Flower Show's tightrope: Keeping the old guard, attracting new patrons

Working on the 2014 Flower Show entrance garden is designer Kilsoon Osenbach. "This is a living, breathing show," says Pennsylvania Horticultural Society chief Drew Becher, "that needs to perpetuate change."
Working on the 2014 Flower Show entrance garden is designer Kilsoon Osenbach. "This is a living, breathing show," says Pennsylvania Horticultural Society chief Drew Becher, "that needs to perpetuate change." (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 24, 2014

Talk to 10 people who've been to Philadelphia Flower Shows past and you'll get 10 different opinions.

You like those edgy videos? Other folks hate 'em. Chasing blue ribbons for your pampered succulents? Plant competitions bore the next guy silly.

Sometimes, it seems, the Flower Show - the nation's oldest, founded in 1829 - has an impossible mission. Like other legacy institutions, it must find a way to retain its core audience - mostly white, middle-aged, and suburban - while also attracting a younger, more diverse population to carry it into the future.

"This is a living, breathing show that needs to perpetuate change. It's like a movie. You can't have the same plot. No one would go see it," says Drew Becher, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which launches the 2014 Flower Show on March 1 through 9 at the Convention Center.

For the first time since 2006, the theme has nothing to do with places like New Orleans or Ireland. The 2014 show promises to be more cerebral: "ARTiculture, where art meets horticulture."

In an unusual arrangement, the show's landscape and floral designers have been paired with Philadelphia-area museums, along with the Getty in Los Angeles, the Guggenheim in New York City, and the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Using plants, trees, sculptures, and other elements, exhibitors are interpreting a particular painting, a body of work, an entire artistic movement. Even, in one case, a museum's outdoor garden.

Designer Michael Petrie of Swarthmore, for example, draws on the Barnes' post-impressionist paintings, especially those by Henri Matisse. Stoney Bank Nurseries of Glen Mills, working with the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, channels three generations of Wyeths. And Wyndmoor's Burke Bros. interprets not a work of art per se, but the cacti garden, lavender pergola, water features, and travertine building materials in the Getty Museum's landscape.

"It's almost like a cubist painting, everything rectilinear, plants arranged in blocks of vibrant colors," Kevin Burke says of his creation.

PHS' largest fund-raiser, the Flower Show costs up to $10 million to produce and typically generates about $1 million for the nonprofit's public landscape, urban farming, tree-planting, and horticulture programs.

And while every show generates excitement, there's a sense that PHS needs to mount a robust counterpoint to the 2013 show, which failed to match the popularity of "Hawaii: Islands of Aloha" in 2012 (270,000) and "Springtime in Paris" in 2011 (265,000 visitors).

The 2013 production ("Brilliant!" about Britain) attracted only 225,000, the lowest in a decade, even though PHS added an extra day to the show. Becher blamed TV forecasters, contending that their no-show snowstorm scared visitors away and caused a shortfall of about $2 million.

Those in the "snow-happens-in-March" camp scoffed.

They found the theme ho-hum. They blamed pricey tickets ($32 at the door) and parking ($25/day). They couldn't find a place to sit or landscaping ideas to take home.

"You try some things, and some things work and some things don't. We can do better," Becher says. "That's a show."

The 2014 production will bring more change, which has become the watchword of Becher's four-year tenure. At the same time, in a nod to the old guard, a popular feature that was eliminated in 1996, when the show moved from the old Civic Center in West Philadelphia to Center City, will be restored.

Yes, the much-missed, fragrant hyacinths that greeted winter-weary visitors at the entrance to the old show are back. About 700 will grace the base of the show's entrance garden, Becher's new name for the erstwhile central feature.

PHS' Flower Show survey indicated that visitors didn't like the pale colors and minimalist style of the 2013 central feature - oops, entrance garden. So PHS designers this year are emphasizing bold hues: They created three oversize picture frames and a garden inspired by Alexander Calder's mobiles, paintings, and sculptures. They'll be filled with brightly colored flowers, grasses, stones, and glass.

Becher wants the entrance garden to be more interactive, inviting visitors to walk through and around it, rather than just passing by.

"The days of people just walking in and looking at exhibits and 'Isn't that a nice pond, aren't those nice flowers?' are gone," he says. "People want the experience now. They want to walk through and lose themselves."

That idea informs this year's showbiz element, delivered by Bandaloop of Oakland, Calif., an aerial dance troupe that has performed on vertical surfaces from Seattle's Space Needle to the Italian Dolomites.

Dancers won't exactly be walking through the entrance garden. They'll be doing their thing while suspended from the Convention Center ceiling.

For traditionalists, the show will have its signature plant competitions in the $1 million Horticort, funded by philanthropist Dorrance "Dodo" Hamilton, a fierce competitor, who is calling it quits after decades of ribbon sweeps.

The Horticort will honor Hamilton with an exhibit of Flower Show history and her place in it. Some of her best-known plants - clivias, orchids, lilies, hanging baskets, shoo-ins all - will be on display.

Becher has other changes in store:

The show's lectures, traditionally consigned to rooms along a Convention Center hallway, will be moved inside the show. And no more PowerPoint presentations. Becher wants more audience participation.

Culinary programs, too, are moving inside the show to highlight the "hot local chefs" whom PHS is bringing (Rich Landau, Tia McDonald) and the not-so-local stars, like Rachael Ray, Edward Lee, and "The Fabulous Beekman Boys." (Aramark, provider of the Convention Center's food, also consulted Philadelphia's Jose Garces on the show's cafe menu.)

Although ticket prices are a frequent complaint, PHS nixed the idea of a cheaper option this year - say, a $20 ticket for weeknights after 5 o'clock. Instead, it went with a new $125 VIP package with perks.

But PHS appears to have listened on another front: 600 new seats will be added throughout the show, bringing the total to 1,100.

Finally, weather. After such a winter, a snowy forecast - correct or not - likely won't keep anyone away from the 2014 Flower Show. Might even boost attendance.


vsmith@phillynews.com

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KisstheEarth

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