The best sculpture gardens in the D.C. area

The Washington region’s sculpture gardens are vastly different, even though some artists — Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero, Barbara Hepworth — are represented in multiple collections. What makes them interesting is the context in which they present their treasures to visitors. Some are good for a lunch break or a quick afternoon escape from our routines; others welcome us back, again and again, like old friends.

With longer and warmer days, we set out to revisit six sculpture gardens, all within an hour or so of Washington. We were less concerned with who had the most Rodins on display than with soaking in the atmosphere of each destination, and which made us want to linger outdoors, enjoying the weather as well as the art.

Annmarie Sculpture Garden

The Annmarie Sculpture Garden in Calvert County is a magical place to encounter art. Strolling the paths around its 30 acres, visitors wander into a stone circle in the middle of a forest grove, with three granite pillars standing at the front. They find sculptures arranged in grassy allées; wander up a boardwalk ramp that rises through the trees as part of “A Surveyor’s Map,” an installation by Maryland artists Jann Rosen-Queralt and Roma Campanile; and turn onto a winding side trail to venture down “The Women’s Walk,” an exploration of female forms including bronze statues by Gerhard Marcks and Francisco Zúñiga. Double takes abound: Boulders are carved with petroglyphs of blue crabs; faces peer out of tree stumps.

Annmarie’s permanent collection is augmented with more than two dozen pieces on the grounds that are on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the National Gallery of Art. There are also pop-up exhibitions, such as the current “Creatures in the Garden,” adding sculptures of fantastic and realistic animals among the trees.

But the forest feels even more enchanted during the annual “Fairies in the Garden” outdoor installation, which places more than 100 fairy houses and gnome homes created by artists throughout the grounds between April and September. Some are thatched-roof cottages made of pebbles, others are tall gnome apartment buildings hewed from stumps. There are miniature beach houses with pools, summer camps with rock gardens, a skateboard park, a “Fairy Tavern” full of mini wine bottles, and a stable for tiny unicorns. Tucked at the bases of trees or under rock ledges, you’ll find yourself squatting down to examine the clusters of pint-size dwellings. There’s even a small “Children’s Fairy Garden” with contributions from local kids.

Families will find even more to like: The “Fairy Lolly” features playhouses and stages to spark imagination, and sections of the paved trail through the woods direct visitors to “Gallop like a unicorn” or “Scurry like a squirrel.” The calendar is packed with outdoor family art activities, weekly nature walks for preschoolers and twice-monthly story times.

The 60-plus mile drive to Solomons from D.C. might seem like a long way to travel to look at chintzy gnome dwellings, but it’s fine to think of them as an add-on, rather than the main objective. Encountering Giacomo Manzu’s “Monumental Standing Cardinal” in a copse of soaring trees, or seeing the pine needles and spiderwebs among the weathered steel of Jules Olitski’s “Greenberg Variations” can bring on a different sense of wonder. For a combination of art and nature, there really is no place like this in the Washington area.

13470 Dowell Rd., Solomons, Md. Open daily. “Creatures in the Garden” on display through Aug. 22; “Fairies in the Garden” through Sept. 6. Suggested donation $5. — F.H.

The Baltimore Museum of Art finds itself in the rare position of having two separate, adjacent sculpture gardens, which are linked by a gate but otherwise don’t relate to each other very well. Wildly different works are on display in wildly different settings, turning a visit into a personality test for art lovers: Which do you prefer, and why?

Closest to the BMA’s entrance is the Alan and Janet Wurtzburger Sculpture Garden, which opened in 1980. It uses raw, brutalist concrete panels to separate a terrace into room-like sections displaying works that mix early modernists, such as Auguste Rodin and Aristide Maillol, with mid-20th-century artists. As a background, the weathered, ombre concrete — which tumbles from baked-chocolate tones at the top to a creamy beige at the base — brings out the best in the figurative bronze works, such as Pablo Gargallo’s muscular “The Prophet (St. John the Baptist)” or “Endless Ribbon,” Max Bill’s granite mobius strip. A few steps toward the museum’s cafe, which has expanded its outdoor seating during the pandemic, everything softens: There’s a waterfall and a pool crossed by steppingstones, and Jacob Epstein’s “The Visitation” amid a bed of flowers.

In 1988, the BMA opened the Ryda and Robert H. Levi Sculpture Garden, which fills a lovely bowl-shaped glen between the museum and Charles Street, and concentrates on art from the second half of the 20th century. The land is owned by the neighboring Johns Hopkins University but has been exquisitely landscaped, beginning with the “balcony” at the entrance from the Wurtzburger garden, which shows off the sweeping gardens below.

Focal points in the grassy plain at the center include Calder’s spiky red “100 Yard Dash” and Tony Smith’s geometric “Spitball,” but visitors following the flagstones past beds of snowdrops and lilies will come across works like Joan Miro’s “Tête,” a monumental head of an owl, just sitting on the ground. Each turn of the path, or view from a new bench, shows a different view of the art. You might think the vista from balcony is the best, until you ascend a walkway to see di Suvero’s “Sister Lu,” which sits on the highest edge of the garden and offers its own overlook of the art below. (That’s one key difference between the two gardens: The Levi garden has more benches and a wisteria-covered pergola, making it much more enjoyable to linger in than the upper Wurtzburger garden.)

If you visit one garden, you should visit the other, even if just to compare and contrast — and decide which art looks better in which setting.

10 Art Museum Dr., Baltimore. Open Wednesday through Sunday. Free. Note: While limited, timed reservations are required to visit the Baltimore Museum of Art’s indoor galleries, they are not required for the sculpture gardens. — F.H.

In the spring, Glenstone’s landscaping might have more to say than its art. On the roughly three-mile path circumnavigating the Potomac museum’s campus, electric green trees glow so bright they seem to generate their own light. Branches coated with magenta flowers wiggle skyward. Purple star-shaped petals spill onto the sidewalk. It’s almost Seussian.

At first, it seems as if the museum’s muted gray buildings, the desert of Michael Heizer’s “Compression Line” and the plain, grainy surface of Richard Serra’s “Contour 290exist only as backdrops for a wild, living collage of colors.

But look closer, and like all things at Glenstone, nature, too, is contrived and carefully controlled. Trees dot the hills in rigid lines, and carefree-looking flowers belie regimented roots. The illusion that you’re immersed in nature lasts as long as it takes to glance over the hills and notice the McMansions scattered beyond.

The austere modern art site, which features 13 outdoor sculptures, is all about order: No young children to add their delightful, unexpected commentary (they’re not allowed); no picnicking on the rolling hills (those are for looking, not for sitting); and no wall texts. Even during the pandemic, they’ve kept that Glenstone-ism: to learn about the art, you must engage in a Socratic dialogue with one of many excessively cheerful docents (identifiable by their matching gray outfits.)

As you wind the path, the gaze of Jeff Koons’s “Split-Rocker” — a massive, grinning hobbyhorse head displayed on the hillside a la Rio de Janeiro’s “Christ the Redeemer” — is omnipresent. In May, like a supersize Chia Pet, it will bloom with flowers.

Still, if you can shake the sense that you’re being watched, Glenstone’s ersatz retreat can be convincing enough to allow you to slow down and get lost for a bit.

Beneath a blissful blanket of trees, zigzagging wooden platforms carry you toward Robert Gober’s “Two Partially Buried Sinks.” Tony Smith’s spider-like abstraction “Smug” graces the far crest of the main path. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s sound installation, “Forest (for a thousand years . . . ),” plays cackling laughter, rattling booms and bird chirps to the thick forest.

It speaks to the strangeness of Glenstone that the best parts of the museum are tucked away from the rest of it, escapes from the escape.

12100 Glen Rd, Potomac, Md. Open Thursday through Sunday. Free. Advanced reservations required. — K.A.

Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden

The entrance to the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden is on the National Mall, but the sculpture garden has never felt of the National Mall.

Sister museums, such as the National Museum of Natural History, put their front doors right on the Mall, inviting people off the grass and into the Smithsonian. Meanwhile, it’s all too easy to walk past the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, with its confusing entrance stairs and strange eastern end, where Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth sculptures seem to be randomly placed under some trees next to the Seventh Street sidewalk, without a clear connection to the garden.

It’s a problem the museum is all too aware of. Big plans are in the works: At a presentation in March, the Hirshhorn pitched a new sculpture garden design that includes an expanded reflecting pool, a performance space, lower stone walls and 50 percent more space for showing off large bronze artworks. A more prominent entrance from the Mall and the reopening of the tunnel that runs from the museum to the sculpture garden under Jefferson Drive are also in the cards. A decision from the National Capital Planning Commission and U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, two federal agencies that must approve the plans, is expected this summer.

But the truth is, I appreciate the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden more because it’s separated from the kickball teams and the armies of strollers and the Segway tours on the Mall. The sunken garden allows for more contemplation and a greater chance to enjoy the rotating collection of art, whether that’s the five-faced creature depicted in Huma Bhabha’s “We Come in Peace,” whose hacked, spray-painted body was added to the garden last summer, or Rodin’s robust, powerful “Walking Man,” which shows a very different take on a two-legged form.

The garden’s protocols call for visitors to follow a one-way path through most of the garden, but on my visits — dating back to the Hirshhorn’s reopening in August — it’s rarely been so crowded that I couldn’t keep a comfortable distance from people wandering inside Dan Graham’s “For Gordon Bunshaft” and checking out the two-way mirrors, or perch on a bench with a view of multiple sculptures, where I could read and think with a little bit of peace. (No matter how much the Hirshhorn modifies the garden, the most positive change would be banning the ice cream trucks parked on Seventh Street from playing annoying jingles nonstop.)

The Hirshhorn’s garden has always been a place to look at great art — I will always love the emotion and heroism depicted in “The Burghers of Calais,” set at ground level, as Rodin intended — but the museum has been expanding its virtual offerings as well. Each summer, the branches of a dogwood tree in the garden burst to “life,” covered in piles of white notecards. Yoko Ono’s interactive “Wish Tree for Washington D.C.” invites visitors to scribble a private wish, and tie it to the tree. Since that’s not possible this year, the Hirshhorn is asking people to post a picture of their handwritten wishes on Instagram, using #wishtreedc, through April 30. For those who can’t or don’t want to immerse themselves in art in person, it’s just another way that the Smithsonian is providing some comfort.

Seventh Street and Jefferson Drive NW (entrance on the National Mall). Open daily. The indoor galleries and the museum’s plaza remain closed. Free. — F.H.

The Kreeger Museum is one of Washington’s most peaceful small museums. Works by Picasso, Monet and members of the Washington Color School fill a beautiful, light-filled building, designed by noted architects Philip Johnson and Richard Foster as a residence for philanthropist David Lloyd Kreeger. Several years after Kreeger’s death, it became a home for his art collection.

The building is as much an attraction as what hangs on the walls, so when the Kreeger announced its April reopening, I didn’t think much about the sculpture garden that surrounds the museum: After all, only 12 pieces of outdoor art are listed on the printed guide. On the other hand, the Kreeger’s sense of quiet, and location far from the usual attractions, made me wonder if it would offer some respite that’s not found on the Mall.

The Kreeger’s outdoor sculpture garden makes the art seem as if it’s on display in a spacious, well-appointed backyard. Many people seem to be drawn to the shimmering reflecting pool, surrounded by John F. Dreyfuss’s blocky, abstract monoliths, but I was more interested in the bronzes on the terrace above, contrasting Maillol’s sumptuous “Pomona (Pomone)” with the nearby Henry Moores. (On a sunny day, I would love to sit on a bench beside the reflecting pool and read to the sound of the fountains.)

Works aren’t arranged along a defined path, leaving visitors to plot their own course through the grounds. After viewing Sandra Muss’s “Portals” — five columns covered with mirrors and weathered mesh that become part of the woods while framing views of the main building — I wandered past them before realizing that the trail didn’t lead to more art, but just more flowers and trees. I was actually okay with that.

Colorful works draw the eye, including the jewel-like green of Kendall Buster’s “Garden Snare” and Dalya Luttwak’s emergency-yellow “Poison Ivy” that climbs a living tree, but I was intrigued by Billy Friebele’s “Nero Plays a Fiddle,” a kinetic contraption involving a ventilation duct, an oil drum, a large battery and solar panels. The sculpture issues a strange drone as a rubber hand plucks two bass strings. When the sun is shining, the tempo speeds up. It’s on display through May 29 as part of the “Traces” exhibition in the lower galleries inside. Let’s hope for bright days between now and then.

3700 Foxhall Rd. NW. Open Tuesday to Saturday. Advance reservations are required. Suggested donation $10 adults, $8 students, seniors and military, children 12 and younger free. — F.H.

National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

For tourists, the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden is a nice diversion on a sunny day — an outdoor pit stop between museums where they can get the kids some ice cream and enjoy some fantastic modern art, and cap the visit with a selfie in front of Robert Indiana’s “Amor” or Roy Lichtenstein’s “House I.”

But for those who live here, the sculpture garden is more than sculpture: It’s also the place where you went ice skating and drank hot cocoa on a not-so-terrible second date, or where you’d head with your fellow summer interns on a steamy Friday afternoon, feeling sophisticated because you were drinking pitchers of sangria and listening to salsa at Jazz in the Garden instead of knocking back rounds of $1 Bud Lights inside a Capitol Hill dive bar.

It’s that side of the National Gallery of Art I was feeling nostalgic for when I first returned last July, the day the West Building’s indoor galleries first, briefly, reopened, and there were only a handful of other masked people on the dirt paths. It was a similar experience when I went back on a recent Friday to celebrate my own “happy hour.” (The sculpture garden remains the rare place where you can legally purchase and drink alcohol on the Mall, even during a pandemic.) There were a few tourists and a couple of families, including a couple sipping wine as they pushed a stroller, but even at the start of the weekend, there might have been a dozen other people.

As I walked around, admiring the spring blooms erupting in the beds near Tony Smith’s “Moondog,” which seems to lean as you view it from different angles, or the colorful flowers blowing in the breeze and providing a counterpoint to the weathered steel of Mark di Suvero’s massive, angular “Aurora,” I realized how much I hadn’t been seeing when the six-acre garden was teeming with people out to enjoy a communal experience. Even after we can all gather here again, slowing down sounds like a wonderful idea.

Constitution Avenue NW between Seventh and Ninth streets. Open daily. The indoor galleries of the East and West buildings remain closed. Free. — F.H.