When the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden reopened in June, after years of renovation, a 20-foot tall blue rooster signaled a new dawn. A version of the sculpture, by German artist Katharina Fritsch, had debuted in 2013 atop a plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, a cheeky twist on pompous old statues of men astride animals. In Minneapolis, this one is among 17 new works in what is now one of the most diverse displays of outdoor art in the world.
The sculpture garden was the first of its kind when it opened in 1988, an oasis near the huddle of skyscrapers in downtown Minneapolis. It inspired Millennium Park in Chicago and Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, and its playful signature piece—Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry fountain—became the unofficial symbol of the city.
But after 30 years, the garden had grown old. The area was once a swamp, and water never stopped collecting there. Fencing meant to insulate the garden from city life eventually seemed to isolate it. And of the 50-some sculptures placed in the garden by the adjoining Walker Art Center, the renowned contemporary art museum that curates the park, most dated to the 1980s or earlier and were almost exclusively by white male artists.
So when the Walker began a multimillion-dollar renovation in 2015, adding a new entrance to the museum while stripping the park down to dirt, it was “an opportunity to bring the garden up to the 21st century,” says Walker senior curator Siri Engberg.
Spoonbridge and other favorites are still there, including works by Henry Moore, Alexander Calder and George Segal. But 19 national origins are now represented, and a third of the pieces are by women or people of color. New commissions include the first permanent outdoor sculpture by one of the art world’s most in-demand figures, Chicago artist-activist Theaster Gates: a black brick silo he likens to a Renaissance temple.
The redesigned landscape also reflects modern sensibilities, with a meadow of native grasses to absorb excess water and groves of trees massed around sculptures like intimate arbors. The fencing is gone. “For 25 years, we’d turned our back on downtown Minneapolis,” says Dana Murdoch, the city parks planner in charge of the redo. Now the garden is “more porous,” she says, to the city itself.
In a video promoting the renewed garden, men in hard hats maneuver sculptures into place as a voiceover of a Walt Whitman poem describes the earth: “It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.” It’s as if the land, deserving the same respect and freedom as artists, has finally been given its due. In a few years, when the grass has grown in, “the garden will attract more animals and plants,” Engberg says, “and will be more what it wanted to be.”