“A mere glimpse restores my sagging soul,” wrote Lillian Gerard, Special Projects Coordinator at MoMA, of The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden in a letter to Richard Shepard at The New York Times in 1975. She went on to describe it as “as a meeting place for young lovers, senior citizens, jumping children, foreign travelers, and out-of-towners” and in particular singled out “…its evenings with performers as ardent and free as the trees and the sculpture that thrive in this oasis of fountains and pools, with the sky above and cement below.”
This personal and informal portrait of the Sculpture Garden, rings just as true to me today as I look out over the urban retreat that remains at the heart of the Museum. This year marks the 45th anniversary of the beginning of Summergarden, which started in May 1971 as a program of free weekend evenings in the Sculpture Garden with occasional entertainment including folk singing, chamber music, dance performances, and acrobatics.
Summergarden launched with much fanfare during a preview party on May 10, 1971. In the proposal for the program, then-director of MoMA’s press office, Elizabeth Shaw, wrote that the entertainment “should be casual, intermittent and not overwhelm or interfere with [the] basic idea that the Garden is an oasis of beauty and quiet, in a big, busy city.” Examples she provided were “Strolling banjo, tap dancer, madrigal singer, James Byers [sp] (artist), flautists, ethnic music, dance and poetry.” The proposal also states, “All suggestions would probably be more effective if we can characterize the program with a simple but clear title— [i.e., Take a Breather—The MOMA’s Sculpture Garden open free weekend evenings—(too long)].” The more elegant and all-encompassing title Summergarden was chosen. Those in attendance at the opening included August Heckscher, the Commissioner of Parks who represented Mayor Lindsay; Dennis Bryant, NBC’s Director of Community Affairs; dancer Kay Mazso of The New York City Ballet; and artists including Romare Bearden, Ernest Crichlow, and Norman Lewis.
Early performances were given by the Multigravitational Experiment Group, who were invited back over the course of several years. Marcia B. Siegel of the Hudson Review wrote “. . . the dancers seem to be pouring themselves through space, wrapping every inch of their bodies around the palpable air.” In 1972 and 1973, the artist Marta Minujin organized two happenings, Interpenning, and Kidnappening, which involved the direct participation of visitors. Among the early dance performances were those by the Laura Foreman Dance Company. And musical acts included “Sounds in the Cosmic Egg: Meditational Atmosphere” by Shyam Bhatnagar and Laura Hawkins, in which the four-stringed instrument tamboura was played to create a meditative experience. These are but a few examples of the early programming. Over the years, hundreds of artists have entertained visitors to the Sculpture Garden on summer evenings with music ranging from bluegrass to brass quintets to compositions by John Cage.
As the Summergarden program grew and developed over the decades, formal partnerships with The Juilliard School (since 1987) and Jazz at Lincoln Center (since 2005) now bring us premieres of new music in a range of styles. We hope that many of you will be able to “take a breather” and join us in the Sculpture Garden this summer or for the final Summergarden of the season on Sunday, featuring a jazz concert by the Josh Evans Quintet.