Having driven Sculpture Along the Way — the arrangement of art along the Hamilton Township roads that lead to Grounds For Sculpture — so many times, when I look out the window and see actual people moving I do a double take. For many years, it was just the father teaching his daughter to ride her bicycle in front of Hamilton Supply, but that sculpture has been joined by several other life-sized figures gawking at the larger-than-life works of public art. Sculptor J. Seward Johnson Jr. is smiling somewhere; it’s his goal to have us confuse real people with his patinaed bronze facsimiles.
The newest addition is a welcoming committee at the front gate. When you arrive at Grounds For Sculpture you feel like the whole gang is there to greet you. They hold up signs saying “Hurrah, Welcome,” “We thought you’d never get here,” and “I Can’t Wait to See You.” One plays a bugle to herald your arrival. Even a focus group could not come up with a better idea of how to make visitors feel good about their experience at GFS.
Once inside, there are replicas of people who look just like us — carrying a straw tote, bending to a child from a bench, a master gardener on hands and knees planting bulbs. One even wears a visitor wristband just like we do after paying admission.
Johnson knows well what we look like — he is often at the sculpture park he founded, as friendly as the welcoming committee he created. Johnson, one of the heirs to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, will chat up guests sitting at an adjacent table at Rat’s, the high end restaurant at the sculpture grounds, exuding his irrepressible joie de vivre.
Ever since the retrospective of the founder’s work opened May 4, featuring more than 200 sculptures, the park has been experiencing record attendance: more than 39,000 guests — nearly 25 percent of the annual attendance, rising from 96,000 in 2009 to 160,000 in 2013.
Enthralled visitors help promote the show by posting photos of themselves under the skirt of the gargantuan “Forever Marilyn” — a fabricated homage to the famed pose the blond bombshell struck in “The Seven Year Itch,” as a wind gust from a subway grate whooshes up her white dress. (Spoiler alert: she does wear undergarments.)
This is the milieu that now surrounds Gary Garrido Schneider, the brand-new executive director who was named to the position in May. One challenge Schneider will face is the transition of the 22-year-old institution from one receiving a large annual grant from the Johnson Art and Education Foundation to doing a significant amount of its own fundraising. The founder and driving force behind the sculpture garden, Seward Johnson, is now in his 80s and active in the transition.
“We need to make a compelling case that this garden belongs to the visitors and members and we need their support,” Schneider says of meeting GFS’s $5 million operating budget. To do this, he plans for more ambitious exhibitions and educational programming, and the presence of artists creating in studios on the grounds. “I want to continue the tradition of supporting artists,” he says, referring to the early days of the atelier program associated with the park. “I hope to have more artist residences, and attract funders and collectors to support emerging artists.
“A group of individuals working with Mr. Johnson helped grow this fantasy space from barren ground — it would not be possible without what he could see — and it is evolving from having a founder-inspired vision. In laying the groundwork for the transition, we’ve grown the board and shored up the development department. We need to build the capital to make the organization sustainable.”
New this spring, along with the executive director, is the new Welcome Center (formerly a warehouse) around the back of the Seward Johnson Center for the Arts building. There is also additional gallery and event space, an auditorium, a new museum shop, and the Van Gogh Cafe that has already developed a reputation for its crepes. The cafe joins Rat’s and two other eateries designed to meet visitors’ needs of getting something to eat without leaving the museum. The cafe also serves wine, with the goal of making the park a date-night destination. Museum hours have been extended to include summer evenings.
“We’re trying to build our base of supporters,” says Schneider. “Many visitors don’t realize we’re a not-for-profit, and it was hard to talk about membership at (the former entry) booths. Here we can greet members with a new level of service.”
The lobby can fill with wall-to-wall visitors when bus tours arrive, so a new auditorium will help to orient them with a 14-minute video as they are assigned docents. Artist talks and musical performances can also take place here. Concerts will continue to be performed in the East Gallery, which can accommodate 400, and in the courtyard in summer.
Plans for the new West Gallery include exhibitions, lectures, performing arts, fundraisers, and receptions, again helping to bring in revenue. The Johnson Retrospective continues in this space, with a huge mural blown up from a small painting Johnson made of a Mexican village. It serves as a backdrop to his three-dimensional Mariachi Band. (A larger-than-life version of this sculpture is at the Hamilton Train Station.) There’s a man mopping the floor with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and another seated comfortably in a wing chair. These life-size people are part of the series Celebrating the Familiar, and a video loop features Johnson talking about it.
A replica of his “Double Check” — the sculpture of a man in a business suit double-checking papers in his briefcase, made famous when it survived the World Trade Center bombings and became a makeshift memorial — has found a home here, situated on a street and covered with dust and debris. The original is still in Zucotti Park, and another replica, this one of the memorial with various rescue workers’ badges and postings, is in an adjacent gallery. Yet another gallery displays Johnson’s collection of antique trays he painted with domestic scenes from his life.
Just when you think you’ve seen everything the building has to offer, you enter yet another room — the members’ lounge. With green stained cabinets in a kind of kitchenette area, members can help themselves to coffee and tea, relax on leather chairs and sofas, and browse from the bookshelf donated in memory of former volunteer Arianne Kassof by her family and friends.
The facility is desirable for corporate retreats, where employees are immersed in a setting that allows them to think freely.
“The second phase of the construction will be to consolidate administrative offices,” says Schneider. “Everything is now spread out. We’ll be rethinking how staff works together with conference and meeting rooms.”
Schneider, who previously served as deputy director of the Montclair Art Museum, first visited the Grounds to attend a New Jersey State Council for the Arts meeting several years ago. His initial reaction: “It was a beautiful oasis. I loved the sense of wonder and playfulness in engaging people with contemporary sculpture. Driving here through an industrial park setting, the adaptive reuse of the (former New Jersey Fairgrounds) is a surprise. Luckily Sculpture Along the Way helped to guide me to this lush magical space.
“People interact differently in sculpture gardens than in museums,” Schneider continues, seated at a cafe table outside the Van Gogh Cafe. “They tend to traverse through an exhibit in chronological order, but here you follow where your eye draws you. So that visitors can follow their own fork in the road we tend to give less information, allowing visitors to make their own discoveries. We’re hoping to have more ways to interact with people in the garden. Some may come to reflect or to follow a toddler, but others want to engage.”
Another of Schneider’s earlier encounters with GFS was when his wife, the artist Gwen Charles, taught a claymation workshop here. He and Charles live in Montclair with their son, 16, and daughter, 12, seven houses away from his former job. “It was difficult to leave — my daughter still takes art classes there.”
Having attended a board meeting earlier in the day, Schneider wears a suit. Many museum directors have business backgrounds and MBAs, but Schneider’s background is as an artist. He still maintains a “quiet” studio practice in sculpture and photography “although these days my desks are covered with promotional materials for Grounds For Sculpture.”
As of this writing he has been on the job a full month, though he did extensive reading about the institution during the two-month hiring process, and he met Johnson at the gala celebration of the opening of the retrospective, to which Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones were among the guests (Douglas’s mother was a sister of J. Seward Johnson Sr.’s first wife).
“I’ve always been interested in how audiences connect to art,” says Schneider, who grew up on Long Island and in New York City, where his father was in the construction business. His mother made quilts, and Schneider recalls going to quilt and antique shows, where he developed an appreciation for folk art and handiwork. “I developed a more informed and open perspective — realizing there is not high and low art, but value in all creative impulses.”
Schneider lived a block away from the Islip Art Museum, which exhibited contemporary art on a former estate, including a rough-hewn carriage house for experimental art. He worked there for 11 years, gaining experience in all aspects of museum operations, from hanging exhibitions and greeting visitors to helping with fundraising and education. “As I look back, I realize it was the start of my career,” says Schneider, who had his first exhibition at the Islip Art Museum.
He was the first in his family to have gone to college and have an interest in art. “My parents had me as teenagers and were adamant about my pursuing something I was passionate about.” He attended Parsons School of Design in New York City and received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts — with a concentration in arts education through Bank Street College of Education (also in New York City). Following graduation he ran a school art program for low-income teens at Parsons, and taught in the fine arts program. “I’m committed to making art available to marginalized communities.”
For six years Schneider taught at the Studio in a School, an organization formed in the 1970s in response to the fiscal crisis in New York City public schools that places working artists in schools. He worked in all five boroughs, making connections from the curriculum to fine arts.
Coincidentally, Studio in a School was founded by Agnes Gund, the sister of Gordon Gund, a GFS trustee. Gordon is co-founder and chairman of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, chairman and CEO of Gund Investment Corporation in Princeton, philanthropist and a sculptor whose work is exhibited at GFS.
Schneider also taught at the Brooklyn Museum School and the Drawing Center in Soho before joining the Montclair Art Museum as director of school art. He became deputy director a year ago, overseeing marketing, visitor experiences, audience development, and diversity initiatives. “I’m interested in building sustainable relations, not just one-time visits,” he says.
In his first month on the job, Schneider admits he doesn’t yet have a fully formed vision but is spending his time listening to staff members. “So many arts institutions are struggling to attract audiences, trying to become relevant to their audience and community, but that’s clearly not a problem here, where we have a growing base of support,” he says. “People are often telling me this is a very special place, whether they had their wedding here, or once attended art classes. Not all museums can tell that story.”
Besides revenues related to wedding rentals, the multifunctional spaces of the new Welcome Center present earned income opportunities that include business meetings and conferences. “As the organization becomes more self-sustaining, we’ll have a solid infrastructure. GFS is in a strong position to move forward and continue to evolve.”
Schneider likes hearing all the languages spoken in the sculpture park, both by New Jersey’s large immigrant communities and tourists making it their destination when visiting the East Coast. “There’s great potential for becoming a stronger educational resource,” he says. “I’d like to see GFS take a step forward in art and nature education, and in a 42-acre garden we can also look at environmental issues.”
In addition, “an institution of this scale has a responsibility to its neighbors in Trenton and Hamilton, finding partners to whom the garden can be a great resource. We’re building off the core values of what makes GFS what it is — accessible, with a sense of discovery in nature.”
In addition to his interest in diversity, Schneider is an advocate for bringing people with disabilities to the park. He says his own experience of having a brother with Down Syndrome makes him especially attentive to the needs of people with disabilities, and he has taught sculpture and ceramics to the visual and hearing impaired. “GFS’s commitment to making work available to a special needs population attracted me to come here,” he says. Presently, groups such as Enable bring people with physical and learning impairments to the park for hands-on art-making workshops, and there is a program for visually impaired visitors to touch and feel the sculpture. “We can expose them to new tactile materials and offer the opportunity to experience art through different eyes.”
He is also looking at how to maintain the intimate experience, with small structured paths, as the organization grows and attracts more visitation. That is why multiple amenities are targeting weekday and evening visits for growth. “Public art has to be accessible,” says Johnson in another of the videos.
On a recent evening, with pleasant temperatures, the crowd has dwindled. The characters of “The Eye of the Beholder,” in the courtyard adjacent to the Peacock Cafe, now have the place to themselves. The live population seems outnumbered by Johnson’s cast of characters: a policeman about to issue a ticket, a couple in trench coats gazing at their reflection in a circular mirrored sculpture, a window washer practically winking as he gazes inside the Museum building. They look so real, I wonder if perhaps they are actors hired to portray Johnson’s sculpture. Two young women are taking selfies with a peacock. Are they real, or are they sculpture? They run when the great plumed bird shrieks his mating call.
Seward Johnson: The Retrospective, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Through Sunday, September 21, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. $8 to $12. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.