HAMILTON (Mercer) — Following a phased reopening for members and staff to reacquaint themselves with the land, Grounds for Sculpture once again welcomed the public Thursday, finally giving the museum and arboretum a chance to begin the mourning process for its founder.

Seward Johnson died March 10, just over a month before what would have been his 90th birthday. Two days after Johnson's death, the COVID-19 pandemic forced GFS to close its gates, right when the approaching spring season would have meant a boost in visitors.

Executive Director Gary Schneider said much of the staff was laid off or furloughed, but he is glad Grounds for Sculpture was able to regroup, at least in a big-picture sense, so soon. Many arts venues, he said, are looking at sometime in the first quarter of 2021 as an optimistic reopening time.

And with a quarter of a million patrons per year, Schneider said the time off actually saved the grounds of the Grounds from wear and tear, so its 42 acres are looking better than they have in years.

"We're excited that, despite all the challenges, we're opening up really feeling refreshed in terms of the horticulture," he said.

Indoor galleries and the store and cafe at GFS still are not permitted to reopen, but among the improvements visitors will see this summer are some repaved areas as well as more handicap access.

The popular Rat's Restaurant, located on the property, is open for outdoor dining with a reservation.

Most of all, Schneider said, people are craving time in the outdoors and with nature, and Grounds for Sculpture's spacious, airy layout is naturally conducive to social distancing — and that is before you consider all the wondrous structures and art pieces to be viewed throughout your tour.

"Grounds for Sculpture will play a healing role as people look to get outdoors, to spend time together with their families, and eventually as people feel more comfortable and it's safer, with groups of family and friends," Schneider said.

The outdoor portion of Grounds for Sculpture will be open Thursdays through Mondays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for the time being, with an advance online ticket purchase required. Timeslots are scheduled in half-hour intervals. Members' admission is free, but they also must make reservations.

For more, go to groundsforsculpture.org.

If you have an idea for a future installment of "Discovering New Jersey," contact Patrick Lavery, Afternoon News Anchor, on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton Township, Mercer County

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