There is an undeniable spirituality to the outdoor world, to big skies and tall trees, and flowers in bud or bloom. It’s easy to see the creator’s hand in it — after all, how could man be responsible for something so wonderful as the warmth of the sun on a cloudless day?
But humans, despite our foibles, have long provided the planet with great beauty, too. From sublime architecture to masterful visual art and even monuments marking our triumphs in technology, the United States is filled with testaments to humankind’s creativity and ingenuity.
Some of the country’s best institutions manage to mix the two, offering the finest examples of art, architecture and scientific achievement in stunning outdoor venues that faith-based group travelers will adore. The Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, the Booth Western Art Museum, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Cheekwood Estate and Gardens are five iconic examples of this kind of attraction, offering groups the best outdoor exhibits under the sun.
Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Created with a gift from the founder of the Meijer chain of superstores, the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park celebrated its 25th anniversary in April. Reopened earlier this month, it offers groups what John VanderHaagen, the attraction’s director of communications, called “158 acres of well-groomed gardens and a sculpture park with interior and exterior areas.”
“We like to say it’s an art history book come alive,” he said. “Our permanent collection is about 300 works and growing each year, but you can do a broad overview and be in and out in a couple of hours. There’s something to see whether you’re a casual art fan or horticultural lover.”
Among the pieces group visitors will especially enjoy are the whimsical 30-foot garden trowel sculpture “Plantoir” by Claes Oldenburg and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen; “Aria” by Alexander Liberman, a large metal piece that represents musical notes; and Ai Weiwei’s stunning “Iron Tree,” which continues to evolve with the elements as the sculptor intended. In addition, the Sculpture Park boasts work by the legendary Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore and Keith Haring.
Just as glorious are the Meijer Gardens, which include an English perennial garden, a Michigan farm garden and a children’s garden that groups can explore on a 45-minute tram tour. Behind-the-scene tours are also available to groups, who can lunch at the brand-new Meijer-Shedleski Picnic Pavilion. Before leaving the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, devout guests will want to spend a moment in the peaceful faith reflective garden in the Richard and Helen DeVoss Japanese Garden.
Booth Western Art Museum
The 120,000-square-foot Booth Western Art Museum is a rare gem, housing a collection focused on contemporary Western art, as well as a presidential gallery and a space dedicated to Civil War artwork. But as enriching as it is inside, so is it outside, with a stunning collection of outdoor sculptures, some with spiritual overtones that should inspire and touch faith-based group travelers. Among them is “Giving Thanks for the Rain, the Grass and a Way of Life” by Deborah Copenhaver-Fellows, which depicts a cowboy on horseback, head lowered in prayer.
“It’s loosely based on the artist’s dad, who was a world champion bronc rider in the ’50s,” said executive director Seth Hopkins. “She said her most vivid memory of her childhood was when he would ride into the ring during the grand entry at the beginning of the rodeo. He would pray for the safety of the cowboys and cowgirls, and also the animals.”
According to Hopkins, what makes the sculpture even more moving is that it’s located near the cornerstone for the church that once stood on the museum’s site. The spiritual heft of the cornerstone and the sculpture together has been known to bring visitors to tears. Other pieces of special note are a totem pole from a Canadian tribal group that stands more than 40 feet high and a bronze piece that depicts dancing Native American women by Glenna Goodacre, who designed the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. When the Booth reopens, groups will be able to learn more about these and other sculptures during informal tours of the grounds.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
Merritt Island, Florida
Aside from blasting off in a rocket ship, there is perhaps no way groups can feel closer to the heavens than by visiting the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The massive site got its start in 1964 with drive-through tours before America’s growing fascination with space led to the opening of the 42-acre Visitor Information Center in 1967. Today, the attraction is organized into Mission Zones that take groups through the history of the U.S. Space Program in chronological order. Highlights include the Space Shuttle Atlantis, one of only three remaining space-flown orbiters.
There are a number of outdoor exhibits at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex that promise to leave groups awestruck, like the new Mars Rover Vehicle Navigator, designed for traversing the red planet; a full-scale model of the Orion, the spacecraft that will take astronauts deeper into space than ever before; and the Space Mirror Memorial, which honors NASA heroes that made the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of the stars.
Now reopened, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex has not yet announced what kind of special tours and events might be available to groups. But travel planners will want to include time at the Rocket Garden, one of the complex’s most photographed sites. The rockets, as Rebecca Shireman, public relations and communications manager for Delaware North at Kennedy Space Center, noted, are authentic.
“These rockets pioneered America’s space exploration,” she said. “Most of the rockets you see are real, though never flown in space.”
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
A rare cultural treasure that seamlessly merges art, nature and architecture, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is set on 120 acres of Ozark forest, inside a ravine. The building’s showstopping design, by renowned architect Moshe Safdie, incorporates natural streams, curving around and crossing two spring-fed ponds. The landscaping honors and celebrates the God-given surroundings as well, using mostly native plants and cultivars of indigenous species, including plenty of colorful wildflowers and favorites like redbud and dogwood trees.
There are about five miles of trails for groups to explore, some leading to delightful natural features like springs and an evergreen forest. The half-mile Art Trail “connects the museum’s south entrance to downtown Bentonville and features a variety of sculptures,” said Beth Bobbitt, the museum’s public relations director, “including the popular ‘Love’ sculpture by Robert Indiana, native plants and waterways. There are numerous glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly in the North Forest and ‘Buckyball’ by Leo Villareal near the museum’s additional parking.”
Crystal Bridges, which opened to the public in November 2011, was founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton. Its mission is to connect visitors with the power of art and the serenity of nature in a welcoming environment that unites both. To that end, the museum and its grounds are free to enter. Traditionally, Crystal Bridges has offered groups special tours, including a look at the Art Trail and the institution’s architecture.
Cheekwood Estate and Gardens
Built as a country manor by the Cheek family in 1929, the lavish 55-acre Cheekwood Estate and Gardens was opened to the public in 1960 as an art museum and botanical garden. More than 225,000 people annually now visit the grounds, which, since 1999, has included the Ann and Monroe Carell Jr. Family Sculpture Trail.
“The Carell Trail has contemporary sculpture from many acclaimed artists,” said Caroline Jeronimus, Cheekwood’s senior communications manager. “It just underwent a major renovation — we’re really excited to reopen it. We now have better lighting, it’s fully accessible on parts of the trail so all guests can come out, and with that lighting, we’ll now have evening programming out there. That’s really fantastic.”
Ten works of art dot the 1.5-mile-long path, which winds through woodland, unusual topography for a sculpture trail. The pieces range from Sophie Ryder’s “Crawling Lady Hare,” an immense piece depicting a half-woman, half-rabbit figure, to a spectacular covered glass pedestrian bridge by Siah Armajani, installed on the trail in 2003. Of particular note, according to Jeronimus, is James Turrell’s “Blue Pesher,” a circular room built into a hillside with a 10-foot opening to the sky in the center. The artist has said the tranquil space was inspired by the Quaker meetinghouses he attended in his youth.
A variety of guided group tours are now available at the reopened Cheekwood, including tours of the sculpture trail and the estate’s historical gardens. There are special add-ons group leaders may want to book, like buffet and boxed lunches, and cocktail or wine events in gardens.