On Friday, August 19th, the First Year Fellows visited Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG). We were received at the BBG gates by Director Scot Medbury, who guided us directly to his office in the administration building. Scot spent a good deal of time orienting us to the facility, in terms of its history and current operations.
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden opened in 1910. Unique for its time, the Garden set out to focus on a balance of science, education, and horticulture. Before long, BBG was producing scientific journals of its own, it had created a trend-setting youth education program, and had opened a native flora garden to explore ecology. Brooklyn Botanic Garden has become known as a “garden of firsts” for its initiation of gardens that have become commonplace today. Such gardens are the North American Rock Garden, the Rose Garden, the Japanese Garden, the Children’s Garden, the Native Flora Garden, and in the 1950’s the first garden for the visually impaired, or Braille garden. Much of this creation can be attributed to the impact of BBG’s own staff landscape architect, Caparn, who worked with the garden for 30 years.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden has grown into an urban oasis in the city, and is home to a staff of 170 full time, and 100 part time employees. Located only six subway stops from Manhattan, and with three entrances to the Garden from very different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the BBG’s audience is diverse. Brooklyn Botanic Gardens is also the 6th member of a 34 member cultural institution alliance in New York.
The operating budget of the BBG consists of income from four areas: earned, contributed, public, and endowment. Attendance and an extremely prosperous event rental program make up most of the earned income. Contributed income comes from generous donors, the likes of whom are yet to be tapped from Manhattan’s potential philanthropists. Scot spent much time discussing the current status and the future of public support for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. He candidly described his work with cultural lobbyists, in the attempts to recieve federal funding for some of the current capital projects at the Garden. Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s endowment is managed conservatively under the Finance Department.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s operational management is divided into six different departments. Horticulture and Facilities, and the Education Departments gave us the most detailed look into their daily and long-term functions. In the morning session with Scot, he mentioned the other departments as being Development, Marketing, Science, and Finance. A highlight in our discussion about these departments was the importance of development of and marketing for special events at the Garden. An example was given as to the magnitude of some of the events; last year the Cherry Blossom Festival received 72,000 visitors over one weekend, which comprised 10% of BBG’s annual visitation!
Scot discussed leadership and management tips with our group throughout the morning. One key point that he made was in evaluating the long-term affect of capital projects on a garden. He pointed out that due to rising costs in labor and benefits packages, up to 75% of garden costs in the future will be directly tied to employee payroll and benefits. As a result, he suggested in depth evaluation of capital projects, specifically regarding future staffing and maintenance costs that will be associated with the new facilities and/or programs. Scot concluded his conversation with our group by addressing appropriate business and legal considerations when dealing with an organizational culture at a public horticulture institution. Successful organizations may be perceived as having a family style culture, but this should not interfere with or supersede the fact that an organization is a business and needs to be managed likewise.
For the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, the Horticulture and Facilities Department, and the Education Department were discussed in detail. Mr. Patrick Cullina, Vice President of Horticulture and Facilities, gave the group a site tour of the 52 acre garden. The horticulture displays at Brooklyn Botanic Garden were created in the early 20th century through groupings of family based species. This has caused some problems in the recent years due to genomic discoveries and the resulting reorganization of certain taxonomic relationships in the plant world. A struggle has risen in regards to interpretation of the historically planted family based collections; how to best describe this scientific phenomenon to the Garden audience without creating confusion?
Sharon Myrie, Vice President of Education, briefly met with our group and discussed highlights of the Education Department. The youth education programs at Brooklyn Botanic Garden are one of its strongest assets. Historically, youth education began as early as 1912. In 1914, the first Children’s Garden was built at BBG, and by 1916 the Children’s Garden House was built to accommodate onsite teaching and educational programs. The programs have expanded to include four different types of registered programming, middle school programming, and high school programming. Ms. Patricia Hulse is the Children’s Garden and Family Programs Manager and works with the prior mentioned programs. Ms. Marilyn Smith is the Director of Children’s Education at BBG and is in charge of the Discovery Garden and its informal education and drop-in workshops. Brooklyn Botanic Garden is truly a leader in the Educational field, as seen through the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment High School, the Garden Apprenticeship Program, and Project Outreach Program. There is much to learn from the educational programming with youth at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
A wonderful lunch was received by the Longwood Fellows, after which we discussed capital planning. The topic most addressed was cost inflation of construction over time, and how to deal with the issues that arise as a result. The last portion of our afternoon was spent in free time to do our own exploration of the garden property. Brooklyn Botanic Garden proved to hold an amazing educational experience for the Fellows who visited. The institution was inspiring, and we were lucky for such a wonderful field trip.