Museums can be elitist. New York’s lush Storm King aims to change that | Art
Founded in 1960, Storm King’s contemporary sculpture collection graces 500 acres of rolling meadows and forestland in New York’s Hudson Valley Where else can you witness a multi-ton modernist masterpiece like Alexander Liberman’s Olympic Iliad – 41 cherry red tubes stacked on to one another, 45ft high and 60ft long – against green meadows and forests?
The museum’s visitation increased sharply during the height of the pandemic, as exploring outdoor art offered a welcome break from fraught indoor contact. But can a museum accommodate increased traffic while also ensuring accessibility – and protection of its prized landscape?
A 2018 study by the cultural consultant Amy Kaufman indicated that Storm King must manage competing interests: a desire to capture an increase in Hudson Valley tourism and preserve ecological integrity on its grounds. Storm King’s leadership decided on a plan that would increase accessibility and biodiversity on the campus, and it recently announced a $45m capital campaign to enable that work.
Like many, I knew the Instagram-friendly aesthetics of Storm King, but not its ethos. Beka Sturges, a principal landscape architect at Reed Hilderbrand and member of the design team for the project, told me the museum has long been a pace-setter in progressive museum practices.
Could this renovation and its mandate of social and environmental justice be a bellwether? Is it possible that notions of beauty and justice are evolving – and that museums like Storm King might begin to reflect those values not just on their walls but on their grounds?
“We want to make the museum as inclusive and straightforward as possible,” Sturges told me. “We want it to feel generous. We want you to feel like you’re welcome – that you’re supposed to be there.”
Ideally, the museum’s generosity extends to the public, but also to the landscape itself and its native species.
“It’s exceptionally rare for landscape to be treated as seriously as art, as it is at Storm King,” Sturges said of the project. She moves fluently between art, literature and ecology as she discusses the land, noting an opportunity for the “forest frame, tender meadows, and maple swamp” to “become more than background or a buffer, but an actual protagonist in the foreground of the museum experience”. Sturges hopes that more visitors can “appreciate that they have a relationship to the land” – one that invites them to care for it.
Storm King currently uses controlled burns in the offseason to keep its meadows healthy, and it has replaced trees in its three allées, which were planted in the 1960s by William Rutherford, when Storm King was reclaimed from a gravel quarry that supported the construction of the New York Thruway. Now tired, stressed sugar maples will be replaced with native species more adapted to global heating. In the renovation, more than 650 trees will be planted on site for shade and biodiversity purposes.
“We know now that 40% of the world’s plants have become extinct,” Sturges says. “How do you get people to see plants and all that they give us?” Modifications to Storm King’s landscape will be, in Sturges’ view, a quietly radical way to demonstrate forward-thinking cultural values, and show that equity work can be both beautiful and influential.
A tour of the grounds
A landscape-driven institution like Storm King isn’t just daunting because of its scale – which can be difficult for less able-bodied visitors to traverse – but because, as an artistic entity, it’s viewed by many as an elite space.
The architect and disability advocate Josh Safdie told me over a Zoom call that museums are seen by many to possess “unspoken rules” – intimidating ideas about what one should wear, how one might engage with the art and the community. Safdie, who has consulted for Storm King on disability access for years, believes there are ways to curate space internally and externally to make more people feel welcome.
Safdie heads his own mission-driven architecture firm focused on design for disability access. He told me that disabled citizens were the largest minority population in the US. “There’s capital-A Accessibility – which is about meeting the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” he said. “But there’s also lowercase-a accessibility, which is about adjusting norms and unspoken rules so that everyone can feel welcome in a space. Inclusivity is more than just physical accessibility. There’s also cultural accessibility.” Many enter museums fearing hidden costs, dress codes, perceived physical safety, and rules of engagement. Clear guidance about how to move through a museum’s space reduces anxiety about belonging.
I asked Safdie why more widespread accessibility to a cultural institution like Storm King matters. “I believe strongly in the power of art to connect people and to be soothing,” he said. “It’s a chance to connect with the natural landscape, community, quietude, and art of unusual scale … something that is bigger than you.”
I visited Storm King on a quintessential fall day. The maples were ablaze on the park’s hills. I felt the usual stress about where to park and how to enter. Storm King hopes its “new visitor sequence” will eliminate any bewildered feelings: there is one large parking lot, signage, a new welcome center, restrooms, group gathering spaces, and an S-curved path with a navigable slope that takes a visitor right to the first awe-inspiring view of the celebrated Calder arch.
I could instantly see the challenge in making a large landscape characterized by rolling hills accessible. Storm King has recently furnished tram rides, and will add a visitor map and elevators, and continue to adjust the grading of pathways. Consolidated parking and a new welcome center will simplify entering the museum. Safdie has encouraged the institution to think of establishing “lily pads” – clear landing points where a visitor can plan a continued route through an experience while getting their needs met, and easily identifying the next point.
Jessica Burke, who works with Storm King, drove me around the museum grounds in a cart so that I could orient myself. We began at Maya Lin’s undulating Wavefield, a four-acre installation finished in 2009 that reclaims a former gravel pit on the south-west edge of the property. As we drove, I saw the museum’s allées in various stages of growth, lined with pin oaks and black gum trees. A longtime practitioner of environmental repair, the museum has turned other former gravel pits into ponds.
The art collection is vast and inimitable. Roy Lichtenstein’s Mermaid, a colorful sailboat that sailed in the 1995 America’s Cup, perches over a dark pond. (Burke shared that the sail went missing after the Cup, and its whereabouts are still a mystery.) We viewed Louise Bourgeois’s bulbous 2001 Eyes, Rashid Johnson’s Stacked Heads, and more works from Calder and Anthony Caro, Mark di Suvero, Louise Nevelson, and others.
Some sculptures can be experienced visually, but others are best experienced in a tactile way – viewed from inside, or with the element of sound and echo. Storm King will keep the physical accessibility of art in mind with future installations. In addition to being more inclusive in the experience of art, the institution aims to be inclusive in its collection and collaborations. Storm King will balance celebrating icons of modernist sculpture like Caro and Calder with supporting transformational opportunities for new artists like Brandon Ndife and the climate-focused Jean Shin.
In the heart of the park, I saw a large crane assembling one of Calder’s sculptures, Jerusalem, on a knoll. Given the scale, heft and cost of some of these large works, it struck me how rare it is to have them gathered together and oriented just so for viewers on acres of well-tended land. The size of Calder’s work is awe-inspiring, and seeing it against the colorful maples and green meadows was otherworldly and enchanting. I understood immediately the value of more people experiencing this wonder.
Amy Weisser, deputy director of strategic planning and projects at Storm King, joined us and told me over an outdoor tea that the landscape dictates the movement of the eye. Most of Storm King’s buildings are hidden on forest edges so that the focus remains on the art. Weisser refers to the grounds as a “sculpted landscape”, where “the mechanics of visiting are hidden”.
We got back into the golf cart to explore another segment of the property. “The health of the landscape is part of the wonder of being here,” Weisser said, nodding toward the shaded and fragrant north woods.
Museums were originally intended as places to share collections of work – places to contemplate beauty and the wider world, to be in conversation with our higher selves. Perhaps, in 2023, notions of beauty are more aligned with justice – to other humans, as well as the natural world. Visitors might come to Storm King to experience the awe-inspiring scale of landscape and sculpture, but also to marvel at the environmental health of a meadow supporting thriving insect and bird populations. This model of caretaking and repair is one all institutions – academic, corporate, artistic – can follow.