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9 Texas museums with jaw-dropping outdoor art spaces

Guests hang out at the fountains in front of the McNay Art Museum. | Photo courtesy McNay Art Museum Guests hang out at the fountains in front of the McNay Art Museum. | Photo courtesy McNay Art Museum

Texas offers many inspiring, thought-provoking museums, covering art, design, science, and history. But if you were to restrict your visit to a museum’s interior exhibits, you’d miss the wonderful outdoor art spaces.

As spring paints its gorgeous color across the state, take a rest, spread out a picnic, and gaze upon some beautiful works of art en plein air.

1.  Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Cloud Column by Anish Kapoor at the Brown Foundation Inc. Plaza in Houston. | Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

“Cloud Column” by Anish Kapoor at the Brown Foundation Plaza in Houston. | Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

As part of a major, multiyear redevelopment project, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston unveiled a brand-new rooftop garden, which offers unobstructed views of the city skyline. The museum’s Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden features masterworks from artists such as Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Louise Bourgeois, Pietro Consagra, and Auguste Rodin.

Nearby, you can stroll through the public Brown Foundation Plaza, where you’ll find 2 sculptures: Cloud Column by Anish Kapoor (this sculpture was a precursor to Chicago’s famed Cloud Gate, colloquially known as The Bean); and Song of Strength by Eduardo Chillida.

2.  Laguna Gloria, Austin

Looking Up by Tom Friedman at the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at The Contemporary Austin – Laguna Glorias. | Photo by Cynthia J. Drake

“Looking Up” by Tom Friedman at the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria. | Photo by Cynthia J. Drake

Making up one-half of The Contemporary Austin (the Jones Center art museum is located on Congress Avenue near the Capitol building), Laguna Gloria is the serene sister location, situated on 14 acres along the Lake Austin shoreline. It doesn’t feel quite right to label this space a “sculpture garden” because the property unveils itself slowly; visiting this space is like traveling through an art exhibit brought to life.

Hike along the trails and be surprised at the way artists exploit the natural environment to create meaning for the permanent and rotating outdoor exhibits. Some include sculptures, sound recordings, or foam bubbles and other surprising media. You can also tour the 1916 Italianate-style villa of Clara Driscoll, who is remembered for her efforts to preserve the Alamo.

3.  Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas

Eviva Amore by Mark di Suvero at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. | Photo by Tim Hursley, courtesy of the Nasher Sculpture Center

“Eviva Amore” by Mark di Suvero at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. | Photo by Tim Hursley, courtesy of the Nasher Sculpture Center

A must-see for modern-art aficionados, the Nasher Sculpture Center’s 1.5-acre outdoor sculpture garden and indoor galleries draw from a permanent collection of about 300 artworks representing legendary sculptors such as Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder. An audio tour is included with your admission. Enjoy an alfresco lunch on the terrace at the Nasher Café by Wolfgang Puck to make the most of your day.

4.  Dallas Museum of Art

Concentrations 51 by Mark Handforth at the Sculpture Garden at Dallas Museum. | Photo courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art

“Concentrations 51” by Mark Handforth at the Sculpture Garden at the Dallas Museum of Art. | Photo courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art

A new outdoor exhibit, “La Fuerza del Destino” by Bosco Sodi, runs through July 2022, featuring 30 sculptures by the Oaxacan artist within the Dallas Museum of Art’s Sculpture Garden. The sculptures—large terra-cotta spheres that were sourced from Oaxacan clay, dried in the sun, and fired in a traditional brick kiln—are a recognition of ancient American civilizations as well as the Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi.

5.  Blanton Museum of Art, Austin

The Moody Patio and stage and museum check-in at Edgar A. Smith Building. | Photo courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

The Moody Patio and stage and museum check-in at the Edgar A. Smith Building. | Photo courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas at Austin

The Blanton Museum of Art, located on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, is poised to offer a unique outdoor space: the Butler Sound Gallery. It is believed to be the first major museum with a permanent, dedicated sound gallery in the U.S. Located east of Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin installation, the sound gallery is expected to feature the work of sound artists that will engage visitors’ ears as they travel through the museum grounds.

Elsewhere on the UT campus, you can make a free reservation to see The Color Inside, a “skyspace” by James Terrell. While you’re inside a dome, the rooftop opens to the outside, and, at sunset, the colored interior lights play off the sky’s colors to create surprising combinations.

6.  McNay Art Museum, San Antonio

Entrance of the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. | Photo courtesy McNay Art Museum

Entrance of the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. | Photo courtesy McNay Art Museum

Though San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum is renowned for its fine-art collection within the museum’s walls, a recently completed, $6 million refresh to the 25-acre grounds introduced landscaping improvements to entice visitors to linger outside. Beloved outdoor sculptures like Ascent by Alexander Liberman now mingle with newly added works such as Hashtag-Orange by Alejandro Martín, Standing Tulip by Tom Wesselmann, and The Sole Sitter by Willie Cole.

7.  Pop Art Museum, San Angelo

Pop Art Museum in San Angelo. | Photo courtesy Discover San Angelo

Pop Art Museum in San Angelo. | Photo courtesy Discover San Angelo

For the past several years, San Angelo has been building up its trove of public art, and in 2021 it was designated a Visual Arts Capital of Texas by Governor Greg Abbott. As you might expect, there’s a lot to experience in this artsy West Texas city. Check out the outdoor Pop Art Museum, located at the site of a defunct bowling alley; each “lane” provides a visual frame for dozens of colorful wall murals. Stroll through San Angelo’s city parks to discover Art in Uncommon Places, a project started by 2 retired art teachers that has grown to include more than 100 installations throughout the region.

8.  Quinta Mazatlan, McAllen

Quinta Mazatlan is a Spanish-revival estate surrounded by tropical gardens. | Photo by Gabbro/Alamy Stock Photo

Quinta Mazatlan is a Spanish-revival estate surrounded by tropical gardens. | Photo by Gabbro/Alamy Stock Photo

This 1930s Spanish Revival hacienda in McAllen has a fascinating history, a richly designed interior, and an art gallery with a rotation of exhibits featuring works in oils, pastels, watercolor, and carvings. But it’s the surrounding lush grounds that are the real draw—so much so that Quinta Mazatlan is a designated segment of the World Birding Center. Visitors can wander the Forest Sculpture Trail or take guided or unguided hikes through the 20 acres in search of some of the most sought-after North American birds in the Rio Grande Valley.

9.  Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Conjoined by Roxy Paine at The Modern in Fort Worth. | Photo by Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

“Conjoined” by Roxy Paine at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. | Photo by Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

From the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens to the Philip Johnson–designed Water Gardens, Fort Worth has a lot of unique outdoor spaces to explore. A quiet but no less impactful space is the exterior of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, where you can view sculptures such as Roxy Paine’s Conjoined, two steel trees that bend toward each other while the museum’s reflecting pool shimmers in the distance. Vortex, a colossal rust-colored sculpture by Richard Serra, invites visitors to play with sound inside the steel walls. In the evening, the brilliant lights of The Modern’s galleries create a stunning visual effect on their own.

Cynthia J. Drake is a freelance travel writer based in Austin who writes for Texas Monthly and Texas Highways.

You may also like: In Central Texas, Bartlett goes from ghost town to artist enclave

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