Restoring a Natural Habitat for Sculpture
Skip to main content

Restoring a Natural Habitat for Sculpture

New plantings, with Ellsworth Kelly's Double Curve (1988) at right. Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Sustainability Drove Minneapolis Sculpture Garden Redesign

“That half of the garden wanted to be wet,” says Siri Engberg, Walker Art Center senior curator. She’s talking about the north end of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, a low-lying, easily-flooded area. It was a wetland before European settlement—and people have been fighting its soft, soggy soils ever since.

The marsh already won one battle, when the National Guard Armory was torn down in 1935 as the building sank into the wet ground.

Similar problems had plagued the Sculpture Garden since it opened in 1988, as water pooled on the lawn and the soil couldn’t bear the weight of the sculptures and the millions of visitors.

Finally, the garden’s recent renovations sought to bring a long-overdue truce between humans and the natural hydrology.

Native prairie grasses and wildflowers surround Robert Indiana’s LOVE (1966/1998). Photo: Paul Schmelzer

The yearlong reconstruction project included adding new works of art, replacing and repairing infrastructure, and making other much needed updates. But the park’s partners also went to great lengths to improve the garden’s environmental sustainability. Rethinking water was a big part of it.

So, finally, the north end will get to be wet again. A new fresh meadow there features native plants that love moist soils and lots of native flowers to feed essential and imperiled pollinators like monarchs and bees. Paths through the wild landscape connect three large, manicured circles which serve as pedestals for large-scale sculpture.

“The biggest driver was acknowledging it is a former marshland, and low point, and to bring an element of that history back,” says Dana Murdoch, project manager with the Minneapolis Board of Parks & Recreation.

The meadow will absorb rainfall and provide what Engberg calls a “soft” backdrop for the artworks installed in its midst.

Working with—rather than against—the natural hydrology in the north end is perhaps the most visible way the garden has been changed to exist in better balance with the planet.

Wildflowers in the new fresh meadow. Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Respecting natural forces is imperative at this moment in history. Predictions about climate change are quickly coming true. Since the garden opened in 1988, the average annual temperature in Minnesota has increased by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit. Rainfall is less spread out, more of it falling in bigger storms in spring and early summer, and the future is expected to be even more extreme.

The world is getting warmer and wetter, and the Garden needed to reflect how its ecosystem is changing.

The second way the garden’s environmental impact has been improved is almost invisible, except for some manhole covers. Situated just east of Spoonbridge and Cherry, the covers are the only signs of five giant tanks buried underground, capable of holding 80,000 gallons total runoff from the iconic sculpture and allowing it to be reused for irrigation.

The system will keep nearly 5 million gallons from flowing straight through storm sewers into the Mississippi River each year. It also means the garden’s sprinklers won’t use Minneapolis city tap water. The tanks can even supply water to irrigate athletic fields at neighboring Parade Park.

Both the water reuse system and the fresh meadow represent a minor revolution that has occurred in urban land use since the garden opened.

“We’re trying to manage water where it lands,” says Marcy Bean, of the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, which provided $1.5 million for the water reuse system.

Letting it soak into soil is the best way to prevent pollution. “The process of water moving through soils is really what cleans the water, before it gets to the river.”

Storm sewers in Minneapolis almost all go from street drains directly to the Mississippi River. There is no treatment or filtration, and no chance to slowly release rainwater. The bigger and faster flows to the river can carry pollutants and cause flooding.

The Sculpture Garden system not only reduces water usage, it demonstrates the possibilities of water conservation in a very public, beloved place in the upper Midwest. It will educate the public about water issues, and perhaps inspire additional efforts.

Spoonbridge and Cherry‘s reconstructed pond features a new liner. Photo: Paul Schmelzer

“Are there industrial projects out there that are using large amounts of drinking water but could be using stormwater?” Bean asks. “We have lots of impervious surfaces, so if we can find a user for that stormwater, it would be amazing.”

A third renovation with significant sustainability benefits is the conversion of the Cowles Conservatory, the glass greenhouse on the sculpture park’s southwest corner, to an open pavilion. This project wasn’t about water, but energy.

The year-round greenhouse required massive amounts of energy—and public funds—to heat. Now, its walls have been removed and the building will be open space to rest, relax, and enjoy the experience. And the heating bills are gone.

The pavilion gives the partners a chance to really think about “how it can be used for informal gatherings, like pulling up a chair with another person, having lunch,” says the Park & Recreation Board’s Murdoch. “I think it makes a really interesting place.”

Experiencing the garden as a space and place is an essential part of all the renovations. Working with landscape architects oslund.and.assoc., the entire park was rebalanced. There are “areas of density and openness,” says Walker curator Engberg.

The open-air Cowles Pavilion, with Spoonbridge and Cherry in the foreground. Photo: Gene Pittman

“Viewing art is one important activity. Experiencing the landscape is another one. We’re trying to make sure that the journey through the garden as a park is equally interesting to people,” Engberg continues.

More than 300 trees were planted across the garden and the Walker’s property as part of the renovation. With an eye to the future, designers chose to plant smaller, younger trees that might not be so impressive now but would have better odds of surviving and thriving in the long run.

The garden’s renovations improved water management, created wildlife habitat, and strengthened a sense of place for visitors to experience. It added up to what Engberg relates to a new exhibition. “We’ve created a habitat for the art,” she says.

Bringing together the landscape, people, and art, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden renovations seek to build a healthier, more sustainable home not just for art, but also for humans.

Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.