PALM trees in Minnesota? A 52-foot spoon with a cherry on top? Traditional formal gardens studded with 20th-century sculptures of nearly every conceivable type and material? What's going on here? It is all part of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, a 7 1/2-acre island of green on the north side of the Walker Art Center in the heart of Minneapolis. The garden, which celebrated its first anniversary last weekend, is considered the most extensive urban sculpture garden in the United States. In a January review, New York Times architecture and design critic Paul Goldberger said it represents ``the finest new outdoor space in the country for displaying sculpture.''
It also represents a triumph for the kind of public/private cooperation for civic improvement that the Twin Cities has been become known for.
The effort was spearheaded by Martin Friedman, director of the Walker Art Center, and David L. Fisher, superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board; the garden is jointly run by their two institutions, with help from the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, part of the University of Minnesota. A number of private donors also contributed individual works or funded the completion of various sections of the garden.
How successful has the garden been? According to the Walker's own estimates, more than half a million visitors have traipsed through the park's long gravel paths, or all'ees, admiring 40 works by sculptors such as Claes Oldenburg, Anthony Caro, Frank Gehry, Ellsworth Kelly, Jacques Lipchitz, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, and George Segal.
``Its popularity is way beyond our expectations,'' says Mr. Fisher. The board recently reseeded the grass in several areas of the garden because ``the public has loved it to death.'' Last winter, Fisher says, he was amazed to find that, although ``the temperature was 10 degrees and it was snowing horizontally, there were troops of people walking through the park.''
Yet despite all the use, there has been little abuse. ``People have a real public pride about (the garden),'' says Fisher, ``a real sense of public ownership.''
For its part, the Walker, a museum of contemporary art founded in 1927, couldn't be more pleased with the garden, says Mr. Friedman. It has increased both the number and type of people who come inside the Walker. ``We found a whole new constituency that had not come to a museum before,'' he says, ``who became entranced by the garden and thought they might as well walk across the street and see what is going on in the building.''
The layout of the garden begins with four shrub-lined squares, each a kind of ``roofless gallery,'' says Friedman. The grid that is formed, with its roots in French and Italian Renaissance gardens, allows the modern sculptures to play ``against the grid, against the formality.''
Two of the squares contain permanent exhibits; the other two are used for rotating exhibits. The first of these, still in place, is called ``Inside Outside.'' It includes specially commissioned works by contemporary sculptors such as Jene Highstein, whose three-part untitled work, Mr. Friedman writes in the exhibition catalog, consists of ``irreducible ovoids, hewn in fine-grained gray granite, ... assertively modern, yet evocative of remotest antiquity.''
Dominating the far northern end, away from the Walker, is ``Spoonbridge and Cherry,'' a whimsical giant sculpture and fountain arching over a man-made pond. It was designed specifically for the garden by Oldenburg and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen.
``The garden itself is very formalistic,'' Ms. van Bruggen said of the work last year. ``It reminds me of Versailles. Louis XIV was known for the etiquette he enforced in the palace. So the spoon and cherry kind of fit right in, as a parody of table manners.''
A three-part glass conservatory forms the western border of the garden. The central atrium rises 65 feet and contains towering Washingtonia palm trees, fragrant orange trees, and a 22-foot-high ``Standing Glass Fish,'' by architect/sculptor Frank Gehry.
The palm court, together with attached north and south houses, each 82 feet long, serves a practical role as a pleasing indoor walkway between a parking lot and the Walker/Guthrie Theater complex. The south house contains rotating horticultural exhibits (currently native Minnesota flowers and prairie grasses). The north house is highlighted by a series of green topiary arches. The arches are actually creeping fig vines attached to a stainless-steel frame, rather than the ``Victorian sense of plants shaped into a form,'' says Michael VanValkenburg, a Cambridge, Mass., landscape architect who codesigned the conservatory gardens. A high-tech drip irrigation system feeds the vines.
To the east, the sculpture garden is bordered by a river of traffic, 16 lanes of highway formed by the convergence of several major arteries. One of the early goals of the project was to connect the Walker/Guthrie by foot with downtown Minneapolis, via Loring Park, on the far side of the highways. The task of designing a footbridge over the traffic was given to local architect Siah Armajani. His steel and wood structure, longer than a football field, is based on classic 19th-century bridge-building techniques. A wheelchair access ramp on the Walker end doubles as viewing platforms for the garden; a poem by John Ashbery stretches along the bridge in both directions, encouraging eyes upward and away from the blur of traffic.
For Friedman, who would like to see the garden expand someday to take in 3 1/2 more acres to the north, the outdoor setting gives sculpture a new context not possible inside.
``The whole idea of having sculpture outdoors is that you have lots of `borrowed views'; that's the term the Japanese use,'' he says. ``You incorporate whatever is around.... The borrowed view here happens to be the skyline of Minneapolis....
``You see objects through objects; you see them under changing conditions of light, seasons, rain, snow. They take on different character.... You have a different sense of scale when you work outdoors.''
But perhaps his greatest pleasure, he says, has been in seeing how ordinary people of all ages and descriptions use the garden. ``It's great watching the joggers going through, the nursery school classes.'' Outside, he says, people view the sculptures ``more spontaneously, (with) more opinions, more possessively.''