Ari Novy is the new director of the United States Botanic Garden.
After graduating from college in 2000, Ari Novy decided to live in Italy for a while to burnish his Italian, his major at New York University (NYU). Soon enough, he found himself employed in the student life office at NYU’s Florence campus and also lending a hand as a volunteer, gardening in a nearby villa and running a student gardening group, both new experiences for him. That’s when Novy, quickly smitten with plant life, tumbled down a rabbit hole to emerge, after many serendipitous encounters and experiences, at the fantastical United States Botanic Garden (USBG), which he now runs.
“Plants and flowers elicit a visceral response,” says Novy GSNB’12, recently named the executive director of the venerable institution in Washington, D.C. “They are familiar yet exotic, rarified yet common. Their contradictions create a richness of feeling that is incredibly poetic. They are also complex biological machines, providing a window into so many critical aspects of the human experience, from the highly emotional to the deeply scientific.”
That’s the kind of eloquence, and passion, you get from Novy, who had returned from Florence determined to learn everything about plants and flowers. Having grown up in New Jersey, he made his way to New Brunswick, where he received a Ph.D. in plant science at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. During six years of study at Rutgers, he also came to see the wisdom of marrying his emerging scientific expertise with an understanding of public policy and governance. How, he wondered, could his scientific knowledge be translated into societal action, to helping a public institution devoted to educating the public about plant life? Through two fellowships at Rutgers, which put him in the company of wise and generous mentors, he got his answers—and chances to prove himself. By 2012, he was the public programs manager at USBG and, a year later, its deputy executive director.
“As I’ve become more immersed in the world of plants,” Novy says, “I’ve allowed my curiosity to become more inclusive. I now think a lot about the emotional, cultural, and economic reasons we grow plants. Plants touch so many aspects of our lives. They represent endless possibilities and endless discovery.”
Novy intends to help more and more visitors discover for themselves the magic of plant life at USBG. He wants to further expand the considerable educational mission of USBG, where innovative programs emphasize sustainability and plant conservation, as well as provide agricultural information because, he says, “people are interested in food and nutrition in increasingly sophisticated ways.”
The botanic garden, which opened in 1850 and attracts 1.5 million visitors a year, presents 10,000 species of plants, a handful of which date to the 1842 U.S. Exploring Expedition that brought back 200 living plants from the Pacific and prompted Congress, in recognizing the value of them, to build the greenhouses that became USBG.
“It’s amazing to notice how people react when they enter USBG,” Novy says. “They relax and take a deep breath. Being immersed in a planted environment can be a powerful experience.”
The new executive director of the United States Botanic Garden
explains his love of plant life and his plans for keeping the conservatory
a beacon of inspiration for its millions of annual visitors.
Rutgers Magazine: What is it about plants that set off your fascination?
Ari Novy GSNB’12: As a professional gardener, I discovered I had an innate desire to learn what makes plants grow. Initially, I contextualized this as a scientific question, which led me to plant science. As I’ve become more immersed in the world of plants, I’ve allowed my curiosity to become more inclusive. In addition to the science, now I think a lot about the emotional, cultural, and economic reasons we grow plants. Plants touch so many aspects of our lives. They represent endless possibilities and endless discovery.
RM: Did your parents or siblings have an interest in plant life when you were growing up in Hillsborough and, later, Flemington, New Jersey?
AN: My mother was raised by florists, and my family always appreciated the outdoors, but I was the first to become a hardcore botany geek.
RM: What's special about the United States Botanic Garden (USBG)? What will visitors find there unlike anywhere else?
AN: The USBG is one of the oldest public gardens in North America. The current plant collection was established in 1842, when the U.S. Exploring Expedition returned from its mission of exploring the Pacific. This expedition brought over 200 living plants back to the country. Congress recognized the importance of these plants and began building the permanent greenhouses of the USBG, which opened in 1850. We’ve been open to the public ever since. Amazingly, we’ve still got several plants in our collection from the original 1842 collection. These include some amazing tropical ferns and cycads. There is nowhere else that you can see these plants, which represent an important connection to our history of botanical exploration.
RM: Climate change is on everybody’s lips these days. How does this new reality inform the educational mission of the gardens?
AN: Like many other botanical gardens, one of our most important tasks is to conserve plant species. This is accomplished primarily through the maintenance of rare species in our living collections and education of our visitors. Unfortunately, there are many threats to biodiverisy on our planet, including climate change, land-use change, invasive species, and poaching. The important message is that we must become better stewards of our natural resources in way that safeguards biodiversity while providing humans with the resources we need to thrive.
RM: We live in an age of computers and multimedia, which, some argue, isolates us from one another. How can the enjoyment of and learning about plants bring us together?
AN: At the USBG, we’ve noticed that just being immersed in a planted environment can be a powerful experience. It’s amazing to notice how people react when they enter. Simply moving from a dense urban exterior into the oasis of plants that is the garden produces visible results. People relax and take a deep breath. When in groups, we often see our visitors point at plants and talk about their beauty or sometimes the use of plants in their own culture. These interactions usually take place in the absence of technology. While technology can provide valuable teaching tools and even help people appreciate plants from a distance, there is no substitute for being in physical proximity to plants. This is why it is so critical that we value the public gardens because they provide these priceless encounters.
RM: How are plants and flowers an adept learning tool versus, say, a chemistry experiment or parsing the meaning of a poem?
AN: Plants and flowers elicit a visceral response from many people. They are familiar yet exotic, rarified yet common. The inherent contradictions that plants evoke create a richness of feeling that is incredibly poetic. They are also complex biological machines. They provide a window into so many critical aspects of the human experience, from the highly emotional to the deeply scientific.
RM: Who are your visitors, and how many visit every year?
AN: Our visitor composition is very fluid. It looks different at different times of the year. Typically, we have lots of American tourists in the spring coming to visit the nation’s capital. The late summer sees a lot of international tourists. Fall and winter have more locals. The number of visitors has increased significantly. In 2013, we welcomed more than 1.5 million visitors, making us the most visited garden in the country. This is a great privilege. Our goal is to continue attracting a diverse audience, but also to make sure we are providing useful services to our local, Washington, D.C., community.
RM: You developed an interest in plant science, but while you were studying at Rutgers, you also received two fellowships to learn about management and governance. Was it evident to you at Rutgers that you would want to step into a management role?
AN: I definitely wasn’t thinking specifically about moving into management while I was pursuing my Ph.D. However, I was aware that the job market was tough and I wanted to develop a broad skill base beyond my specific area of expertise in plant science. I was particularly interested in how scientific knowledge is translated into societal action, so I took several courses in public policy and governance, which eventually led me to an Eagleton Fellowship at Rutgers. I was thrilled that in addition to coursework, it placed me into an internship at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., where I worked on a project with the United States Botanical Garden. I also took coursework in agricultural economics, and published a paper with researchers in that department at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences on agricultural biotechnology adoption in Africa. These experiences led me to the Rutgers Predoctoral Leadership Development Institute, in which I was an inaugural fellow. I wasn’t specifically interested in management, but I began to realize the central importance of management to achieving institutional success.
RM: What makes a good manager?
AN: I’m still trying to figure that one out. At the USBG, we are in the incredibly fortunate position of having an amazingly skilled and passionate workforce. We like to say that our people grow the best plants and maintain the most awe-inspiring facilities. My job is to facilitate an environment where our team’s amazing talents can shine.
RM: You received your degree through the Graduate School–New Brunswick in six years, in 2012. Two years later, you are directing the United States Botanic Garden. That’s a quick ascent to the top. Why were you chosen, in your view?
AN: I had the rare opportunity to demonstrate my abilities when the timing was right. I came to the USBG as the public programs manager in 2012 and was promoted to deputy executive director in 2013. The garden’s previous executive director, Holly Shimizu, was a fantastic mentor to me. She was incredibly supportive of my career advancement by making sure that I got exposure and practice dealing with challenging management situations. When she retired in the spring, she left me prepared to take on higher levels of leadership.
I’ve learned throughout my professional and academic careers that mentorship is often a key predictor of success. I’ve been fortunate to have outstanding mentors throughout, who played incalculably important roles in helping me develop skills and create opportunities to prove myself.
RM: What are some of your priorities as the new director?
AN: The USBG is known for delivering innovative educational programs, with a strong focus on sustainability and plant conservation. We’re also known for our excellent community engagement. One of my key priorities is to keep pushing the envelope in bringing new audiences to the garden to get them excited about plants.
Recently, we initiated a collaboration with the Kennedy Center to develop on-site educational theater with botanical themes. This is one example of how we hope to utilize creative approaches to get people excited about plants.
I’m also incredibly committed to presenting agriculture in the botanic garden setting. One of my favorite things about Rutgers is that it is a land-grant university, meaning that it has a long history of agricultural education and outreach. My home at Rutgers for six years, the plant biology program, is deeply connected to New Jersey's agricultural roots. People are interested in food and nutrition in increasingly sophisticated ways. This presents a natural bridge connecting botanical knowledge with topics that are important to people.
RM: In what areas do you feel you will be able to make the biggest impact?
AN: The USBG has done a fantastic job of establishing a reputation of excellent botanic education. I believe we are well poised to continue on that trajectory. We will continue to focus on making botany relevant to our visitors by relating plants to food, the environment, and other societal issues. In addition, we will continue to provide leadership in sustainability of built landscapes. The Sustainable SITES initiative, a collaboration between the USBG, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the American Society of Landscape Architects, is already pushing the landscape industry towards more sustainable solutions. In addition, our Landscape for Life program provides wonderful resources for educating homeowners about sustainable landscape in the residential setting. We will continue to have a national impact in these areas while expanding further into innovative programs, such as our collaboration with the Kennedy Center.
RM: Running any enterprise has its challenges. What would surprise the reader to learn about typical hardships of operating a botanic garden on the scale of yours?
AN: One of the biggest operational challenges at the USBG is that the majority of our plants are located at our off-site facility, which is several miles away from the USBG Conservatory. The conservatory is roughly 30,000 square feet. We also operate an 85,000-square-foot production facility located in the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C. The majority of our plant collections are kept there. When our plants come into flower or fruit, we transport them to the conservatory so that the public can see them. Behind the scenes, we are constantly moving plants. Considering our plant rotation involves almost 10,000 accessioned collections plants, this is quite the feat. For the visitor this means that if you come and visit the USBG at different times of the year, you will see lots of different amazing plants each time.
RM: What’s the best question a child visiting the garden has put to you, or at least a child’s observation put to an employee that was shared with you?
AN: We run a four-day plant-science camp for urban youth every year. One of the most important goals with all natural science education is to make people more observant of their surroundings. At the end of one of our camps, a young D.C. resident asked one of our staff which way was north, but he stopped himself. He looked at the plants and the shadows they cast. Then he said, “Never mind. I figured it out.” So, my favorite questions are the ones that allow us to help people find the answers themselves.
RM: When you walk in the conservatory, you often think ____________?
AN: The best thing about walking into the conservatory is that sometimes you don’t think. You take a deep breath, exhale, and refresh your being. •