How Garden Director Karen Daubmann globetrots for inspiration
Most visitors to museums and botanical gardens know little about how the exhibits they enjoy come together: what work goes into conceptualizing them, how the money to mount them is raised, or how the works on display are acquired. In many ways, the invisibility of the effort that makes a show possible is also what makes it seamless and successful. Still, the amount of hard work and skill required to make it happen are often intriguing, as are the back stories of any exhibit.
Karen Daubmann could tell you a thing or two about that kind of hard work.
Daubmann is the Associate Vice-President for Exhibitions and Public Engagement at The New York Botanical Garden in New York City, a position she has held for the past two years. Previously, she was Director of Exhibitions and Seasonal Displays, the role into which she was hired by the garden in 2008. One of the tasks with which she has been charged since arriving at the garden is designing exhibits that resonate with and do an exceptional job of engaging the diverse population of New York City, especially among communities whose members have little or no experience with the garden. “We are always looking for ways to make gardening, plants, and horticulture exciting to as many people as possible,” Daubmann says. Despite the fact that the garden has been a fixture of life in New York City for nearly 125 years —it was founded in 1891— it has often been misperceived by the public as inaccessible or irrelevant to their own lives. “We understand that these things may seem exciting only to a certain class or age group of people,” she adds. “When you open up programming and broaden its scope, gardening becomes exciting to a whole new audience.”
Such an august, historic cultural institution has, of course, produced hundreds of exceptional shows over the years. Since Daubmann has been at the helm of the exhibitions department, however, the garden has planned and executed some particularly memorable blockbusters that have boasted record-breaking attendance. There was ‘Monet’s Garden,’ a 2012 tribute to the famed Impressionist painter, rendered in plants and flowers, an exhibit that transformed the garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory and its pools into an interpretation of the painter’s Giverny garden. That interpretation was so detail-oriented that its preparation involved the garden’s staff traveling to France to purchase water lilies from the same floral business that sold lilies to Monet himself.
The following year saw the opening of ‘Wild Medicine,’ a show that included more than 500 species or cultivars of healing plants from around the world, as well as the garden’s evocation of Europe’s oldest-known botanical garden, a Paduan landscape that is still in existence to this day. And this May, the garden will inaugurate an epic show that will honour another artist, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, once again transforming the garden’s conservatory, this time into a version of the garden at Casa Azul, Kahlo’s home (now a museum) in Mexico City. That show, “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life,” is one of the season’s most anticipated cultural events, in part because it will also include 14 of Kahlo’s artworks and will represent the late artist’s first solo show in New York City in more than 20 years. Daubmann has been the key figure behind all of these exhibits.
What makes the ambition, scale, creativity, and exceptional historical fidelity of these exhibits —as well as a full agenda of related events hosted by the garden— so admirable is the amount of research Daubmann and her staff invest in their preparation. A great deal of that research occurs off the gardens’ own grounds and even beyond the boundaries of the city and the United States. Daubmann finds herself traveling for work several weeks out of the year, flying off to visit other gardens around the world, meet colleagues at peer institutions, and forge the relationships that make such powerhouse exhibits possible. She also plans, attends, and presents at conferences, which she describes as a vital form of public relations work.
Travel has always been an essential part of the job description for high-ranking staff at The New York Botanical Garden. Trawl through the garden’s archives and you’ll find photographs of the garden’s founding director, Dr. Nathaniel Lord Britton, in Cuba, standing next to organ pipe cacti more than twice his size. The pictures are more than a century old. Staff have long travelled, both near and far, to conduct research, source seeds and plants, and generally ensure that the garden has a visible presence in the world.
Despite the fact that many of these places are accessible virtually, thanks in particular to the Internet, Daubmann asserts that travel has become no less important to her role. It has, in fact, become even more important. “It’s totally imperative to go to these places,” she says. “There’s the Internet, being able to email people, and send a picture of this or a picture of that, or source photos via Flickr or Google image searches, but to physically go there and get a feeling for the space… it’s critical,” Daubmann explains. She goes to these places for many reasons, among them, the fact that she inevitably discovers some aspect of place or plant that she would not have even realized she needed —or even existed— until she is physically immersed in a location. “You’re trying to document everything and you get back [to New York] and you realize that you captured something you needed that you didn’t even know you might need,” she explains. “I bring my deck of paint samples, I bring my tape measure, I take thousands of photos, many of them of things that aren’t always photographed. I’m really looking deeply at details.”
Daubmann recalls traveling to Padua, Italy to visit the botanical garden that inspired part of the 2013 ‘Wild Medicine’ show. “The garden was one of first places to have a collection of medicinal plants that were labelled, and because they were labelled, people would know what they were and how to use them.” The significance of such labelling, which garden visitors largely take for granted today, could not possibly be underestimated, Daubmann says. “From that moment on, you saw usage of plants put into books and the whole evolution of the profession of healing unfold. To go there and set foot in that garden and see it hasn’t really changed over time, this incredible diversity of plant material- it’s totally wild,” she recalls, still obviously awestruck by the experience several years later.
Many of the details Daubmann sees on her travels become incorporated into the final iteration of an exhibit—the one the public sees. Other details inform another aspect of Daubmann’s work: that of seeking funding. “I travel in the earliest stages of exhibition planning and typically I’m the first one writing a plant list and a narrative, partly for grant applications.” Grants provide a significant portion of funding for the garden’s major shows, including the upcoming Frida Kahlo exhibit, which was underwritten by substantial support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among other public and private sponsors. For that show, Daubmann spent five days in Mexico, conducting in-depth research at Kahlo’s Casa Azul and in Mexican archives, as well as “meeting with a lot of important people who would be very helpful in obtaining painting loans.” The trip, along with a follow-up visit conducted by one of her colleagues, was important, she says, because it allowed the garden to “pitch our story and idea and make sure people bought into it. It was also about looking really closely at Casa Azul [to interpret it as faithfully as possible at the garden in New York], trying to find old photos of what the garden looked like when Kahlo lived there, speaking to people who worked in the garden, that sort of thing. We visited open-air markets, looking at local fruits and flowers. One nugget of information leads to the next. Before you know it, you have a whole new narrative.”
Daubmann is hopeful that that “whole new narrative” will serve as an invitation to a whole new audience, too. Her travels in Mexico and elsewhere, as with previous shows, helped her identify musicians, artists, writers, and other performers and scholars who will be presenting their work in conjunction with the exhibit. Events such as live mariachi music, bilingual poetry readings, and scholar-led walks and talks are expected to appeal to international visitors and local residents who, though they have the garden as their own backyard, rarely, if ever, visit it.
Her anticipation for the Frida Kahlo show is palpable, but Daubmann already has her sights set on future exhibits. “We always plan several years ahead of a show,” she explains, “and sometimes I have to be covert about my travel plans because exhibits haven’t yet been announced.” Upcoming trips will take her to Seattle, Washington and Hawai’i, though she doesn’t divulge details about related shows. Is Switzerland on her agenda? “I haven’t been yet,” she says, “but it’s definitely on my list.”
Article by Julie Schwietert Collazo