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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Gregory Long

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-10

Gregory Long, president and CEO of the New York Botanical Garden, is a 13th generation Yankee from Missouri.

A Yankee from Missouri?

"I was born and raised in Kansas City," Mr. Long said yesterday.

But how did that make him a Yankee? After all, "Yankee" was a nickname that the Dutch colonialists of New York contemptuously gave to the British settlers of Connecticut, whom they put in the same low-life category as the Dutch pirates whom the English of Old Europe called "Yankees."

"My forebears went west to Missouri a long time ago, and pirates they were not," Mr. Long said. "They were proper, God-fearing Yankees. My father, Robert, and mother, Elizabeth Breed, both came from Yankee lineage. That makes me a Yankee - and one who came back East again."

He brought back with him Yankee values of economy and enterprise. He also brought with him a family tradition of community service, institution building and promoting education, and communing with nature: many of his relatives were deeply engaged with the Presbyterian Church in Missouri, and a grandfather was a prominent theologian.

That set of values and traditions may account for his ambitions for the New York Botanical Garden - transforming the 115-year-old institution into one of the city's most extraordinary cultural institutions; and establishing it as the most formidable of the world's three major botanical gardens (the others being Kew Gardens in Britain, and in St. Louis, Mo.).

The transformation would include naming and identifying 60,000 of the world's 325,000 flowering-plant species (the garden has 7.2 million specimens of 250,000 species from all over the world); and promoting the study of molecular biology in order to learn how plants and their genes can help stem soil erosion and desertification (more than 13 million hectares of forests worldwide are lost each year, according to the United Nations).

"I'm very involved in enhancing science programs for children and young adults, not least because America's young are being outpaced in science and math by their counterparts in Asia and elsewhere," Mr. Long said.

"I'm very preoccupied by what still needs to be done," he said.

But he gently deflected a question about what he perceived to be his most noteworthy contribution to the Garden.

The deflection seemed to spring less from an aversion to discussing his record as it did from a natural modesty - the product, no doubt of his Yankee-from-Missouri upbringing.

"It's not about me," Mr. Long said. "It's all about the institution. I feel as strongly as I do about the New York Botanical Garden because precious though it is, it's an undervalued resource. I'm part of a team with a purpose."

Be that as it may, in the 17 years since he became the 8th president of the verdant facility that sprawls across 250 acres in the Bronx, Mr. Long has been famously single-minded in reforming the New York Botanical Garden's finances and administration.

He helped create two 7-year strategic plans under which $500 million has been raised, as Mr. Long put it, "to build endowment, and to fund program initiatives; widen our audiences; and develop capital projects."

The institution's literature says that the Garden is nearing completion of a 15-year, $200 million capital construction program; it started with the renovation of the Enid Haupt Conservatory, and includes an expanded library with 1 million volumes - the world's biggest collection of books on plants, Mr. Long said.

Last year, the Garden opened the Nolen Greenhouses for the Living Collections. And in May, it will inaugurate the 28,000-square-foot Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory, which will triple the Garden's research capabilities. The strengthening of research is particularly advocated by Mr. Long, who said that the garden's 200 Ph. D. scientists, graduate students and doctoral candidates, and technical staff pursue innovative inquiries in plant and molecular systematics, economic botany, ecology, and genomics.

His scholarship in these matters doesn't flow from an academic background, although Mr. Long authored an acclaimed book on historic houses in the Hudson River Valley that demonstrated a supple grasp of ecology.

"When I was 8 years old, there was a moment in the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City when I decided that museums would be my pursuit in life," Mr. Long said. "I didn't plan my career - but I proved myself right."
But surely the New York Botanical Garden couldn't be truly considered a "museum."
Mr. Long smiled as he set out to sketch his life's trajectory.

After he'd graduated from New York University with an art history major, he took a job with the Met's administration. There he came into contact with luminaries such as Douglas Dillon, then chairman of the Met's board. Dillon was keen to develop the museum's financial security.

"It was also a time of other great changes - the Met wanted to open its galleries more to people and new constituencies," Mr. Long said. "It was the centennial of the museum, and the era of the blockbuster exhibitions and open houses had begun."

His work at the Met resulted in an enticing assignment at the Brooklyn Museum. From there Mr. Long went to the American Museum of natural History, where he began specializing in fundraising.

A key part of that effort was fashioning communications strategies, and Mr. Long soon won notice as an exceptional writer who could synthesize historical facts, institutional narrative, and a sense of the museum's vision into an elegant pitch to donors.

He took that ability to the Wildlife Conservation Society (then known as the New York Zoological Society). After that, he was hired by the New York Public Library as vice president for public affairs. Among other things, Mr. Long directed the private-sector portion of a $300 million fundraising campaign, the laregst ever undertaken by an American library.

Then came the offer to head the New York Botanical Garden.

Wasn't it somewhat off the professional path he'd pursued since emigrating East from Missouri? Art and museums was one thing, but a botanical garden?

"I love the change of subject matter - it's invigorating," Mr. Long said. "In my previous jobs, I had learned how to manage complex institutions. I discovered that I had the gift of being persuasive, of being able to tap into the history of an institution in a way that was relevant to its current needs. The Garden was financially insecure. Yet it had this wonderful history. But the Garden was being used as a park. I sought to strengthen its identity as a botanical garden and a museum of plants. I became a spokesman, and an agent, for change in a city that I can claim as my very own. And it certainly helps to have a brilliant board of trustees to partner with in a characteristically New York spirit of cooperation."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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