CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Fine Arts Garden in University Circle is a tree-lined, reflecting pool for the Cleveland Museum of Art, a magnet for wedding photographers, and an oasis for picnicking, daydreaming, skipping stones, and people watching.
But could it be more? Should it evolve as it approaches its centennial in 2027?
The museum wants to know and will hold a community brainstorming session Saturday, 1-3:30 p.m., to envision what the Fine Arts Garden might become in the future. Those interested in participating should register its website here.
Attendees will hear presentations about data gathered on the garden’s present condition through earlier surveys and meetings. Participants will participate in strolls throughout the 10-acre garden, and in facilitated conversations about how it might be upgraded in the future.
Should a boathouse be added to Wade Lagoon? A restaurant or cafe? Provisions for skating in the winter?
Should contemporary sculpture be interspersed among the traditional monuments in the garden?
“We’re asking people to get really specific, so we know where to put our resources,” said Cyra Levenson, the museum’s director of education and academic affairs.
The garden, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. in 1927, stretches more than a quarter mile south from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s 1916 building to Euclid Avenue, and includes triangle of land outlined by adjacent major roads further south, where the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District is digging a major interceptor tunnel.
The garden also encompasses the aforementioned lagoon, named for Jeptha H. Wade, co-founder of Western Union, plus curving, tree-shaded walkways and dozens of sculptures, including Chester Beach’s 1928 “Fountain of the Waters.”
The landscape is widely viewed as one of Cleveland’s most beautiful and beloved settings.
Cleveland, Greece or Paris?
“This could be ancient Greece, it could be heaven; you could be in Paris,” the late Peter Marzio, then-director of the Museum of Fine Art Houston, said in 2001 during a public meeting in an earlier forum on the Cleveland museum’s future, as he clicked through slides showing views of it from the lagoon.
Today the garden is showing signs of age. Retaining walls are slumping into the lagoon; stone benches are tilting on cockeyed foundations. Some areas look overgrown, and pedestrians often need to look down to avoid poop from Canada geese.
The museum feels the garden is not as active, lively and inviting as it might be.
“We know the beauty is welcoming, that people use it as a space for serenity or to take a stroll,” Levenson said. “But the formality of the space can sometimes seem off-putting.”
Roadmap for future projects
The goal of Saturday’s meeting is to provide a roadmap for future projects that the museum would undertake as funds become available. The museum plans to share its findings at a future public meeting, probably in August, said Director William Griswold.
The only immediate project the museum plans in the garden is a $2 million rehab of Holden Terrace at the south end of the garden, funded by the state’s capital budget.
Other projects could be implemented over the next five years or so, Griswold said.
“I’m hoping that people will be really forthcoming,” he said. “We want to hear how this institution can best serve the needs of our neighbors and of the whole community on the campus that we’re so fortunate to have.”
He described the focus on the garden as an outgrowth of the institution’s new strategic plan, released in November, which is aimed in part at expanding and diversifying its audience.
The focus on the garden is also part of a larger effort to enhance the growing inventory of public spaces around the museum.
The list includes the newly completed 15-acre Nord Family Greenway, an adjacent 7-acre parcel along Doan Brook, and the planned East Bell Commons east of the museum along East Boulevard.
“This is a long term planning effort,” Griswold said. “We have this tremendous opportunity, which we’ve never had in the past to think holistically” about the museum’s expanding campus.