When it comes to arts and culture in Hamilton Township, seemingly everyone agrees on one thing: It all starts with Grounds For Sculpture.
Situated in the northwest corner of Hamilton Township on the former New Jersey state fairgrounds, Grounds For Sculpture has gained acclaim as a world-class art park since the late artist and philanthropist Seward Johnson founded it in 1992. On its 42 acres, GFS features more than 300 outdoor sculptures and six indoor galleries with rotating exhibitions, as well as a cultural center that offers classes, volunteer opportunities, lectures, music events, and gardens. The New York Times recently named GFS — along with Storm King Art Center in New York and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in Minnesota — as one of the country’s “can’t miss” sculpture gardens. In a normal year, it draws 250,000 people through its gates.
But GFS has a delicate balance to maintain, a balance between its reputation as a nationally renowned tourist attraction and its place at the heart of the local arts scene and in the local community.
GFS executive director Gary Garrido Schneider said these dueling roles made themselves apparent shortly after he arrived at the park six years ago. He recognized Grounds For Sculpture’s wide appeal, large audience, and role as a tourism driver for the area. But he also saw that GFS was not rooted in Hamilton as much as it should be.
He has set out to change this.
“We weren’t necessarily being good neighbors in a way,” Schneider said. “In Hamilton or Trenton, there weren’t really long-term sustained partnerships. We’ve got a lot of volunteers on staff and a lot of members from Hamilton, but I think there’s a lot more that we can do to be truly engaged. So for me, I have a deep interest in us being both relevant and engaged locally and being rooted in the place that we’re in.”
Hamiltonians make up a substantial percentage of GFS’s volunteers and employees, and about 15 percent of the park’s 5,000 members live in Hamilton. But Schneider has discovered that a surprising number of Hamilton residents have seen GFS works around town — displayed by the Hamilton train station, at the library or on Interstate 295 — but never have been to the park itself.
One such moment came during an art exhibition GFS hosted for the Hamilton Township School District several years ago. Schneider mingled with visitors, asking them about their experience with Grounds For Sculpture. Some of them said they’ve been coming since the start, but others said it was their first time visiting. He sensed the park had an opportunity to do more with its hometown.
“I think that’s an indication of the work that we can do to welcome the residents in Hamilton,” Schneider said.
Schneider has since served on Mayor Jeff Martin’s transition committee and worked with the Hamilton Partnership business group. GFS teamed with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital-Hamilton to create four Grounds For Healing gardens at the hospital. In 2019 GFS added its first ever member of the board of trustees to live in Hamilton, David Kaiser.
He also has given much thought to how Grounds For Sculpture might help transform Hamilton, particularly the town’s art and culture district. He has taken inspiration from places elsewhere in the country where a single arts institution spawned a thriving arts culture throughout the community.
The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, for example, revitalized its city in northwestern Massachusetts by connecting like-minded businesses to the warehouses that surround its campus. It’s a case study that Schneider said has similarities to the East State Street corridor near GFS. By helping creative businesses find space on East State Street near the park, GFS could create some synergy that would ultimately spawn a vibrant arts district in Hamilton, Schneider said.
One existing project has this potential already, he said, pointing to the planned 2021 opening of artist studio space in the Mill One at Hamilton development on Johnston Avenue. Any arts district in Hamilton must have affordable space for artist living and studios, Schneider said. Mill One is a mile away from Grounds For Sculpture and should provide a supplement to the artist residencies at GFS and the International Sculpture Center, he said. The vacant Congoleum site at the corner of Klockner Road and Sloan Avenue provides yet another opportunity near GFS to create what Schneider calls “art-making spaces.”
But Schneider catches himself from getting too carried away with a wishlist, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made apparent the sometimes harsh realities of running a nonprofit organization. In 2020 GFS received funding from the Johnson family for the last time and will have to replace that support with the support of members, donors, and the community. The park currently faces a $2 million deficit and had to lay off staff. Early on in the pandemic, GFS couldn’t open and decreased its staff from 100 people to four. It’s back to about 60 percent of its normal staffing levels, but Schneider said the park will face some financial limitations for the next year or two.
“But we’re ending this year with clarity that we’re going to survive this,” Schneider said. “That wasn’t clear in April.”
Despite the setback from the pandemic, Schneider said GFS should still seek out a leadership role in the community and act as a catalyst for the arts in Hamilton. He said he recognizes Grounds For Sculpture is one of the largest nonprofits in Mercer County, and with that comes responsibility and expectations.
And GFS is committed to rising to the challenge, Schneider said, for altruistic reasons but also because the park’s survival depends on its connection to its community.
“People that are just coming into GFS as an island, that come for a day and come once a year, that’s not going to sustain us,” Schneider said. “What’s going to sustain Grounds For Sculpture as a nonprofit is if we can build a community around Grounds For Sculpture, a community that cares if we thrive and survive. Having community care about you, you need to care about the community, as well. So we’re thinking very hard about that in terms of how do we be of service, how do we partner better, how do we make sure that we are engaged in the local community.”