Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Mary Pat Matheson plots its path to success.

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Mary Pat Matheson may not be a botanical expert studying the difference between a Pinus taeda and a Quercus falcate, but that doesn’t mean she’s any less qualified to oversee operations at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. In fact, before Matheson came on as president and CEO in 2002, the Garden was but a sapling compared to the mighty oak it is today. Having raised more than $100 million over the years for various improvements and expansion, she has planted and sowed the seeds that have breathed new life into not only the attraction itself, but the surrounding neighborhoods as well.

Mary Pat Matheson stands amid boxes filled with contents that will be transformed into Dale Chihuly's glass installations. The first Chihuly exhibit at the Atlanta Botanical Garden put the fledging attraction on the map, and Matheson says this new exhibit is destined to break attendance records.

Mary Pat Matheson stands amid boxes filled with contents that will be transformed into Dale Chihuly’s glass installations. The first Chihuly exhibit at the Atlanta Botanical Garden put the fledging attraction on the map, and Matheson says this new exhibit is destined to break attendance records.

“Running a botanical garden is in my DNA,” says Matheson, who lives in south Buckhead with her husband, Briant, a painter who works at Lagerquist Gallery. He’s the one with the green thumb, she acknowledges, although Matheson does have a small vegetable garden on their 25-acre spread in Athens, where they go most weekends so she can unwind and ride her horse, Dublin.

To get a sense of how she’s accomplished such a transformation at the Garden, we visited with Matheson on the eve of opening the big, new Dale Chihuly exhibit that features 20 of the famed glass artist’s sculptural installations. The Garden’s queen bee happily buzzed about the grounds, pollinating everyone she encountered with her infectious charm, wit and wisdom. Here’s a peek at how she spent her day.

9 a.m. Matheson arrives at her office. “I’m not an early morning person,” she says, “especially since so many of my evenings are taken up with work-related meetings, receptions, etc.”

9:30 a.m. She strolls the grounds, inspecting the installation of the Chihuly sculptures to be sure everything will be ready in time for the big donors’ preview and exhibit opening later that week.

10:15 a.m. At the site of the new Chihuly gift shop, where the Café at Linton’s used to be, Matheson chats with the construction crew. Questioning whether they have the right cabinetry in the right place, she looks over the blueprints and calls up Art Fix, the Garden’s COO, and asks him to come consult with them.

Matheson joins chef Linton Hopkins in the kitchen of his newly reenvisioned onsite eatery, which will feature vegetables and herbs grown in plots around the Garden.

Matheson joins chef Linton Hopkins in the kitchen of his newly reenvisioned onsite eatery, which will feature vegetables and herbs grown in plots around the Garden.

11 a.m. Matheson heads to the newly-built space where the Garden’s reenvisioned eatery, Linton’s, will be. It’s the first time she’s seen it since the furniture has arrived, and Chef Linton Hopkins, his wife, Gina, and other restaurant staffers are prepping the space for its opening. After chatting with Gina about the curtains and other design elements, the pair heads upstairs to check out the rooftop patio. Afterward, Hopkins takes Matheson into the kitchen, where crew members are busily prepping dishes for the next day’s menu tasting, and hands her a sample from a tray of roasted carrots. “One of my proudest accomplishments is getting Linton, one of the best chefs in the Southeast, to the Garden,” Matheson says.

11:30 a.m. Matheson rushes off to a Rotary Club luncheon at the Loudermilk Center downtown. The group meets every Monday, and she tries to attend as often as possible.

1:45 p.m. Back in her office, Matheson meets with Tracy McClendon, the vice president of programs. On a table by Matheson’s desk is a copy of the Garden’s new book, Atlanta’s Urban Oasis, that Matheson wrote the forward to.

The chic new restaurant space, now boasting a rooftop patio, is just one of the improvements Matheson has introduced during her tenure.

The chic new restaurant space, now boasting a rooftop patio, is just one of the improvements Matheson has introduced during her tenure.

2:15 p.m. CFO Gary Doubrava stops by to discuss investments, if they’re meeting attendance goals and other pressing issues.

3 p.m. Matheson powwows with members of the horticulture team to discuss specifics regarding the elaborate new Skyline Gardens set to debut in the summer of 2017.

5:30 p.m. In a ballroom of the Georgia Aquarium, Matheson hobnobs with friends and colleagues at the Womenetics POW! Awards ceremony that honors outstanding female business leaders. Matheson received her own POW! Award in 2015 for her “energy, bold pursuit of excellence and innovative stance.”

Professional installers painstakingly put together one of the Chihuly sculptures that are currently enlivening the Garden.

Professional installers painstakingly put together one of the Chihuly sculptures that are currently enlivening the Garden.

8 p.m. Matheson arrives home after a long, hectic day. “Spring is the busiest time of year,” she insists, a fact only intensified by the opening of the Chihuly exhibit, all the construction going on at the Garden and the fact that it’s the Garden’s fortieth anniversary this year. Matheson isn’t one to rest on her laurels anyway. “The Atlanta Botanical Garden is a destination, and we have to live up to that.”

STORY: Jill Becker
PHOTOS: Ninh Chau