Copper in the Arts

July 2008

Brookgreen Gardens: America's First Sculpture Garden

By Jennifer Corey

Brookgreen Gardens

Brookgreen Gardens was the first American sculpture garden.

Photograph by Doug Coldwell

Originated by the nomadic tribes who began to settle in villages around 1500 A.D., Brookgreen Gardens is famed as the most significant collection of American al fresco sculpture worldwide, compounding 1,200 works by more than 350 artists into its own world in the South Carolinian wilderness. Established in 1931, Brookgreen Gardens was the first public sculpture garden, and continues to display an impressive collection of bronze and stone sculptures by some of the country's most notable artists.

Today, the Brookgreen Gardens organization has many social faces, playing host to a bevy of programs, tours, and exhibitions, all communing around a singular space: 9,200 acres of forested swamp, salt marsh, and sandy ridges thick with outdoor sculpture.

But perhaps most importantly, Brookgreen Gardens is a living reserve which began when Archer Huntington and his wife, Anna, a prolific sculptor of equine bronzes, devised to set the former rice-plantation aside as a nonprofit to protect native species and situate her sculptural work. Anatomized with a classical verism, the muscular horses spring in dramatic succession throughout the park. Her most famous piece, Joan of Ark, in Riverside Park, New York, secured her rank as one of the most important female sculptors of the 20th century. The first sculpted woman executed by a woman sculptor, it's subject points indirectly to the artist's biography as a feminist force: exerting powerful social sway over her husband's industrial fortune for the betterment of American arts.

Brookgreen gardensBrookgreen sculpture, detail.


Photograph by Dough Coldwell

At Brookgreen Gardens the southern Gothic of dramatic and contrary pairing-like the Huntington marriage-comes to life in the metallurgic sculptures stationed in nature's decay. Moss-draped trees give theatric curtain to enduring images from significant copper artists: Donald Harcourt de Lue, Mary Abastenia St. Leger Eberle, Marshall Maynard Fredericks, Glenna Goodacre, Edward Francis McCartan, Richard McDermott Miller, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. But more than an outdoor museum, Brookgreen has an active presence in the contemporary sculpting community, working to promote the ongoing production of works through its artist-in-residence program, named Coker Master Sculptor. Brookgreen also conducts workshops year-round and rotates a host of exhibitions through the Rainey Sculpture Pavilion Galleries.

Additional works in a range of mediums can be found at the on-site Offner Sculpture Learning and Research Center. Created through the bequest of sculptor Richard McDermott Miller (1922-2004), the modern indoor repository was erected in 2007 and provides a unique place of research for the artist in study. It is the most recent manifestation of Brookgreen's legacy of providing a spatial refuge for sculptural support, exemplified in their programs as well as their collection but, also, in a commemorative medal issued since 1973-it is the longest running series of medals in the United States-which pays tribute to the artistic process and Brookgreen's natural history, at once. The series is in the collections of The British Museum, Smithsonian American History Museum, National Sculpture Society, and the American Numismatic Society, and traced, in detail, in the temporary Medallic exhibition on site.

The tradition for learning that pervades Brookgreen Gardens is sustained in its varied and unique curricula. But the organization remains faithful to Mrs. Huntington's spirit as a self-taught sculptor by functioning, primarily, as a space to which the artist can retreat. And it's no accident that this effort is cultivated in a setting both picturesque and wild. It's the location and the fecund activity that it provokes which makes the Brookgreen Gardens community inspired.

Resources:

Brookgreen Gardens, 1931 Brookgreen Dr., Murrells Inlet, SC, (843) 235-6000

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