Grounds for Sculpture is a repurposed public space, dating to 1745, when a Charter from King George II first sanctioned a fairground there. The Arts Center opened in 1992 on more than 40 acres of land that was once the New Jersey State Fairgrounds. Seward Johnson was the visionary philanthropist and artist who brought the project to fruition. Exhibited on the Grounds are more than 300 works of contemporary sculpture by mostly American artists from 1970 to 2005. Many of the works displayed were created by Seward Johnson, who passed away at age 89 in March of 2020, just 2 days before COVID forced the closure of the Grounds.
In a typical year, a quarter of a million visitors would stroll the Grounds. Not so in 2020, when half a year’s attendance was lost to the effects of the pandemic.
Although the 18th- Century origins of Fair Grounds makes for a great story, the fact is from the 1790’s through the 1870’s, the New Jersey Legislature puritanically forbade fairs in the state. It wasn’t until 1888 that the Fair Grounds were revived, beginning with the construction of a 1 mile horse racing track and grandstand. Also known as the “Interstate Fair”, its program of events grew to include agricultural exhibitions, marksmanship extravaganzas by the likes of Annie Oakley, hot air balloon demonstrations, and concerts.
The Fair originally occupied 135 acres. It hosted one of the first automobile races in the US in 1900, a generation prior to the establishment of Route 1 through Hamilton Township in 1926. Auto racing held sway for another seventy years after the race course was expanded from 1 mile to a mile and a half, and the grandstand was enlarged. Indy cars as well as NASCAR sanctioned races became regular spectacles at the Trenton Speedway on the Fair Grounds. The last event at the Fair Grounds took place in 1980, and the land was parceled out for sale to mostly industrial uses during the decade. The Grounds for Sculpture purchased its acreage in 1984, and construction began five years later. Park development and sculpture acquisitions were financed by public tax-exempt bonds and private foundations associated with founder J. Seward Johnson.