Nearly nine years after New Orleans Museum of Art officials first imagined doubling the size of the museum's highly successful sculpture garden in City Park, the 6.5-acre addition will open to the public Wednesday.

The $15 million Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden II features 26 pieces of contemporary art, mostly completed within the last decade and a half, situated amid lagoons, a maze of bridges and walkways and native plantings like southern magnolias, star anise and wax myrtle.

The original 5-acre garden was created in 2003 after Sydney Besthoff, the former CEO of the K&B drugstore chain, and his wife donated about 55 sculptures by 20th and 21st century artists to the museum.

It is now considered one of the top sculpture gardens in the world.

"Their commitment to sculpture is unwavering, and their commitment to public exposure to sculpture is a given," said Susan Taylor, the museum's director. 

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Susan Taylor, the New Orleans Museum of Art Montine McDaniel Freeman Director, talks about the art inside the Pavilion before the opening of NOMA's Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden Expansion in New Orleans, Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

Visitors interested in exploring the expansion will begin in the original sculpture garden, which features more than 60 works of art that date as far back as the 19th century, as well as meandering footpaths, reflecting lagoons and 200-year-old live oaks.

The landscape begins to change on a canal link bridge that dips into one of the park's lagoons, allowing visitors to look over the edge to waist-high water as it leads them underneath the Roosevelt Mall bridge, curving alongside a walkway leading to the museum.

The rear half of the museum itself, as well as the walkway leading to it, serves as a clear divider between the old garden and the new.

As visitors cross the canal link bridge — the first of its kind in the country — they enter the expanded garden, which was designed in collaboration with two architecture firms, Reed-Hilderbrand and Lee Ledbetter & Associates.

From there, a winding collection of paths, walkways and bridges leads spectators around the perimeter of the large lagoon to see various sculptures in the landscape, on islands and on lawns surrounding the water.


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By design, the architects created the expansion so that it would feature more contemporary art and have a stronger relationship with the park's natural setting.

"The lagoon is clearly the organizing element that connects both gardens," said Doug Reed, one of the landscape architects. "And walking into water is a very special experience, in and of itself."

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People walk over the Elyn Zimmerman Glass Bridge before the opening of NOMA's Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden Expansion in New Orleans, Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

Works specifically commissioned for the site include a 60-foot-long mosaic wall by artist Teresita Fernández and a colorful glass bridge by Elyn Zimmerman.

Other pieces include a large white skull sculpture created by Katharina Fritsch, a bear made of stainless steel by Frank Gehry and a large glass mirrored labyrinth designed by Jeppe Hein.

The garden also includes a 5,000-square-foot indoor sculpture pavilion created by architect Lee Ledbetter, which offers exhibition space for indoor sculptures and shows off works in NOMA’s collection curated to complement the outdoor installations.

The gallery’s elliptical shape is reflected inside through curving walls, designed so that visitors can circle around each sculpture. Eighteen-foot ceilings allow for the display of taller works, and skylights bring in natural light.

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Visitors explore the art inside the Pavilion during a tour before the opening of NOMA's Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden Expansion in New Orleans, Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

An outdoor amphitheater provides opportunities for musical, theatrical and cultural programs, as well as a place for visitors to contemplate the garden. Grass-covered seating cascades down in steps beneath a grove of trees, overlooking a stage that extends over the lagoon.

Finally, an outdoor learning area offers an informal gathering space, accommodating classes at the north edge of the garden.

Throughout the expansion, officials have sprinkled indigenous vegetation, including 65 trees and more than 475 shrubs, designed to highlight, rather than distract from, the sculptures or performance art that might take place, Reed said.

Newly planted magnolia and pine trees, wood ferns and shrubs like dwarf palmetto and buttonbush align with the historical fabric of the landscape, while preserved-heritage live oaks extend the adjacent canopy through the garden. 

"We have pursued this for the landscape to remain deeply deferential to the works of art," Reed said. "The structural component of the landscape provides quite a bit of delicacy and lightness."


Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.