Friday, November 20, 2009

The End of Fifteen Years of Teaching at Como Zoo and Conservatory

Today was my last time teaching art classes at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, Saint Paul, MN. I began art classes there fifteen years ago, on December 1, 1994. Back then, I would arrive in the evening at the conservatory, unlock the door, turn off the alarm, turn on the lights, set up chairs and teach art. Then I would put away the chairs, turn off the lights, set the alarm, lock the door and go home. In the intervening years an education department was formed, murals were painted, a gallery space was developed, a botanical and zoological arts program evolved, art installations were created by kids and teens, $21 million was given by the State of Minnesota to build an education center and, sadly, today, arts programming has come to an end.

I ran the arts programming and set up the education systems at Como for nine years. The last six years I have continued to teach in the program. For the past year, none of my classes, and many of the classes in the program, have not run. It has been a slow downhill slide since I stopped coordinating the program.

There are many reasons for the demise of a program that once was busting at the seams. I had a public meeting where people were literally throwing checks at me ordering me to offer more botanical arts classes. At one point we were running ten art classes per session. Not bad for a small zoo and conservatory with a fledgling education department.

One highlight was beginning the Botanical Arts and Illustration program with Vera Ming Wong and Marilyn Garber. Although Marilyn left early-on, it was a great experience developing and expanding the program with Vera. This has lead to many other rewarding activities shared over the years.

Today I performed a portfolio review for the last student to achieve botanical arts certification through the program. At the time the botanical arts and illustration program was developed, there were only five botanical art certification programs in the country. Now there are many. The review was with a student who is typical of the students that were in the program. Barb is passionate about art and about plants. She loved the program and took classes for the last five years. Her achievements and friends in the program are important to her.

What could sink a program with devoted students, good attendance, excellent teachers and uniqueness? As I mentioned, there were many factors, but the most outstanding factor to me was that this community of artists, these talented people of passion and devotion, were no longer fostered as a community. As time went by, the program was run by non-artists and became about numbers, not about people. Whenever an arts program doesn't foster a community, it will eventually fail.

Vera was supposed to be there at the portfolio review today but was sick. It seemed fitting to me that I was there alone with a student at the end. Like when it began - just me, unlocking the door, turning on the lights and teaching a class. Today it was just me, walking out the door and going home for the last time.

I want to thank the hundreds of people I have taught, and taught with, through the Como program over the years. You are a beautiful highlight of my life.


  1. I share your disappointment, Mark.

    I spent four years studying in the Como botanical art program. I witnessed its decline -- the classes I needed to complete the certificate were not offered, and no one could determine what would constitute a final project to earn a certificate. The program strayed to accreditation at Concordia, then to animals, then to a new coordinator who kept poor records.

    I'm not sure if the lack of artists was to blame, but certainly there was a lack of direction.

    Botanical art programs are flourishing across the country and the art is being collected at staggering levels.

    Too bad for Como.

  2. Karen,
    Thanks for the comment. Yes, judging from the interest around the country and other parts of the Twin Cities it should have been possible to keep things going. Again, I think the program lost its way by not listening to the community it was serving. But as you say, "too bad for Como." Many of us have moved on to other activities and opportunities. I hope to again be a part of something as fun and as exciting as that program was the first several years. It would be nice to do it with many of the same people. Maybe....