IMAGE:  February 2003 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
APRIL 2003
Volume 95, Issue 4
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GRAPHIC:  About AlumniCatch up with...

Lisa Roberts, AB’81, AM’85, Phd’92
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.

PHOTO:  Lisa Roberts, AB'81What 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 several tons.

—Susan Carrara






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