Every spring, a 5-acre sanctuary on UCLA’s north campus blooms into a showplace, a postcard of beauty and serenity. Jacaranda trees burst with abundant periwinkle blooms; agapanthus flowers stand sentinel below. And the sculptures! Bronze goddesses pose and romp and vamp; a giant bronze ram’s head makes a perfect cradle for a student to sit and study; a wire horse drops its head to drink. There is so much to see, so many directions to look. Art to see, and to touch.

Formally opened in 1967, The Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden is one of the most distinguished such spaces in the country, boasting more than 70 modern and contemporary works from such renowned artists as Alexander Calder, Auguste Rodin, Hans Arp, Deborah Butterfield, Barbara Hepworth, Joan Miró, Jacques Lipchitz, Henry Moore and David Smith. It is a favorite place of many to stroll or to linger — to study, to meditate, to ponder, to simply admire.

It was not always so. In 1960, when Franklin Murphy became UCLA’s third chancellor, the north campus, today a thriving center for the arts and humanities, was bland and nondescript. Much of the land that lay between what was then the Research Library, Dickson Art Center, the Social Sciences Building, Macgowan Hall and the Graduate School of Business Administration was just one great big gravel parking lot — dusty when dry, muddy when wet.

Murphy was a cardiologist and professor of medicine from the Midwest who aimed to set UCLA apart as more than simply a branch of the University of California. And he saw something different: the potential for something … restorative. Having been intrigued by outdoor sculpture in public places during a youthful tour of Europe, Chancellor Murphy imagined a grassy landscape of gentle mounds, with winding paths punctuated by works of art — an enchanting garden that would be a space to stimulate thought and reflection. An oasis of inspiration within the campus.

The UC Regents were not convinced. To them, the chancellor’s vision was an unnecessary and frivolous fever dream. Just how would he obtain these fancy sculptures he had in mind? The university couldn’t afford such an audacious project.

“Forget about that,” Murphy said in reply. “My responsibility is to find the sculptures.”

Lillian Weiner, a member of the UCLA Art Council, soon heard about Murphy’s idea and suggested he purchase Jacques Lipchitz’s Song of the Vowels, which had been part of an exhibition on campus. But the regents had been right: Murphy didn’t have the money. So Weiner persuaded Los Angeles art collectors Lucille and Norton Simon to cover half the cost, with the art council supplying the rest. Murphy’s bold dream began to materialize.

Happenstance and Murphy’s own resourcefulness helped the collection grow exponentially in 1965. Another art council member, David Bright, who had donated a number of paintings to UCLA, died unexpectedly, leaving his widow a large estate that included a sculpture garden. Knowing that Mrs. Bright did not wish to remain on the property, Murphy suggested that UCLA exchange the paintings the couple had donated to the university in exchange for the sculptures. Works by Lipchitz, Calder, Hepworth and Moore, among others, came to UCLA. The collection now had the gravitas to attract additional impressive donations.

Murphy worked tirelessly with campus architect Ralph D. Cornell to create the garden, which today includes a formal plaza paved in brick, a walkway formed by a triple row of South African coral trees and an informal sloping lawn cut with curving, textured pathways. It’s beautiful. But more importantly, it fulfills Murphy’s primary mission: to make art part of daily life at UCLA.

A lot of students, he once remarked, would get their introduction to art through these grounds and “might go out and buy a book on art, maybe take a class or visit a museum for the first time.

“And if it affects just one person that way,” he said with pride, “then it has served its purpose.”

It certainly has.

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Winter 2023 issue.