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Exhibition Director for the New York Botanical Gardens, Karen Daubmann, recently organized “Monet’s Garden,” an exhibition that features vegetation found in Monet’s garden in Giverny, France. Also on display are two Monet paintings that have never been exhibited in the U.S. In 2010, Daubmann curated a similar exhibit for the NYBG, recreating Emily Dickinson’s garden. Daubmann spoke to the Eye about Monet as gardener, social media’s role in the organization, and the environmental responsibilities of the Gardens.
What inspired you to do an exhibit on Monet’s garden?
As horticulturalists, it’s something that’s always inspired us—he had such a beautiful garden with such a broad plant palette, and he seems to have really pushed gardening pretty far. He was a reader of all plant catalogs, and he did amazing things in his garden. But the interesting thing is that we didn’t think that most people knew about Monet as a gardener, so it was an important message for us to get out to people, to know this other side of Monet. People think of him as the artist with all the coffee table books and the prints that you see everywhere, or you go to an art museum, see an exhibition of his paintings, but there really was a whole, very rich side of him that was a plant person and a really amazing designer.
What are some of the challenges of planning an exhibit with plants?
Well, it was a very warm spring, so a lot of the things that we planned to be in the show for the opening were already done flowering by the time the opening happened. The exhibition goes on for very long, so there are plants that need to be changed every single day. And we do that—we want the exhibit to look perfect for each and every visitor, so if someone steps on something or something sort of breaks, we can put a new plant in.
We’ve done major changes for the seasons, we’ve done a spring palette of plants, a summer palette of plants, and now we’re on a fall palette. So it’s really interesting to get the changes that Monet would have made in his garden, and make sure that the color that is woven through the exhibition is just rich the whole way through. Also we have the beautiful water lilies, so it’s nice to tell the story of the water lilies.
You tracked down the original firm that supplied Monet’s water lilies. How did you manage to do that?
Sometimes these things happen! We were doing some Google searches and came upon them, and they were really wonderful. They had all sorts of information about their correspondence with Monet and had his order forms. They were a great partner with us in creating this exhibition.
What do you think is the importance of social media in the exhibit?
We’re very traditional here at the Gardens, so we’re sort of dipping our toes into all that kind of stuff now. We have a lot of followers on Facebook, and we have a social media team, and they’re always looking to promote the exhibition. To send out teasers well in advance and tell the little tiny stories that sometimes don’t get told—when we change a plant or when there’s a plant that’s incredibly popular along the way.
They really have their ears to the ground and are able to get the news out pretty quickly. So it’s been fantastic: We worked with the Metropolitan Museum of Art on our new app for the iPhone, and it’s been very much successful. People are enjoying it, and it’s really wonderful.
A lot of museums and cultural institutions in the city have a specific mission that they’re looking to fulfill. What do you think is the mission of the Botanical Gardens?
We are stewards of the land that we have: We have a fifty-acre forest that’s never been cut or cleared, and we’ve worked to clear invasive species from it and the trails so they’re accessible, so people can learn and enjoy the forest. There’s a section of the Bronx River that goes through the Garden, and it’s important to us to keep it clean and make it enjoyable for people to experience. We really love being a part of the land that we have at the Bronx. We have a program called Bronx Green Up that helps community members help build and maintain community gardens, and we teach about composting and pruning and garden maintenance and all sorts of things like that for people who want to make a difference in their neighborhoods.
Do you have any advice for someone who’s looking to be in a position like yours?
I fell into this by accident. I started in landscape architecture and then horticulture. I love exhibitions because you can just build on knowledge that you gain every time you work on an exhibition, and if something worked, you can always just take it a step further next time. I didn’t know that that’s what I loved. Seeing as much as you can everywhere in the world and just taking it in. I find inspiration for ideas for exhibitions everywhere.
Seeing how people put their ideas together and present them to other people—you can see that not just in museums and art galleries but in so many different places. Open air markets and downtown signs and banners—just everywhere you go, you get wonderful ideas about how people get their ideas out to the public.
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