are easy: the outdoor exhibit at the Clark is free; you have to pay to go inside.
Park Hill Orchard
Park Hill Orchard, near the Clark in Easthampton, Massachusetts, has a small sculpture garden. It allows leashed dogs in the walking sculpture trail. And in season, you can pick apples as part of your cultural experience. Or buy some at the farm stand.
Outdoor Museums Across the United States
Colonial Williamsburg, VA
My first time visiting this open air history museum was following a blizzard. In addition to the outdoor demonstrations around Colonial Williamsburg, the winter holiday season brings guided tours of outdoor decorations.
There are indoor museums if you need a brief respite from rain or snow, but I remember that when we stepped into these, we felt even colder. Most places weren’t heated all that well. Best to dress for the weather and stay outside as much as possible.
Even in the pandemic, costumed interpreters are out and about around Colonial Williamsburg.
Greenfield Village, Detroit
At Greenfield Village, part of The Henry Ford complex, you can stroll around different historic districts. There is also a large working farm.
This open air museum closes from late November to mid April but offers a turn-of-the-century Christmas experience with Greenfield Village Holiday Nights, with carolers and musicians outdoors, during December.
Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park, Cincinnati, Ohio
This expansive sculpture garden, about 30 minutes from downtown Cincinnati, has over 80 pieces of art and 300 acres of nature to explore. Most of the sculptures are by contemporary artists, but there is also an Ancient Sculpture Museum with Greek, Roman, Etruscan and Egyptian art. Pyramid Hill has hiking trails, lakes and meadows. If you have mobility issues, you can rent a golf cart.
During the holiday season, the drive through Holiday Lights on the Hill lets you experience the art from your car.
La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles
The La Brea Tar Pits, part of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles, has live excavations and fossils on display. It is one of the only science-oriented outdoor museums.
You can see the tar pits for free, but they are currently closed due to the pandemic.
Laumeier Sculpture Park, Missouri
The 105-acre open-air museum and sculpture park Laumeier Sculpture Park near St. Louis was a college favorite. It has 60 outdoor sculptures and a 1.4-mile walking trail.
The Rodin Sculpture Garden, Stanford University
The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford is closed due to the pandemic. When campus reopens, you can visit the outdoor Rodin Sculpture Garden for free. There are additional Rodin bronzes in the free indoor museum
We drove the new Toyota Venza to several of the open air museums around NYC. I was grateful for the heated seats so I could quickly warm up after tromping around the Nassau County Museum of Art. We brought our friends to test out the back seat and they raved about the comfortable seats. My friend Tim is 6’3″ and he had plenty of leg room.
The Venza, a luxury SUV hybrid, bridges the gap between a less expensive Toyota RAV4 and a more costly Lexus. It has an extremely quiet cabin, so we could chat with our backseat friends through our masks, even with the windows open. It also gets excellent fuel economy; in a week of driving, we averaged 40 mpg. One of the touchscreen buttons on the large infotainment system lets you track your fuel economy, as well as see your remaining range.
Note: Toyota loaned me the Venza. Opinions expressed are my own.