Whose Botanic Garden?

The NY State Legislature reserved 39 acres for a botanical garden in Brooklyn in 1897, on land that had originally been part of the proposed site of Prospect Park. The triangle northwest of Flatbush Avenue became instead Institute Park, home to the Brooklyn Museum, Mount Prospect Park, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The Botanic Garden — the shorter “botanic” was just as serviceable as “botanical” — was founded in 1910 and opened in 1911; the Laboratory Building and Conservatory was dedicated in 1917. Today, that building is known simply as the Administrative Building.

Administratively, the BBG is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation sitting on land partially owned by the City of New York. As one of the Cultural Institutions Group, the Garden’s operation is made possible by funding from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, receiving

“significant capital and operating support from the City to help meet basic security, maintenance, administration and energy costs. In return for this support, these institutions operate as publicly-owned facilities whose mandate is to provide cultural services accessible to all New Yorkers.”

In addition, the Brooklyn delegations in City Council, State Assembly, and State Senate all do their bit to support the Garden, channelling our tax dollars there. The State of New York itself is further represented in the BBG’s list of supporters by the New York State Biodiversity Research Institute, New York State Council on the Arts, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. On the federal level, the National Endowment for the Arts, National Science Foundation, and Environmental Protection Agency also contribute.

In summary, public funds, our money, from all these channels, are a considerable part of the operation of the garden. The Garden is a quasi-public entity, intimately tied to the city and its people, and, of course, close to the hearts most specifically of Brooklynites. (True, the forces of privatization that have ripped the country to pieces are very much at work here, too.) And as such, it can not be an organization that is free to do what it wills all the time. Not with our money, and certainly not when it undermines its own mission.

The second statement of the BBG’s Mission Statement — the things, essentially, we are all buying with our monies — is here quoted in full: “Engaging in research in plant sciences to expand human knowledge of plants, and disseminating the results to science professionals and the general public.” The third (“Teaching…”), forth (“Reaching out…”), and fifth and final parts (“Seeking to actively arouse public awareness…”) of the Mission Statement all very much stem from this fundamental research aspect. Internally, the mission has been traditionally thought of as a three-legged stool: horticulture, research, education. Without research, the garden is just a pretty park, and the education is warmed over, an elementary level. (Updated: the BBG changed it mission statement on 9/28/13 to the blandness now found at this link. I’ve pasted the old and new statements in the comments.)

Two weeks ago, the wrong kind of history was made when the research component of the BBG’s Mission was ended when the science department was obliterated. Three full-time staffers, representing something like 60 years of experience at BBG, were laid off; in one case by phone, another by e-mail, while they were on vacation. (The coldness of these firings shocked the staff and outside observers; an email to all staff explaining them afterwards only mentioned these long-term employees’ titles, not their names; but their photos were briefly posted at the Garden entrances so Security could block them from re-entering, before Garden staff protested.)

The Garden’s marketeers have shamelessly tried to spin things differently — and when I use the word “shamelessly,” I mean to signal my disgust with a non-profit engaging in the marketing and PR gambits of bullshitting inhuman corporate entities: one of the disingenuous spins about the research department (that it was only cut “by 50%”) is that the head of research is still at the Garden; but she’s only there on paper, since she just started a National Science Foundation fellowship in Washington DC. Sources at the Garden I’ve talked to suggest there’s no reason for her to return to the BBG once her grant runs out. Meanwhile, without paying her, the Garden claims her as their own.

Funding issues and physical plant problems were the reason given for the firings and other personnel shifts (piling more on people with full plates already). This during a time of a centennial capital campaign, big expansions, and such dubious expenses as $120,000 to move a single unremarkable ginkgo tree during the construction of the new entrance. That new entrance has quickly become something of a boondoogle, btw, with its awkward internal space echoing with emptiness much of the time. Both the funding and physical plant factors — a subsiding building that has been an issue for a DECADE, and still far from uninhabitable — can only be called aspects of mismanagement for which the thick layer of administrators, not the researchers, should be held accountable. It was mind-boggling to hear the roll call of Vice Presidents at the Garden (but NOT one for Science or Research anymore; this was cut after President Scot Medbury took over), all no doubt with their Masters in CYA. Medbury has an eight year record now of no interest in research or science; there’s no revenue stream in that game, not like weddings. Before Medbury arrived, there were 8 Ph.D.s in the science department. Now there’s no science department. That’s his destructive legacy, undermining a century of BBG heritage.

The Garden’s PR minions says the science/research mission is “suspended” and on “hiatus,” — tell that to the veteran staffers, in their late 50s, who were suddenly terminated on a Wednesday — and that it is to be “reimagined” — bullshit management-speak signifying little to those of us who treasure the English language.

Local academics have begun to raise the alarm about the loss of work and resources at the BBG. The state-wide invasive species mapping program has been dealt a blow by the BBG’s actions. The forth person fired in the Garden’s purge was the head of GreenBridge, a venerable community greening outreach program; her firing was a real “fuck you” to those many Brooklynites who don’t have the bucks to go to the fancy dress galas. An effort at Medgar Evers College to bring up a more racially inclusive generation of botanists has been left without a science partner at BBG. The New York Metropolitan Floral Project (NYMF), a comprehensive project to study the vascular plants of of the region, is now frozen. So, yes, the local actions of this organization have spread out into Brooklyn and beyond, like a poisonous weed.

The BBG also of course depends on private monies. And over the years, many people have given precisely because of the Garden’s stated scientific and research mission. Have they been cheated or deceived? Should they demand their money back? Individuals and institutions like Hobart and William Smith College — read the Garden’s press release about this and note the picture: none of those individuals work there anymore — have given the BBG their herbariums for safekeeping, preservation, and wider access. The 300,000-item strong herbarium is mothballed now, a slap in the face to those people and entities. As has been noted, it’s like a museum putting away the paintings you gave them on the assumption that they would be displayed. But you can see them on the computer, they will say, with stunning lack of knowledge about what the actual specimen tells us. The herbarium’s origins are older than the Garden itself as an institution; it is a treasury of 19th century Brooklyn flora. And it should be considered as being held in trust by the Garden for this and future generations, not a plaything of the budget and administrators who follow the lead of the nation’s worst in an appalling ignorance and denigration of science.

As a citizen of Brooklyn, I don’t believe the BBG’s abandonment of science should stand. The people in charge in the Garden clearly shouldn’t be, since they so plainly don’t understand the very mission of the place. The Board of Trustees, if it’s to be anything other than a check-writing passel of socialites partying under the magnolias, needs to fulfill their trusteeship and bring the administration to account. Kate Levin, the head of the Department of Cultural Affairs, must rescue the Garden from its destructive mismanagement.

Sign the petition to restore science/research to the BBG.

UPDATE: I’ve written on this issue since this post.

14 Responses to “Whose Botanic Garden?”

  1. 1 Elizabeth September 3, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Hi Matt, I passed on this blog to my cousin at Harvard’s herbarium – she says the herbarium community is quite upset about the BBG’s decision.

  2. 3 Pat September 4, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Thank you, Matthew, for continuing to post about this tragedy. There is another part of the recent history you and your readers should know about.

    In addition to the Herbarium, the research collection of the library and the archives, which include institutional papers, art and historic photographs, are housed in the science building at 109 Montgomery Street. The first round of major layoffs three years ago gutted an already diminished library staff and left only one person responsible for the research collection and archives in the science building and the Gardener’s Resource Center, rare book collection and Florilegium in the Administration Building.

    Alas, the trustees were mute then. I am pessimistic they will awaken to their oversight responsibilities and take action now.

  3. 4 Tara Douglass September 4, 2013 at 3:57 pm


    Who should we write about this? The season is winding down I will have more free time to wind up. I was a shocked and now am infuriated by this action.


  4. 5 Nancy September 4, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    Thank you for this brilliant essay; it should be submitted to the New York Times as an Op-Ed. Or otherwise WIDELY desseminated.

  5. 6 Lola September 5, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    Do you have some information on whether the many public sources that you have listed have suddenly reduced their funding, perhaps as part of Congress’ sequestering of the budget?
    I certainly share your love of BBG and am upset by the administration’s decision.

  6. 7 Michele Paladino September 5, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    I wish there was enough interest to have garnered a comment on the BBG website about the Hobart & Smith acquisition. Maybe we all need to start putting on our science geek caps in protest.

  7. 8 mthew January 20, 2014 at 9:14 am

    Here’s the old OLD STATEMENT:

    The mission of Brooklyn Botanic Garden is to serve all the people in its community and throughout the world by:
    Displaying plants and practicing the high art of horticulture to provide a beautiful and hospitable setting for the delight and inspiration of the public.
    Engaging in research in plant sciences to expand human knowledge of plants, and disseminating the results to science professional and the general public.
    Teaching children and adults about plants at a popular level, as well as making available instruction in the exacting skills required to grow plants and make beautiful gardens
    Reaching out to help the people of all our diverse urban neighborhoods to enhance the quality of their surroundings and their daily lives through the cultivation and enjoyment of plants.
    Seeking actively to arouse public awareness of the fragility of our natural environment, both local and global, and providing information about ways to conserve and protect it.
    [152 words]

    Here’s the NEW STATEMENT

    Brooklyn Botanic Garden is an urban botanic garden that connects people to the world of plants, fostering delight and curiosity while inspiring an appreciation and sense of stewardship of the natural world.
    Both in the Garden and well beyond, BBG inspires people of all ages through the conservation, display, and enjoyment of plants; with educational programs that emphasize learning by doing; and with research focused on understanding and conserving regional plants and plant communities.
    [74 words]

  8. 9 Brenda from Flatbush January 20, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    First-rate commentary, particularly about Greenbridge. In my 8 or so years as a docent (“Garden Guide”) at BBG, I observed consistently that Greenbridge was a critical link between the BBG and “underserved populations” of kids (i.e. poor, minority, and nature-deprived). But hey, glad to hear the wedding-venue biz is thriving–just as it is across Flatbush Avenue at the Audubon Center, now a vestigial shell of its former self. (Like BBG, they’ve got a shiny new vanity mega-project to distract from the gutting of nature education…)

  1. 1 Petition to Restore Science at the BBG | Backyard and Beyond Trackback on September 16, 2013 at 6:34 pm
  2. 2 Meanwhile, in the Wedding Venue Garden | Backyard and Beyond Trackback on January 22, 2014 at 2:16 pm
  3. 3 BBG Treehouse Razed | Backyard and Beyond Trackback on July 24, 2018 at 4:30 pm
  4. 4 Brooklyn Botanic Axes Aborist | Backyard and Beyond Trackback on August 7, 2018 at 5:01 pm

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