A new sculpture greets you as you enter the manicured park at the DeCordova Museum. It's an 18-foot-high, bright red, flat man. Or half a flat man. His torso rises out of the lush, green grass. Senior Curator Nick Capasso says Boston artist Douglas Kornfeld's eye-popping piece is ushering in a new era at the DeCordova. And, he says, that new era is reflected in the museum's new name.
"We changed the name of the institution from the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park to the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum," Capasso says. "We're literally putting first things first."
The DeCordova is New England's largest outdoor sculpture park. It's tucked away in the woods of Lincoln, not far from Walden Pond. More than 80 hulking pieces of contemporary art occupy 35 acres on the grounds of the DeCordova Museum, which opened in 1950. This summer, the park is getting a "park-lift” with the installation of major new sculptures and a new name.
To that end, the contemporary art museum is upgrading its outdoor collection. "We've taken away several pieces this summer that had been here for a long time," Capasso says, " and we're putting in as we speak three major installations.”
Including a concrete block structure by Sol LeWitt. The conceptual artist passed away in 2007, but his long-time assistant Jeremy Zieman is here, overseeing construction of what looks like a monolith.
"It's a beautiful setting for this kind of piece," Zieman says. "For the first couple of days, people thought it's just some form for maybe putting another sculpture on, now that it's rising up it's starting to look like something different."
Giving visitors the chance to see sculptures in-progress is part of the museum's new game plan, says Senior Curator Capasso. “We want to have a lot of activity in the park, “ he says. “We want to have artists here on an almost ongoing basis, building things and using the park for various projects.”
Hidden parts of the park, included. Walking through what is known as the South Field, Capasso points to the end of the field, past artist Jim Dyne’s two big black hearts, perhaps the most well-known of the sculpture park’s works.
“There’s a screen of woods behind the hearts, and we’ve never placed anything in the woods and visitors rarely go there,” Capasso says, “but now we’re creating a giant installation, just past the hearts and into the woods.”
At the end of a muddy path, in an antique barn foundation, lies an installation that's 7 feet high, 31 feet long and 11 feet deep.
Here, artist Steven Siegel works with an army of volunteers, including art students from high schools in Waltham, Ashburnham and Westminster. They’re building a wooden structure that’s flanked by piles of newspapers. Thousands of them, donated by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
“This was designed to have 25 cubic yards of paper, which is probably 10 to 12 tons,” Siegel says.
When it's done, Siegel will cover the massive object with soil and plants from the surrounding woods. Ultimately it will decompose, over about five years, changing daily with the weather. Siegel's “green” installations are all over the world, and he says the DeCordova is prime real estate for environmental art.
“A lot of museums that have substantial natural acreage are moving a little bit more in this direction, so instead of rotating steel work in and out every couple of years they will build something that's biodegradable or that will break down over time and then they'll replace it over time,” Siegel says. “So they're in a very good place.”
Dennis Kois hopes so. He took over as the museum's director last summer, and says it's essential for the DeCordova to emphasize its natural resources. The institution recently started an endowment earmarked for the sculptures after receiving $1 million from the Lexington-based Parker Family Foundation.
Even with that money, Kois says focusing on large format sculpture and particularly outdoor work is an expensive undertaking, especially in the middle of a recession.
“It costs a lot to ship, it costs a lot to make, it costs a lot to borrow it, to get it here, to install it, “ he says. “It's extremely complex work and so there's no question the economy is making life tough.” But, Kois adds, “this is about thinking about where we want to be as a museum in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years — and starting down that road.”
Right now outdoor art is booming in the U.S., but the DeCordova has long been recognized for its extensive collection. There are more than 80 sculptures here. You can see a giant head carved in stone, sharks suspended from tree branches and a musical instrument made of metal tubes that just begs to be played by little hands.
Local toddlers swarm around the sculpture. Their moms, Maureen Kelaher and Erin Edwards, watch from a picnic blanket nearby. They admit they came here expecting gardens filled with Greek sculptures.
“I grew up in Waltham and I had never been here before," Kelahar says. "Which is really embarrassing. It's so close and it's so much land.”
Land that kids can run around in, making it a unique place to experience art. Kids like Grace Kupke and Casey Chertavian, both nine years old and in the museum’s summer camp program.
“You can go inside the sculptures, you can go through the sculptures — that one over there is like two forts,” one says. “I personally love the big red man, well, that's what I think it is, and it's just something that makes this museum look like, wow!, this seems like a pretty cool place.”
“The sculpture park is what we have that nobody else around here has,” Capasso says. “Malcolm Rogers, the director of the MFA, bless his heart, can raise half a billion dollars, but he's not going to have 35 acres outdoors. The ICA can build a cutting edge, fabulous building on the Boston waterfront, but they're not going to have 35 acres outdoors. That's what we have.”
And that, Capasso says, is what the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum aims to capitalize on in an increasingly competitive museum landscape.