In a city known for its bold cuisine, brassy music and general embrace of nonstop revelry, where even a funeral can turn into a street party, there is also room for a quieter, more cultured experience. And in fact, lately there is even more room for it, with the opening this May of the new wing of the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA).
The 6-acre addition to the museum's popular outdoor exhibit features 26 works by some of the medium's top artists. Baltasar Lobo, Katharina Fritsch, Frank Gehry, Robert Longo and Frank Stella are among those whose installations share the space with a number of City Park's magnificent oak trees and their gobs of Spanish moss.
Eighteen months in the making, the new wing sets the artwork on a winding path around a shimmering lagoon that is a central feature of the garden. In fact, two features that are making the biggest impressions in the new wing are directly tied to the water feature.
A glass bridge, created by Elyn Zimmerman, features a painted walkway whose swirling design passes through the side walls of the bridge and are reflected in the water below.
A second walkway, this one running alongside the lagoon, connects the new and old sections of the sculpture garden. It gradually descends below the waterline, eventually bringing those walking along its path down to eye level with the surface of the lagoon. Viewed from a distance, it appears as if those visitors are dropping into the water.
A stroll through the garden, free to the public, offers a welcome respite for the waistline, brain cells and wallet, all of which can take a pretty fair beating in the French Quarter and the Garden District on the other side of town. It's also pretty easy on the ears: On a recent Sunday afternoon visit, the sound of silence dominated, broken occasionally by the chirping of birds, the click-clack of the City Park amusement park train as it chugs through the garden every 15 minutes or so and the gleeful shrieks of children playing hide-and-seek among the trees and works of art. The kids' favorite hiding spot was inside Mirror Labyrinth, a collection of glass and metal columns arranged to form a winding, futuristic house or mirrors. More than a few of us grown-ups couldn't resist getting lost in the work of art, either.
Just a bit off the path, the new wing is also home to a 5,000-square-foot sculpture pavilion that houses exhibition space for smaller-scale sculptures as well as other art from the NOMA collection. Floor-to-ceiling windows give visitors the feeling of being outside in the garden while they enjoy works of art in a climate-controlled environment -- a welcome feature on the scorching early summer day I visited.
The Besthoff Sculpture Garden is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. in summer and until 5 p.m. in winter and is free to the public. The New Orleans Museum of Art, whose collection includes works by Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Jackson Pollock and Georgia O'Keeffe, is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and active military, $8 for university students and $6 for ages 7 to 12.