STOCKBRIDGE -- Following a national search, the Berkshire Botanical Garden, founded 80 years ago, has named Michael Beck, a former corporate lawyer and biochemist, as its new executive director, effective immediately.
Beck, 43, had been a trustee at the educational nonprofit since 2012 and was named interim executive director by the board of trustees last October after the departure of the former director, Molly Boxer, early in 2013.
His priorities for the center, which attracts about 10,000 visitors annually, include broadening educational programs for the community and area schools while expanding year-round classes, lectures and events to augment the prime visitors' season from May through October.
Originally named the Berkshire Garden Center, the site had been established in 1934 by the Lenox Garden Club on land donated by a local family, Bernhard and Irene Hoffman.
After nine years as a part-time resident of Richmond, Beck, a native of Munster, Germany, became a full-timer last fall, though he maintains a home in New York City, where his husband works as an attorney.
Beck became an active member of the Botanical Garden in 2004 and was named a trustee in 2012 at the suggestion of his friend and neighbor Matt Larkin, the board chairman.
"It was one of the first cultural institutions I visited here, so I was very aware of the organization," said Beck. After the first phase of the national search for a new leader ended last fall without a choice, he was invited to serve as interim director.
"The board is extremely happy with the outcome of our year-long national search," Larkin said. "We are confident that Mike will be an effective and inspiring leader for the garden."
As it turned out, Beck said, his skills as an intellectual property attorney at the New York office of the well-known, Boston-based international law firm Goodwin and Procter translated well to the CEO position at the garden. Beck's legal work involved fighting patent battles for corporations and interacting with their executives.
"That was good preparation for this position," said Beck in a phone interview from his office on the grounds of the facility at the intersection of Routes 102 and 183, two miles west of downtown Stockbridge.
Beck's goals include continuing the growth of annual paid admissions, currently about 10,000, expanding the active membership rolls, now 1,200, and enhancing special events and exhibits at the year-round, 15-acre garden, where the main season for visitors runs from May through October.
"There's a fair amount of wetland areas," Beck said. "We're working on improving the undeveloped area, especially the woodland walk."
The annual operating budget is just over $1 million, he said. The garden broke even in 2013, continuing a pattern of recent fiscal years, and maintains an endowment of $3 million.
"We're always striving to expand community outreach," Beck emphasized, listing educational classes, talks, field trips and clinics offered year-round. "We want to be relevant to what people are looking for."
In addition to guiding gardeners on the area's horticultural zone, classes emphasize organic, sustainable gardening, fruit and vegetable production, animal husbandry, beekeeping and even maintenance of chicken coops.
"We want to be sure we reach kids in local schools," Beck said, stressing the importance of youth education.
He's also keen on appealing to visitors' sense of curiosity about the history of the garden, where the Center House used for office space and casual gatherings dates back to 1790. Renovations of that building so it can be used for more programming top Beck's wish list.
Other goals include broadening the year-round appeal of the site, which offers free admission from November through April for the always-open greenhouses, where a spring bulb show was offered recently. The 37th annual plant sale, a highlight of the spring season, is set for May 9 and 10.
"We want to build on our reputation as one of the region's well-known botanical gardens," Beck said. "People come from all over to our annual Harvest Festival, we're able to attract up-and-coming as well as famous names in the field of horticulture. We're proud of that, and we can improve on it."
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Botanical Garden Snapshot ...
Founded: 1934 as the Berkshire Garden Center, one of New England's longest-established public gardens
Annual visitors: 10,000
Annual budget: $1 million (approximately)
Endowment: $3 million
Location: 5 West Stockbridge Road, at Routes 102 and 183 in Stockbridge
Attractions: 15 acres and 22 display areas representing over 3,000 regionally appropriate plant species, significant trees, unique shrubs and exotic botanical collections
Goal: Education in responsible horticulture and home-grown food with a year-round schedule of classes and workshops, guest lectures and a horticulture certification program
Admission: $15 from May through October, $12 for students and seniors, free for children under 12 and members. Free to all the rest of the year. Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Membership: $50 for an individual, $75 for couples and families
Source: Berkshire Botanical Garden; Executive Director Michael Beck.