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2016 marks the 125th anniversary of the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). After the beloved Holiday Train Show this winter, the spring will see the annual Orchid Show and a special exhibition of work by Dale Chihuly (April 22–October 29, 2017). NYBG has become a lightning rod for connecting its arts and horticulture departments with shows like “Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas” recently, and the much-talked-about Frida Kahlo exhibition in 2015. Whitewall discussed those exhibitions, the Garden’s educational programming, and the role the institution will play in the 21st century with its CEO and president, Gregory Long.
WHITEWALL: You’ve held positions at the Met, the New York Public Library, the Museum of Natural History—some seriously major New York institutions. When you became involved with the New York Botanical Garden in 1989, what sort of potential did you see?
GREGORY LONG: I knew about the international stature of the New York Botanical Garden, especially in plant research and conservation. The garden is very famous internationally and had been for many generations. I thought there were ways to modernize that work and to make it more impactful, in terms of its conservation value in the world. In the late eighties we were all beginning to be intensely aware of the big environmental issues facing the planet, including even climate change.
And then locally, in New York City, it was important that the botanical garden be returned to its original purpose as a museum of plants and an educational institution.
WW: And now celebrating 125 years. Why are botanical gardens, a Victorian-era idea, so important today?
GL: In Victorian times, when these institutions were founded, it was about exploration; it was about discovering tropical plants that nobody had heard of. It was, in a way, imperialistic. Nowadays, the role is so completely different. It’s about teaching people the value of the natural world; it’s about teaching people the interactions between animals and plants, and how plants have been used historically for medicinal purposes and other human needs.
It’s important to note, the Garden was established at the end of that Victorian period. And that American institutions have always been educational institutions. So our role as an educational institution comes from the early days.
WW: The institution has also played such an interesting role in showcasing the connection between artists, inspiration, and nature. With Frida Kahlo, for example, you showed how important her own garden was to her work.
GL: Nobody really quite had ever realized that. It was a terrific discovery for us. We went and saw the Casa Azul, where she lived and which is now the Kahlo Museum, and saw this beautiful courtyard garden and learned about the role it played in her life, her painting, and her work. That was a discovery of ours we decided to share with everybody.
WW: And in the spring, you’ll do an exhibition with Dale Chihuly, with installations throughout the garden, the conservatory, and an exhibition of his works on paper. I wasn’t familiar with his works on paper. Can you tell us more about collaborating with the artist?
GL: Yes, our gallery in the library will be showing his works of art on paper, so it’s a kind of more holistic look at Chihuly the artist. The glass is the glamour, the sizzle. He’s making a lot of new pieces, and he loves showing his glass here. And it’s lit at night—it’s thrilling. Quite a few new pieces are being made just for this exhibition. He loves these outdoor shows. He loves the landscape. It is very dramatic and a safe setting for works of art. It really is like an open-air museum.
WW: This year will also see an expansion of the Edible Academy. Can you speak a bit about the importance of this program, and its workshops for both children and adults?
GL: The Edible Academy is an expansion of our traditional Family Garden program, which is organic vegetable gardening, outdoor cooking, nutrition, and also learning to love nature. The Family Garden is about an acre and a half, but it closes in early October because there is no classroom building there. So we are going to build a classroom building adjacent to it, and give it a greenhouse so they can grow stuff all winter, an amphitheater and a nursery, and a composting bathroom. That will open in the spring of 2018, and it’s been funded by many generous private donors and by the city and state of New York. It’s going to be the school garden for the Bronx.
This article is published in Whitewall‘s winter 2017 Luxury Issue.