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Lauritzen Gardens: "Outside Kaneko" and 10 years of growing strong
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Lauritzen Gardens: "Outside Kaneko" and 10 years of growing strong

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OMAHA -- Like the perennials, trees and native grasses planted 10 years ago at Lauritzen Gardens, the reality of a thriving botanical garden has taken root. More than just a place to display flowers and other blooming beauties on its 115 acres, Lauritzen Gardens continues to educate and explore new ways to entice visitors to see what it has to offer.

And in this economic landscape, that isn't always easy.

The latest example of combining living and artistic forms is "Outside Kaneko," an exhibit showcasing 30 ceramic sculptures and 20 drawings by Omaha-based artist Jun Kaneko.

Spencer Crews, executive director of the gardens, said he had admired Kaneko's work for years and proposed the idea of exhibiting his art in the gardens in 2009. Kaneko, who has an international reputation in the art world, signed on, and the planning began. 

Kaneko's art has been in many international and national exhibitions and is included in more than 70 museum collections. Three of Kaneko's large ceramic heads in the exhibit were displayed on Park Avenue in New York City as part of a citywide public art event in summer 2008.

Kaneko's free-standing collection of three-dimensional dangos are made of ceramic with walls 1 to 2 inches thick, then fired with glazes in a variety of patterns and colors. "Dango" is a Japanese word meaning "rounded form," and the pieces range in size from tall and narrow to short and wide.

Combining the artist's drawings, which are exhibited inside the Lauritzen Gardens education center, and the sculptures in the gardens seemed like the perfect mix, Crews said.

The first step in bringing "Outside Kaneko" to life was dealing with the logistics of placing these large pieces of art in the midst of living horticultural displays. Then came the conceptual blending of sculptures and greenery and establishing the perfect place for each one. It took a year to schedule and pour the concrete footings needed to support the ceramic pieces, which are as tall as 8 feet.

"We've placed them in spots that accentuate something special about each piece," Crews said.

Installation took a little more than a week, said Maureen Thomsen, communications director at the gardens. Sculptures arrived crated and packed on flat-bed trucks, and four to six pieces were moved in daily. With the use of a 40-ton crane, moving crews hoisted the heads to their proper places. While visitors can get nose to nose with the giant heads, they aren't supposed to touch the sculptures.

Crews likes the juxtaposition of the very traditional gardens and the very contemporary art of Kaneko.

"They have an interesting appeal," he said of Kaneko's works. "They are an approachable and comfortable form."

Integrating art into public green spaces is just one way to attract new visitors to public gardens. The wildly successful 2009 exhibit pairing renowned artist Dale Chihuly's blown glass sculptures with the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is every public garden's dream. The Phoenix garden's website says the six-month exhibit attracted more than 550,000 visitors, and the garden raised enough money to buy one of the glass sculptures for its permanent exhibit.

"All public cultural institutions struggle to be self-sustaining," Crews said. Memberships and gift shops help, but special exhibits are money-makers. "It's unfortunate we need those, because the garden itself is so beautiful. But that doesn't seem to be enough."

Larger markets such as Phoenix are able to attract big-name exhibits, Crews said. For Omaha, this Kaneko exhibit can make a noticeable difference. Lauritzen Gardens already has seen an upswing in walk-in and group attendance, Crews said.

And there is that fine line balancing the image of a research and educational garden and one that is fun to visit. As Maureen Heffernan, executive director of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, wrote in an online magazine: "Public gardens won't matter if they become theme-like parks devoted to attracting visitors with artificial and gimmicky exhibits that waste resources better spent on developing masterful gardens."

From the beginning, Lauritzen Gardens has hoped to establish itself both as a serious botanical garden and one that invites the community to experience it in new ways. Its mission, as defined in its 2010 annual report, is "to provide a living museum of unique four-season plant displays, maintained to the highest standards consistent with environmental stewardship."

After 10 years, Lauritzen Gardens is a fairly young public planting, still discovering which varieties will thrive in the Nebraska weather and hilly landscape. It began with 10 garden spaces when it opened, including the formal Hitchcock Kountze Victorian Garden, where the brick walls are now fully covered with mature vines and climbers, and the Robert H. Storz Family Rose garden, with more than 2,000 roses of all varieties.

Nebraska's weather has presented one of the biggest challenges to the gardens, Crews said. A few years ago, a June wind and thunderstorm with golf-ball-sized hail sheared the annuals at ground level and pummeled the roses.

"It took an entire year to get back on track," he said.

Currently, Lauritzen Gardens has 20 unique garden spots. Crews, a landscape architect, said he has enjoyed watching the drawings and dreams develop over the decade.

"Seeing the garden physically mature has been amazing," he said.

Open for just a year, the Garden of Memories, which is a quiet, reflective place with a pond, is one of the latest projects. One of the most popular areas for all age groups is the Model Railroad Garden, with its winding, running trains on several levels, he said.

But developing a new garden space from start to finish is expensive, and donors to support the gardens usually need to be in place from the beginning.

Lauritzen Gardens has grown memberships and attendance over the past decade. In 2000, the garden had 372 memberships and 15,000 in total attendance, according to the 2010 annual report. Last year, it had 8,263 memberships and 167,970 in total attendance. Those are encouraging numbers, Crews said.

Now the garden is focusing on a recent plant conservation and research program combining field research and surveys of species close to extinction on the prairie. Fund-raising also has begun for a "glass house," which is still "a dream," Crews said. The year-round space would have 15,000 square feet of enclosed garden but is only in the planning stages.

But just like the acres of growing prairie and woodland ferns and perennials and annuals, the first step is in the planning. And as the idea grows, so does the garden.

Reach Kathryn Cates Moore at 402-473-7214 or at  kmoore@journalstar.com.

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