Public outdoor sculpture gardens hold an important place in the American art world. The significance of these installations as a cultural destination and a center of inspiration has only been reinforced in the past several months, as the pandemic forced most art galleries and museums to shutter their doors.
One of the foremost examples in the nation is located within easy driving distance of New Hanover County. Brookgreen Gardens features more than 1,400 figurative sculptures on display throughout 551 acres, accented by numerous water features and connected by meandering pathways. Located just south of Myrtle Beach in Murrells Inlet, the Gardens are certainly worth the trip.
While perfect for an art-studded hike on a sunny winter afternoon, Brookgreen is unsurpassed in springtime, when most of the paths are lined with flowers and rosebushes, specimen trees, and ancient live oaks draped in Spanish moss — many of which rival the behemoth that forms the centerpiece at Airlie Gardens.
Many of the bronze, concrete, limestone and marble sculptures were created around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The gardens’ website features high-quality photos depicting the sculptures, and it is worth a look before visiting. But the works need to be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Otherwise, it is difficult to grasp the scale, the attention to detail and realism, and the effort and clarity that went into every piece.
Most of the guidebooks and online information state that a few hours is enough to experience Brookgreen, but it could easily fill up an entire day. The minutes can quickly turn into hours at Brookgreen, as it is also home to a zoo — one of the few accredited zoos in the coastal Carolinas — hundreds of acres of botanical gardens and nature trails, an interactive walking trail detailing the history of the rice plantations on which the gardens were built, and a small gallery that houses incredible miniaturized artwork painted under a microscope.
The gallery is perfect for whiling away an hour or so, especially if the weather turns bad. It is a relaxing experience to let the importance of time melt away while contemplating the many hours the artists spent on the works.
There are several small restaurants, a welcome sight after a few hours spent walking around and checking out the sculptures.
Some of the benches and seats in the somewhat secluded meditation gardens seem to beg the visitor to slow down for a minute and separate from the anxiety and stress of the hectic, fast-paced world, to find that perfect distraction that might even unlock a key to the right decision or get the creative juices flowing.
There’s a reason why some innovative thinkers have meditation gardens and wandering pathways in their backyards. Separating from the problem at hand can sometimes be the perfect way to find a solution.
There’s also a reason why many brides-to-be and high schoolers can be seen getting their picture taken at Brookgreen: it’s simply a beautiful place.
The magnitude of the place and the vision it took to bring it into reality is hard to put into words. As if the talent of the artists and their ability to capture the essence of human and animal forms and bring them to life were not enough, the enormity and scope of the place is almost certain to surpass anyone’s expectations.
Located on the site of four former rice plantations, Brookgreen Gardens encompasses 9,100 acres. It was purchased by Archer Huntington and his wife, noted sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, in 1930 to create a public garden for showcasing Anna’s creations and the work of other artists.
Brookgreen opened in 1932, a time when creative efforts and visionary ideas put forth by women were mostly ignored. The beauty of Anna Hyatt Huntington’s art should not be downplayed, but her vision for Brookgreen and ability to bring it into reality is something even more memorable and impressive, especially given the cultural headwinds she likely faced.
It’s not known if Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington thought about the history of the rice plantations and the legacy of slavery as they were devising their plans, but Brookgreen Gardens stands as proof that a place with a highly negative history can be transformed into something positive.
The Huntingtons created a movement, as since then cities across the nation have built outdoor art sculpture gardens as centers of culture and recreation, meditation and contemplation. It is inspiring to think of the Huntingtons’ selfless dedication in building such a place of wonder, art and mystery for future generations to enjoy, and wonderful to think it’s right in our backyard.