Morris Arboretum: A living collection (2000)

Feature article on the sculpture site in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, USA.

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 23 January 2011
This article was previously published in Sculpture, 19(2), March 2000, pp. 14-5.

Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia

Along the edge of Philadelphia’s tweedy Chestnut Hill neighborhood, banners line the fence of the Morris Arboretum, offering invitations to experience its garden, pond, and children’s programs. Yet, one of the surprises at the Arboretum— as it is affectionately called— is its sculpture. Whether nestled along a creek, hidden in a patch of bamboo, or discreetly lined along its paths, sculpture emerges and tweaks the senses.

Founded in 1887 as the private estate of John and Lydia Morris, brother and sister, the 166-acre site was established in 1932 as a University of Pennsylvania-administered arboretum and 92-acre public garden for research, education, and display. For the Morris Arboretum, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, sculpture has become a greater priority than garden design. In keeping with the Morris’ practice of bringing together sculpture, landscape, and architecture, as well as art and science, a resolution was adopted in the early 1980s recommending that “the acquisition, display, and interpretation of a fine arts collection be developed as an integral part of the Arboretum’s landscape design and living collections.” The fruits of these efforts can be seen throughout the grounds today.

What are the Arboretum’s objectives with regard to sculpture? According to Director Paul Meyer, “Our primary goal is to develop very fine gardens and to make sure that art is part of those gardens. Garden design is a fine art and sculpture is a part of that fine art. We want the landscape and the art to complement one another. The garden design comes first, and the art is an important part of the design, but we don’t want to overdo it. In the same way you can overdo things horticulturally, you can certainly overdo things with art. Any composition can become too busy.”

At times the sculpture is widely dispersed and subtly situated in the landscape to create an intimate experience. Other works can be seen from a distance and offer a variety of vantage points. George Rickey’s Two lines (1988) stands atop the site where the Morris mansion, Compton, once stood, acting as a reminder of the structure, which was demolished in 1965 after years of neglect. Charles Layland’s Cotswold sheep (1980) graces the meandering drive at 125 percent of life-size, offers an optical play, and refers to the keeping of livestock in historical arboretums. Tucked into a corner of the Morris Arboretum, Israel Hadany’s Three tubes (1979) presents another optical illusion when viewed from two directions along a path and appears to be partly suspended in the air. Nearby, Scott Burton’s Rock chair (1988–90), the Arboretum’s most recent arrival, lent by New York gallery owner Max Protech, blends in with the site due to its subtle granite form and casts delightful shadows on its void. In the distance, John and Lydia Morris (1981), in life-size naturalistic forms cast in Everdur Silicon Bronze, oversee the landscape and remind visitors of the benefactors.

For Paul Meyer, the biggest challenge in installing the sculpture is dealing with the site’s history. “It’s an adaptably reused Victorian landscaped garden. The biggest challenge is how do you incorporate contemporary art into what is essentially a Victorian site, in a way that it doesn’t clash with the surroundings.” This can be particularly challenging with contemporary pieces such as those by Rickey and Hadany, although George Sugarman’s Untitled (1981) wins the award for most controversial artwork. According to Meyer, “The issue is whether or not it blends in well with the Victorian landscape— whether or not it’s well sited. I think it is— I was one of the people siting it,” he laughs. “Although, I’m particularly open to criticism on it. We’re here to facilitate discussions. The sculpture— compared to any of the horticultural plantings— generates much stronger feelings and critical debate.” Originally conceived for and sited at an urban hospital in Philadelphia’s center, the Sugarman piece was resited in 1992 and has since been repainted with new colors relating more to the landscape, a process approved by the artist.

A site along the Wissahickon Creek inspired Stacy Levy’s Wissahickon food web (1998). It consists of a meandering path lined by red-twig dogwood shrubbery, which leads to a bluestone terrace where the artist magnified images of the main players in what she calls the “gastronomic drama” of the creek. The work “artistically documents the life taking place in the creek” and “bridges the gap between art and science.” Levy’s work is the most recent addition to the Butcher Sculpture Garden— named after Madeleine Butcher, chair of the Arboretum’s Fine Arts Committee. Begun in 1988, the site features a temporary installation every two or three years with previous installations by Christopher Cairns and Harry Gordon. Next year, Richard Torchia will build an octagonal 18-foot “pavilion-camera obscura” relating to plant species and the site.

Chicken or egg? Sculpture or landscape? Paul Meyer does not think of the Morris Arboretum as a sculpture park and refers to one in a comparison. “They’re two different orientations. I think they care about the landscape, but they’re not as integrated— I’m not being critical,” he smiles. “We’re a botanical garden first and foremost, and we are committed to art in the garden. We want to do it at a very high level of sophistication, but we’re not interested in building an extensive collection of art. Many institutions do that. I’m glad they do, but that’s not what we do.”

Future plans for the Morris Arboretum? According to Paul Meyer, “We have quite a few pieces now, and the question has become how many pieces are enough. We’re trying to move toward not accepting outright gifts, but loans ranging from three to five years,” he explains. “It gives us more flexibility to experiment and have things change throughout the Arboretum— the art comes and then it goes— and look at it more as an exhibit than a permanent collection. If we had too many pieces, the landscape would suffer.”