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Art: Art Alfresco

When every display space in the house is occupied by artworks, Brigitte Micmacker, co-owner of A New Leaf Gallery in Berkeley, Calif., offers this advice to collectors: Take it outside. “People come to us when they’ve filled the inside of their home with art and they want to fill the outdoor space,” says Micmacker, whose gallery specializes in contemporary outdoor sculpture.

As a way of expanding a collection, a sculpture garden may be preferable to rotating pieces in and out of storage. However, issues of setting, presentation, lighting, humidity, climate, and maintenance acquire vexing dimensions when artworks are exposed to the elements. Mother Nature is a pitiless critic who damages, discolors, and destroys pieces that cannot withstand her punishments. If the art survives her wrath, it could fall victim to misguided staffers who think nothing of cleaning a limestone statue with the same caustic solution used to scrub the fence. Nor is outdoor sculpture easily rearranged. Change your mind about where to hang a painting, and usually one person can move it by hand; put a sculpture in the wrong place, and you might need a crane and a skilled crew to adjust its position. In short, when shopping for outdoor sculpture, there is more to consider than what pleases the eye and how much to spend.

“You do need to understand what you are buying. You need to know the materials [it is made from] and what problems there might be with it,” advises Stephen Block, the owner of Inner Gardens, a Los Angeles firm that deals in antique garden sculpture and ornaments.

Nicholas Capasso is familiar with the challenges of assembling a sculpture garden. He has been a curator at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Mass., since 1990, and also acts as a consultant to private collectors. “If you buy a painting and in 10 years decide that you don’t like it, there’s usually a resale market,” he says. “Outdoor sculpture has very limited resale value unless you buy the bluest of the blue chips.”

While some collectors are frightened off by a sculpture garden’s probable lack of resale value, others, such as Steven Oliver, find it liberating. The collector of contemporary works began forming his garden 18 years ago as a reaction to the 1980s art market, which he remembers was “more on the financial pages than the critical pages.” The construction magnate set aside 100 acres on his Sonoma County, Calif., ranch and commissioned Richard Serra and other prominent artists to create site-specific works. “Instead of buying art that had value, I invited the artists to make works that can’t be transferred or sold,” Oliver says.

His garden now includes 17 works that consume about one-third of the total acreage. Each covers an average of two and a half acres and is carefully situated to ensure “visual separation” from the others. “The smallest is the size of an automobile, and the largest has as much steel as a seven-story building,” says Oliver. He estimates that he has room for at least 20 additional sculptures, which will be built one at a time over the course of a year or two. While he refrains from discussing the cost of the artworks, he does spend from $50,000 to $70,000 annually on maintenance, which is handled by the ranch’s four employees.

Oliver’s greatest reward comes from watching his garden grow—commissioning the artists and working with them to develop the best, most appropriate artwork for the chosen site. “If you possess an art object as an object, you lose the chance to participate in the creative process and find the joy in it,” he says. “I’d hate for someone to miss that.”

DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, 781.259.8355, www.decordova.org;

Inner Gardens, 310.838.8378, www.innergardens.com;

A New Leaf Gallery, 510.525.7621, www.sculpturesite.com

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