Matthaei-Nichols Director Tony Kolenic
Tony Kolenic joined Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum as director on March 1, 2021.
If you’ve been curious about who Tony is and what he’s thinking, this wide-ranging conversation reveals a lot about his plans for Matthaei-Nichols—plans that build on our strengths and look forward to the future.
Welcome, Tony! We’re excited to have you on board and are looking forward to working with you. Your start date was March 1, and that day began when you flew up from Florida to meet with staff and tour the property. As you look back to last year when you learned of the directorship opportunity, what caught your interest about the job?
Thank you for the warm welcome. I’m excited to join the team and rejoin the broader University of Michigan community! My initial interest in this opportunity was driven by both my own personal connection to Matthaei-Nichols and by its unique role within both the university and community. I lived in Ann Arbor for eight years prior to joining the University of Florida. In that time, I became connected to the arb and gardens; I saw hundreds of sunrises from the trails of the Arb as a runner, and I spent countless hours in the gardens. Professionally, I’m guided by a belief that expertise and scholarship are most valuable when they make public impact, ideally with the communities and publics we serve. I’ve spent my career putting that belief into practice and building organizational strategy to make the greatest public impact. We are poised to build off of our long history of public engagement, and I am thrilled to work with the staff, university leadership, and other members of our community to define its next phase.
What are some of the first projects or priorities you’d like to get started on?
There are many endeavors I’m really excited to pursue with our colleagues and community, including engaging in a strategic planning process anchored in a durable and authentic commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion; planning for the 100th anniversary of the Peony Garden—one of the oldest and most comprehensive collections in the country; building infrastructure and programming for our world-class bonsai collection; positioning Matthaei-Nichols to be a leading voice for sustainability and carbon neutrality for the University of Michigan and broader regional community; and growing interdisciplinary research and curricular collaborations with the amazing faculty, staff, and students across the University of Michigan’s academic units and allied organizations.
How will these priorities shape who we are as an organization within the University of Michigan?
These initial priorities are unified by two interlocking questions: What will a leading botanical garden and arboretum make possible for its communities, publics, and environment by 2040, and what do we need to do in the next 5 to 10 years to get there? Knowing that there are other allied organizations and partners within the University of Michigan and beyond, what can only Matthaei-Nichols do to drive a more just and sustainable future?
I’ve spearheaded many strategic planning initiatives in higher education and the central lesson that I’ve learned is that a meaningful process for strategic planning is as edifying for an organization as the goals and content it yields. As such, who we are as an organization will be defined in part by how we answer these questions, but also by the processes we use to surface those answers. I look forward to working with the staff, our campus partners, and our broader community to get there together.
You’ll be the first director at Matthaei-Nichols without an explicitly horticultural or plant-based background. Are there any particular experiences or strengths you will rely on for success?
My career has centered on planning, creating, and driving interdisciplinary initiatives, many of which directly relate to our mission and expertise. I believe strongly that the most transformational work – the work that grows both disciplines and our collective worldviews – happens at disciplinary edges. We are a deeply interdisciplinary organization bringing together horticulture, landscape architecture, sustainable engineering, early childhood education, museum studies, cultural studies, agricultural education, design, and many other disciplines to make something greater than the sum of its parts. That “something greater” will simultaneously serve as an immersive experience that closes the distance between the natural world’s ever-unfolding complexity and our community’s daily lives, and as a living laboratory for a variety of faculty, staff, and students. I look forward to putting my own interdisciplinary and infrastructure-building experiences to work for that something greater.
One theme that came up as you met with staff in your first days on the job is community engagement and communications. Both of those are a big part of what we do here at Matthaei-Nichols. What direction do you see taking the arb and gardens in engagement with the community and in our partnerships with other groups such as volunteers, members, students, and the university?
One of the great advantages of stepping into this role is that I’m able to continue the great work that my predecessor, Bob Grese, made possible, in collaboration with a highly engaged group of partners, students, staff, and other community members. With that momentum and those supportive partnerships, I see the next step in our engagement as expanding the ways in which we serve different communities and working with targeted community leaders to co-create programs and offerings with us. It’s imperative that we tailor our endeavors with the specific communities and partners we wish to serve. Further, we have the opportunity to communicate in real time about all of the exciting and transformational work happening at – and through – Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum.
Any projects, ideas, or topics you’re personally passionate about that you hope to work on as director?
When I see our impressive visitorship and the cutting-edge research that takes place with our faculty and student partners, I see boundless opportunities to teach our visitors about the research being conducted. I think of that research as a collection to be displayed and interpreted, just as our core collections and spaces are. Rendering that work legible for our visitors can help buoy public trust in science.
In parallel, we also live in a time when the veil of systemic racism in the United States is uniquely thin, and institutions are beginning to understand what they can do to examine and ameliorate their own roles within it. We are uniquely positioned to lead efforts that address our collective relationships to nature, and to think about whose experiences or ways of understanding the natural world are prioritized and who has the most at stake as climate change continues.
Beyond work, what are some of your personal interests, hobbies, or pursuits?
My wife and I have two young children, so most of our free time is spent enjoying their company. We love helping them learn about the world around them; my daughter is a budding entomologist, and my son is font of curiosity. We spend a great deal of time hiking in the woods and cooking, and I compose and record music. I still run, but perhaps not as frequently as I should!
Many of the staff, volunteers, members, and students—even if we’re not all horticulturists or botanists—are plant people, so to speak. Do you have a favorite or cherished flower or plant?
Trilliums are my hands-down favorite. I spent my childhood running around in Muskegon’s dunes and swimming in Lake Michigan, and I have fond memories of my parents taking me to P.J. Hoffmaster State Park for the annual Trillium Festival. Scenes of triangular white bursts on the forest floor with sunshine breaking through canopy gaps immediately come to mind when I think of “home.” Looking back, having these kinds of experiences with my family impacted me profoundly and I fully appreciate how the arb and gardens provides similar opportunities for visitors to make lifelong memories.
As you prepare to move to Ann Arbor from Florida, just a reminder that Michigan winters are long and cold. Although you grew up here.
I can hardly wait after being hot for the last six years!