You joined the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) as CEO and President last year, having spent many years at the Met. What attracted you to the role?
Put simply, the plants, the environment. The idea of working at a museum of plants seemed incredibly tantalizing.What I’ve learned is that the responsibilities are the same: to create beauty and joy for visitors.
Was the botanical world an existing passion? Did it inform your curatorial work?
I love plants, I garden – I’m trying to create a small meadow in my yard. And believe it or not I studied plants in paintings. When I was working on a John Singleton Copley exhibition in 1995, I remember that one of the hardest things we had to do was identify the plants in his portraits. The trick was to figure out how far the paintings were theatrical and how far they were real – had the women’s dresses existed, or were they glamorous confections? – and that included researching the very-exotic looking tulips, plants and trees in his backgrounds and table tops. He created lavish situations for his sitters. It turned out that the dresses were usually made up, but the plants were accurate. That led to an investigation of how Copley could have seen an extraordinary strain of Dutch tulip in 1765 in Boston – only for us to discover that Thomas Hancock was a master gardener who was importing bulbs and plants and orange trees. These things are recorded in Copley’s portraits.
What similarities have you found between the botanical collections at the NYBG and those of an encyclopedic museum like the Met?
In terms of practice they couldn’t be more similar. The concerns are the same: a proper inventory, proper storage and proper climate control. And then there are management plans for how living collections are displayed: here I would say that there’s actually a gallery of magnolia trees, a gallery of maple trees, a gallery of pines. They all sit together in landscapes and their care is managed by particular curators and gardeners.
The really big difference is that here things die. The greatest horticulturalist in the world can’t always ensure that a tree will live forever. That never happens at museums. Last summer we lost a great Himalayan pine – more than 100 years old and 80 feet tall – to a lightning strike. It had been struck to its roots and had to come down. But there’s a scion of the tree, only 20 years old, which had been grown from a similar graft. Part of what we have to do here is to plan for the future.
What sets the NYBG apart from botanical gardens elsewhere in the world?
The science program. This botanical garden was founded by scientists [Nathaniel Lord Britton and his wife, Elizabeth Knight Britton] and, alongside Kew, we’re one of the few botanical gardens in the world that still has scientific research taking place in labs on campus every single day. Our scientists work across the world, too: at any time, they’re in Vanuatu studying indigenous medicinal practices, plant medicine and local traditions, or in Southeast Asia working on the restoration of rattan forests, or researching lichens in the Southeastern United States.
There’s a trend in America – and across the world, really – that not so many young people are studying botany as did in the past. What we can learn from plant science is precisely what we need to know to save the Earth’s biodiversity. The New York Botanical Garden can really be the botany department for New York City and for America. We’re preserving a scientific tradition that goes back to the Brittons and, long before, right back to Linnaeus.
How much overlap have you found between the world of art and that of gardens?
When I worked at the Met, everyone I knew was involved in art in some way, from curators to trustees and patrons. How could I not have realised that many of the same people had beautiful gardens? A lot of the people who collect great works of art also collect trees and plants and have become stewards of the environment. One of the places I’ve realised that is at TEFAF New York, which probably has more beautiful flowers than any other fair; last year I noticed just how many visitors were looking up at the flowers hanging overhead in individual vases.
How might botanical gardens work more constructively with artists?
Botanical gardens could ask better questions of artists about the way that nature inspires them. I like to say that Mother Nature is the greatest artist of all: you find beautiful colors, patterns, and expressiveness in a garden. Find me an artist who hasn’t in some way been inspired, if not by a particular flower or tree, by the fresh air of a walk or by looking at a river or by gazing at a beautiful sky. These are the kinds of thing that inspire us to create.
I’m interested in developing artist residencies at the garden, engaging with artists who will walk the grounds, look at the natural materials, and help us to see our collections through an imaginative and creative lens. That may be one of the greatest things that we can do, to actually look to artists to help us see our landscape. We’ve engaged Michele Oka Doner to be our first ever year-long artist in residence.
The NYBG has staged – or planted – exhibitions relating to Monet, O’Keeffe, Kahlo and others in recent years, followed this summer by ‘The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx’. What can visitors learn from this type of horticultural reconstruction?
For last summer’s exhibition on Georgia O’Keeffe, we were able to match up the plants that she would have seen in Hawaii with the paintings of them. O’Keeffe went to Hawaii with some skepticism; it was a commission that Alfred Stieglitz told her she shouldn’t have taken. But when she got there she was completely bowled over by the landscape, and that impact is what we were able to recreate in the conservatory here for visitors.
This summer, with Roberto Burle Marx, we’re honoring the legacy of this great Brazilian landscape designer, environmentalist, and modernist. We’ll have his paintings and tapestries, and the first-ever large-scale horticultural tribute to him. Our whole Conservatory Lawn will be a Burle Marx-inspired landscape, with color and a water feature, and we think people will have a lot of fun walking through it. But if you take a step back and begin to look at the patterns and colors and compositions, and then go and look at his paintings in the Art Gallery, you’ll begin to see how his mind worked. That’s the kind of exhibition that only this garden can create.