Lisa Roberts, AB’81,
As the Chicago Park District’s
director of conservatories since 1996, Lisa C. Roberts,
AB’81, AM’85, PhD’92, is responsible for
its two conservatories. In 2002 the Garfield Park Conservatory
came to the forefront of the city’s consciousness
when it hosted an exhibition by celebrated glass blower
Dale Chihuly. More than 580,000 visitors were dazzled by
Chihuly’s magnificent and whimsical creations, which
were artfully arranged among the exotic plants and trees.
is your vision for the Garfield Park Conservatory? What
is its mission in Chicago and on the West Side?
The conservatory is all about partnerships—with the
people of the city, with our immediate neighborhood, and
with other organizations. We want to be a relevant and vital
part of the city’s culture. We are a historical landmark,
and the center of our mission is still to store and display
plants and to provide education about them and topics around
greening. But a lot of people come for aesthetic and spiritual
needs as well, as a place to restore themselves from living
in a harsh urban environment. People change when they come
here; they slow down, they breathe, as you’d expect
when you go from the city to the tropics. That doesn’t
downgrade the educational mission; that’s just where
you start sometimes. By giving people a good experience
you can get them to care about the plants and be interested
in the environment.
The Dale Chihuly show brought many
first-time visitors to the West Side, as well as people
who hadn’t visited the conservatory for a long time.
The West Side is changing a great deal; there is good stuff
happening here, and people saw that. We’ve worked
hard to be a part of our immediate community and build bridges
with our neighbors. We work closely with the Garfield Park
Conservatory Alliance, our private partner dedicated to
the conservatory’s strengthening and growth, to ensure
that we’re fulfilling our responsibilities to the
West Side and the city.
How did Chihuly come to do a major
exhibition at the conservatory, and what made it so successful?
Mr. Chihuly had done something for the city’s millennium
celebration, and the city wanted him to do a major exhibit,
giving him several suggestions on where to hold it. He immediately
jumped at the idea of doing something at the conservatory.
He made a real effort to know the conservatory’s mission
and created and installed his pieces with an idea of complementing
the plants, not overshadowing them. He created a dialogue
between the plants and the sculptures. It was very innovative,
and people experienced both the plants and his art in a
way they never had before.
What’s coming up for the conservatory?
A tremendous show, co-sponsored by the Chicago Botanic Garden,
called Chapungu: Contemporary Sculpture from Zimbabwe
[running May 31–October 31]. These works are
done by the Shona people, who start by listening to the
voice within the stone that informs what the sculpture should
be. They deal with universal themes, such as family life,
community, nature, the environment, and the spirit world.
The sculptures are huge: some up to ten feet tall and weighing