A few years ago, during the Great Recession, I had a nightmare that Grounds For Sculpture had lost its funding, and the sculpture park was covered with cobwebs. It looked like the abandoned amusement park in the 1972 film “The King of Marvin Gardens.”
Fortunately, it was only a nightmare. Grounds For Sculpture is alive and well, with major increases in attendance, membership, workshop and performance attendance, and cafe and shop sales. There are plans to open a new seven-acre outdoor sculpture area in the fall, and 10,000 square feet of exhibition space is being added to the Seward Johnson Center for the Arts. A Winter Wonderland is being planned from Thanksgiving to New Year, complete with fairy lights and horse-drawn carriage rides. To describe Grounds For Sculpture as “magical” is an understatement.
“Everyone deserves art and what it does for you just as everyone deserves nature and what it does for you,” says Scott Bryce, narrating “Voices of Sculpture,” a film about the 42-acre park in Hamilton that combines art and nature (June 1, U.S. 1, “Grounds For Sculpture Gets Ready for Its Close-Up”). Founder J. Seward Johnson has said he would like to come back to Grounds in his next life.
Many visitors to GFS find a favorite retreat from the world while walking through, say, an allee of trees or a doorway built into greenery, seeing something new as they turn a corner or come over a hill. Tom Moran, who joined GFS on June 1 as chief curator and director of artistic development, has found his favorite spot in the park and begun to call it his own: a bench where a family of ducklings has found a nearby puddle in which to play. He also likes to visit in winter, when there is just enough snow to cover everything but not so much that the park will close. He likes the white caps that form on the sculpture.
Moran is widely known for the role he played in public art during the 30 years he served as director of arts inclusion and artistic services at the New Jersey State Arts Council, a post from which he recently retired.
During his tenure, thousands of works of art were created for state and federal building projects, many among the most innovative in the nation. In my years writing about the arts in central New Jersey, I have encountered numerous artists who have revered Moran for his vision.
Among his most notable projects were the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line, the Carnegie Library Civil Rights Garden in Atlantic City, and the New Jersey September 11, 2001 Memorial at Liberty State Park, working with such artists as Fred Wilson, Grace Graupe-Pillard, Tom Nussbaum, Trevor Wilson, and Richard Haas.
At the Princeton Public Library, he worked with Jeff Nathanson, Nancy Russell, Judith Brodsky, and Leslie Burger to bring the Ik Jook Kang mural “Happy World” and other artworks into a public setting.
“The rewards involved working with artists as a team along with architects, clients, and the state,” says Moran. “I still like working with groups of people to achieve something.”
His artistic vision, encyclopedic knowledge, and network of top-flight artists make him a perfect fit for Grounds For Sculpture.
“Tom has devoted his entire career to infusing art into the places where everyday people work, play, heal, learn, commemorate, and come together as communities,” says executive director David Miller. “Who better to help lead Grounds For Sculpture, a place that invites the world to experience art in deeply personal and interactive ways? We feel honored that Tom will join curator of exhibitions Virginia Oberlin Steel to form a truly dynamic curatorial team to advance our work in fulfilling our founder’s vision.”
Miller, in his former position as executive director at the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, worked with both Moran and Steel.
Steel, too, is a recent addition, having come on board in March. Much of Steel’s career has been devoted to making art accessible, a vision she shares with Grounds For Sculpture founder Seward Johnson, who opened the park in 1992. Like Johnson, she believes that art should be explored in a way that is meaningful to the viewer and on his or her own terms. And while as curator she is committed to helping educate patrons about the artwork, she believes arts provide transformative experiences.
“Art is somewhat learned,” says Steel. “The more familiar people become with art and its language, the more they can tap into its transformative power. The more we can help visitors access art, the more meaningful it becomes to them.”
At GFS, Moran will spearhead outdoor sculpture exhibitions, maintain the extensive sculpture collection, and develop the park’s facilities, properties, and sculpture programs. He is working with internationally acclaimed sculptor Steve Tobin on “Aerial Roots,” the first exhibit to open on the new seven-acre wildflower meadow. Tobin is most famous for casting the uprooted tree that protected St. Paul’s chapel near Ground Zero, where 9/11 first responders took refuge.
“It’s an exciting challenge to see how that seven acres will be transformed, both short and long term, while keeping the existing space vibrant,” says Moran. “I’ve known Tobin for more than 10 years. These works, at 50-feet tall, will rival the trees.”
Although Moran doesn’t yet have his business card printed and barely knows his phone extension or E-mail address, he is already planning exhibitions for next summer and beyond.
Sitting on his favorite bench in the park — the one where the ducks splash in the puddle behind — he recently reflected on his transition, looking back on the days of the Tom Kean administration, when the public arts program “grew and grew, and grants grew. It was a wonderful period,” he says.
“I thought, ‘I’ll work here for five years.’ The 30 years went by like that! I’ve heard stories of colleagues who start the same way — you’re so into it, you stay. I could make a lot of things happen.”
New Jersey continues to support the arts through the hotel and motel tax, says Moran, but he left because he wanted to get involved with other things. “Grounds For Sculpture is a wonderful place I’ve known about for years. I’ve watched it coming into its 20th year. The grounds have matured, and its rooms are filled with sculpture. It took a lot of collective vision to make it happen.”
Moran, who lives in Trenton near Waterfront Park, says he used to commute one mile to work but has tripled that to six miles round trip to get to Grounds For Sculpture, which was built on the site of the former New Jersey Fairgrounds.
Born in Palmer, MA, Moran is an accomplished painter and sculptor who has had solo shows in the U.S., France, and Poland, and has been painting for as long as he can remember.
His maternal grandfather was a builder, carpenter, and inventor, and his paternal grandfather, who lived next door and had a granite quarry, taught him to cast concrete. His mother loved arts and went back to school after raising Tom and his brother to work in a county court. His father was a mechanic. “He could tune race cars by ear, like a musical instrument. There was always something being built in our house,” he says.
In high school Moran explored the art department’s offerings in painting, photography, drafting, and printmaking. “I wanted to spend the whole day there. I had a strong graphics sense and was in charge of the yearbook layout,” he says. Later, at the Worcester Art Museum School, he studied figure painting and worked on installation pieces as long as 60 feet.
While at Worcester, Moran worked part-time as a security guard, “making the rounds at midnight so I could spend time with Picasso or Matisse or ancient votive sculpture,” he says. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1976, when a professor urged him to go on to graduate school, recommending Rutgers.
“Frank Lincoln Viner, a post Minimalist who had gone to the Worcester Art Museum School, went to Rutgers because of its incredible modern art faculty — Leon Golub, Peter Stroud, Gary Kuehn, Geoffrey Hendricks, and John Goodyear. They were terrific people to be in contact with,” says Moran.
He earned his MFA from Mason Gross in 1979 and worked at his own art for a while, teaching at Middlesex County and Raritan Valley community colleges as well as Douglass College at Rutgers. “I was a studio assistant, built sculpture, sold artwork, doing whatever you can to keep going and survive as an artist,” he says.
Moran is married to arts administrator Barbara Fulton Moran, past director of the New Jersey State Museum and the New Jersey Cultural Trust. Retired, she serves on the boards of the Dodge Foundation and Young Audiences New Jersey. The couple met when both worked for the State Arts Council.
Moran says he is thrilled to be working in a premier sculpture park between two metropolitan centers connected by the Hamilton train station. “People can travel a short distance to see the quality and diversity of world class artists. They can come for a walk, come to a concert, have dinner at Rat’s. Mercer County is a place where artists thrive. There are great art programs at Princeton, Rider, Mercer County Community College. There’s the State Museum, the Princeton University Art Museum — I loved the Kurt Schwitters show there; he was an early influence. Artists want to be connected to where the ideas are, and we have the resources and cultural facility.”
Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. The summer season includes “In Balance: James Surls,” “The Art of Invention: Daniel A. Henderson,” and “Plugged In: Interactive Art in Electronic Media. “Aerial Roots: Steve Tobin” opens Saturday, September 17. For the complete schedule of events, hours and admission prices, visit groundsforsculpture.org.