Jennifer Rominiecki, a veteran curator and the president and CEO of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida, has learned a thing or two about plants since she joined the institution in 2015. She’s also brought some artistic flair to the organization, which is best known for its marvelous collection of floral specimens.
As the force behind a new initiative, Rominiecki oversees programming that includes art exhibitions tied to the botanical garden’s holdings, which has been a hit among audiences and has encouraged repeated visits.
As Rominiecki was working with colleagues on a new Lichtenstein and Monet show, we caught up with her to hear about its conception, what it will include, and how all of its various elements tie together.
What are you working on right now?
I began my career in visual arts at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, then moved on to performing arts at the Metropolitan Opera, and ultimately ended up in “living arts” at the New York Botanical Garden. This culminated in my move to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.
Combining everything I learned at each cultural institution from each discipline, I oversaw the development of Selby Gardens’ proprietary operating model, the Living Museum, for which we now hold the trademark. The concept mirrors the operation of art museums by showcasing a changing schedule of rotating exhibitions featuring horticultural and garden displays. Many of the exhibitions showcase major artists through the lens of their connection to nature, and incorporate traditional art objects—paintings, prints, sculptures, rare books, etc.—in dialogue with horticultural vignettes and the gardens themselves.
The goal of the operating model is to highlight the connections between nature and the arts, while creating reasons for new first-time visits and repeat visits. In addition to exhibitions, the operating model includes the creation of related events, cultural offerings, performances, and educational programs to embrace key themes through every aspect of what becomes a multi-sensory, interdisciplinary experience.
Events, programs, food, merchandise, and other elements are all tied to the special exhibition on view; these elements all change for the next exhibition. In response to inquiries from 10 botanical gardens located in the US and Europe, we intend to begin traveling our exhibitions in 2021.
Right now, I am working on the next exhibition in the series focused on major artists, “Roy Lichtenstein: Monet’s Garden Goes Pop!” which opens in February.
Walk us through the when, where, and how of your approach to this project on a regular day.
In selecting an artist to examine in the context of the Living Museum, I have tried to focus on those who are not typically associated with nature, to reveal an element of surprise and discovery. We have held widely successful exhibitions featuring artists ranging from Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol to Marc Chagall, illustrating their often overlooked ties to nature and flowers. While these well-known artists had been interpreted many, many times, they had never been studied at a botanical garden with a close look at their connection to nature before.
Many of our visitors suggested that we undertake an interpretation of Claude Monet and his gardens at Giverny. In my research, I stumbled upon the most unexpected surprise: Lichtenstein’s screen prints based on Monet’s world-famous paintings of water lilies and haystacks. I knew immediately that we could take the iconic garden world of Monet and turn it on its head through Lichtenstein’s Pop art perspective. The hunt for these rarely seen Lichtenstein works began!
We always secure the art loans first, and then develop the immersive garden concepts based on them. It is truly a team effort, with our exhibition planning group—consisting of staff members from our exhibitions, horticulture, education, botany, and creative design departments, along with Dr. Carol Ockman, our curator at large—meeting regularly.
We have secured wonderful loans from the Lichtenstein Foundation, Lichtenstein Estate, Pérez Art Museum Miami, Norton Museum of Art, and a private collector. We are now working on the garden concepts. You can bet you will see Monet’s iconic Japanese bridge, trellises, and home—but not in their usual form. We are creating an immersive world: Monet’s garden as seen by Lichtenstein’s eyes throughout our 15 acres!
A regular day in this process consists of a meeting of our exhibition planning group (right now via Zoom), where concepts for garden displays are presented, statuses of loans are reviewed, marketing plans are discussed, education programming concepts are introduced, and deadlines are set.
We are now planning three years ahead with our exhibitions, so we will also discuss the status of other shows in the works. After these meetings, I usually spend some time in my office alone to dream up more exhibition concepts that can be explored. There are so many artists who have never been examined in the context of their connection to nature, and almost every artist out there has some relationship. So I have a long wish list for future exhibits!
What’s your favorite work of art in the house and why?
My favorite work of art in my home is a limited-edition print by Robert Rauschenberg that he created for the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 when I worked there. I did my undergraduate honors thesis on Rauschenberg, so I was a big fan and felt fortunate to be present while the planning for his retrospective was underway at the museum. There were 400 copies made, with sale proceeds benefitting the museum. I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, even though I was earning an entry-level salary and did not have dollars to spare to purchase art. So I charged it to my credit card and never looked back! I paid it off eventually, and will never part with it. To me, it represents my first major art purchase.
What is bothering you right now?
The uncertainty of the pandemic, and the negative impact it has had on arts and culture institutions. Performing arts institutions have been hit particularly hard. Everyone is looking at new ways to operate in this environment and still engage their constituents. As a mostly outdoor experience, we at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens are grateful to continue providing a place of respite and refuge to our visitors during this challenging time.
What was the last thing that made you laugh out loud?
What is your favorite part of your house and why?
My living room has 22-foot ceilings, so I love the airy quality it has. It gives me space to think, and it allows me to display large works of art. The first item I purchased for my home was a large-scale triptych by Katie Cassidy that is perfect for this space. When I look at it, I feel like I am floating in the nearby Gulf of Mexico. It brings me peace.
Are there any movies, music, podcasts, publications, or works of art that have made a big impact on you recently?
As a result of my immersion in Roy Lichtenstein, I became insistent that I must own one of his works for myself. My husband surprised me with two multiples of Lichtenstein’s famed . I love Lichtenstein’s playfulness and transformation of an everyday object into high art. While some hang fine china on their walls, I now have Lichtenstein paper plates on mine!
Are there any causes you support that you would like to share?
Early this year, I was so honored to join the board of the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition. This nonprofit organization is in the development stage of opening a Sarasota facility dedicated to celebrating African American art, culture, history, and entrepreneurship. This is a vital initiative as it will be accessible to all and provide a safe space for discussions about race, identity, and social justice while showcasing important works of art and historical objects.
Together with the Sarasota African American Cultural Coalition, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens will be hosting an exhibition of the Florida Highwaymen landscape artists in summer 2021. This was a group of African American artists in the 1950s who—despite facing racial and cultural barriers—made their living selling their stunning landscapes door-to-door along the eastern coastal highways of Florida. It is an inspiring story of creativity and entrepreneurship rooted in the incomparable natural vistas of Florida.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Binge-watching on Netflix. Can’t wait for the next season!
What’s going on in the kitchen these days? Any projects? And triumphs or tragedies?
What goes on in my kitchen has absolutely nothing to do with me. Thankfully, my husband is an accomplished chef whose legendary cooking is revered by family and friends. Our sons and I are treated to delectable home cooking on a daily basis, and there is no expectation for me to interfere with this glorious routine.
Which two fellow art-world people, living or dead, would you like to convene for dinner, and why?
So—of course—I would like to convene Roy Lichtenstein and Claude Monet for a dinner not cooked by me. I would like to know what they both think of Selby Gardens’ upcoming exhibition. I don’t think either of them would have imagined a show quite like this one.