Wendy DePaolis is one of a kind.
She’s the only curator of art and sculpture at a landscape arboretum in the nation, and she’s using art to lure visitors to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen. Once they arrive, “we want them to learn more about the plant world through art,” says DePaolis, who has a master’s in art history from the University of St. Thomas.
As the arboretum’s first curator, DePaolis is making it up as she goes. “It’s not a traditional job in any sense of the word,” she says. “It’s a lot of creating and building.”
DePaolis came to the job almost entirely by accident. A longtime arboretum member, she snowshoed in the winter and admired the art installations year-round. During one visit, she fell in love with a piece of art and bought it. When she brought it home, she realized she had questions about the art and artist. She e-mailed Edward Schneider, then the arboretum’s director, for more information, but he didn’t have answers. “There was a disconnect between having art on the premises and having someone who could answer questions,” she says.
Her e-mail came to Schneider at a good time. Aware of the lack of art leadership, Schneider had secured an endowment to hire a curator for the Harrison Sculpture Garden. He was looking for someone to direct the art program and expand the fine arts classes. He also wanted accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, the gold standard of certifications that tells donors, trustees, grant givers and visitors that an institution safely handles loans and acquisitions. Having a curator would help.
DePaolis didn’t know any of this when she e-mailed. But after several conversations, she had her dream job.
That was in 2015. Since then, she’s been bringing attention to the fact that the arboretum even has art. Now she’s excited to raise awareness of the current exhibit, “Then and Now: Somali Stories Through Art,” which runs through April 22.
DePaolis has many hopes for the arboretum. The biggest? That everyone feels at home. And that the Somali show, which includes docents of Somali descent and a collection of gardening implements from the Somali community, will draw new visitors. “We have a lot of people from Somalia in the western suburbs who may never have set foot in the arboretum.”
She also wants art at the arboretum to spark thinking about both plants and diversity in a magical space.
“That’s what’s so great,” she says. “You say ‘Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’ and people say ‘I love that place!’ In a world of division and diversity, it brings people together.”