The Withering – Massachusetts Horticultural Society – Elm Bank – New England Spring Flower Show – Mass Hort
Betsy Ridge Madsen looks as if she’d rather be someplace else. Like maybe Beacon Hill, where she is used to spending considerable time tending her garden and arranging the flowers at the Church of the Advent. But these days, Mass Hort’s board president has little time for such modest acts of beautification. Instead, she’s in the conference room at Elm Bank, sitting beneath the stern faces of presidents from a century ago, who stare down at her from oil paintings.
Madsen, a schoolteacher, was thrust into the presidency a year ago, at the lowest moment in the group’s history. The devastating 2008 financial audit had made the cancellation of the flower show a foregone conclusion, but privately the board was weighing an even more unthinkable option: closing Mass Hort altogether. The president at the time, Boston Federal Reserve general counsel William McDonough, along with Walter Pile, a management consultant who was then treasurer, knew the group owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to creditors, but couldn’t see a way to pay them.
But Madsen was part of a faction that dug in against the idea of shuttering Mass Hort. However long the odds looked, the group felt, they needed to attempt to salvage the organization. "We made the decision to at least have Custer’s Last Stand," a trustee said at the time. It takes an optimistic sort of person to be a gardener in New England, someone who believes spring will eventually arrive, no matter how terrible the winter. When McDonough, Pile, and another board member stepped down, the remaining members elected Madsen to rebuild Mass Hort from the ruins.
In the year since the flower show’s collapse, Madsen has come to believe that the failure might somehow be a good thing for Mass Hort. "It forced us to think out of the box," she says. "It got us thinking about what is essential and how you get your message across, looking at different venues, looking at different ways of engaging the public. All of them are things, in a way, that are long overdue."
Madsen is too polite to say it, but she knows many of her predecessors were awful at reconciling their ambitions with their capabilities. Long before she was elected board president, Mass Hort was straining under the weight of a vastly expanded mission. In a nod to its scientific roots, it ran a trial garden on its grounds, where seed companies tested their products in New England’s climate. Then there was the flower show, which cost $2 million to stage each year, plus a program to educate kids on gardening and a multimillion-dollar library that needed conserving. That’s to say nothing of the money pit the Elm Bank property has become.