Growing a Legacy


Growing a Legacy:

Michael Allen Bids Farewell to the Memphis Botanic Garden

By Michael Allen

It’s been a good run.
In January of 2017, I was given the responsibility to watch over the Memphis Botanic Garden, our city’s 96-acre, center-city oasis, and for the past 7 and a half years it has been my privilege to exercise that duty.
I’ve referred to my tenure at the Garden as the time of the “4 C’s”; Capital Campaigns, Construction, and COVID, along with the introduction of seasonal exhibits, measured growth in the use of our outdoor stage, and the strengthening of our balance sheet.
During this time, we have raised over $12M, and with those funds, we have undertaken 14 different capital projects. Mostly, these were updates and upgrades to existing facilities, gardens, and grounds, such as the modernization of our Visitors Center, updates to Hardin Hall, a complete re-do of our Water Garden, enhancements to our Woodland and Delta Garden, new way-finding signage and more. I always wanted to leave the Garden better than I found it, and I think I’ve done that.

This past spring after more than a year of construction, we opened two new structures; a Family Pavilion on the south end of our campus, answering a call of parents, grandparents, and educators who had for many years implored us to add bathrooms closer to where so many of our field trips and family activities occur. And in May, we dedicated the new Jim Strickland Youth Education and Tropical Plant House; a 3,400+ square-foot, state-of-the-art glasshouse dedicated to the display of hard-to-find plants from six of the world’s seven continents. Located directly along Cherry Road, this building invites passers-by to come into the Garden and begin exploring its many beautiful features.
Of course, for any CEO over the past few years, COVID was an unanticipated and unique challenge. We navigated these unchartered waters along with our other non-profit colleagues, and while we were closed for six weeks by mandate, we reopened the first day government officials permitted us to do so. We quickly found that having a 96-acre, outdoor space in the midst of a global pandemic was a godsend for our community. Our fellow citizens flocked to our grounds finding respite amongst the 30 specialty gardens, open lawns, and miles of accessible pathways. I was particularly proud of our staff, who during this time of uncertainty kept the gardens and grounds pristine. Unlike other organizations, we did not have to institute any layoffs and none of our staff missed a paycheck.
In 2017, we introduced Big Bugs at the Garden, this was the first in a series of seasonal exhibits that we have been bringing to Memphis almost every year. Since “Bugs” we’ve had exhibits featuring Origami, Rich Soil, and of course the 2022 blockbuster - Alice's Adventures at the Garden. Watch for an announcement soon about our 2025 exhibit. I promise you will be pleased!
A few years before my arrival, my predecessor Jim Duncan built the outdoor stage in what is now known as the Radians Amphitheater. This stage is home to the long-running and critically acclaimed Live at the Garden summer concert series along with a select number of newer events. We have tried to use this stage with a bit more frequency but also with consideration toward our neighbors, knowing that it resides amidst a residential neighborhood.
Less interesting, but every bit important, has been the improvement to our financial stability. Non-profits, almost by their nature, go through cycles of financial stress along with periods of relative surplus. My goal over these past 7 and a half years was to increase our financial reserves such that - with good management - the Garden could weather future storms. To that end, we have tripled our financial reserves and put into place guidelines on how and when these reserves can and will be tapped. With good stewardship, the Memphis Botanic Garden is in a place financially where it can withstand anything that comes our way.
The Memphis Botanic Garden is one of our city’s most treasured, but also under-appreciated assets. If you and your family have not made this 96-acre green space a part of your Memphis experience, I urge you to do so, and if you see me out there, please say hello.

Michael Allen retired from the Memphis Botanic Garden and full-time work on June 30, 2024. Allen spent 25 years with International Paper in Memphis and three other cities, owned his own business, and was past CEO of Catholic Charities of West Tennessee (2010 - 2016) prior to joining the Garden in 2017.

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