A Force For Nature

OFFICED IN THE ERSTWHILE BEDROOM OF AN HISTORIC ADOBE, Christine Conte, Ph.D., isn’t dreaming … she’s living her dream. As the executive director of the wondrous Tohono Chul Gardens, Galleries and Bistro, Conte says the position is an amalgam of her favorite things. “Everything that I’ve always loved and cared about from my earliest memories is part of Tohono Chul and that is connecting nature, art and culture.”

Conte grew up as part of an extended Italian family in Hyde Park, New York; her parents took her to art museums regularly and provided art supplies and encouragement at home. “My father painted in his spare time and my mother was an amazing gardener and flower arranger. I spent most of my childhood outdoors exploring the woods, fields and streams near our house either on foot or horseback.” Conte also fondly remembers a rather tall, wellheeled neighbor lady. “My mother would nudge me to say hello to Mrs. Roosevelt in the supermarket. The elegant Eleanor pushed her own cart, recalls Conte. “I learned how to carry myself in the world by watching her.”

The petite administrator wears a crown of spiky platinum hair, and funky oval eyeglass frames, a flourish of rhinestones at the corners. Her to-be-envied olive skin often is adorned with selfdesigned jewelry. She first came to Tucson as a graduate student in the mid-’70s, pursuing a Master’s degree in Museum Studies at the University of Arizona and a Ph.D. in Anthropology — just the start of a résumé that sings with accomplishment. For four years Conte lived in the Niger Republic, West Africa, working as a cultural anthropologist for the Smithsonian, collecting women’s arts of the region. She studied in Mexico and Guatemala, speaks five languages and served as director of marketing and communications for The Nature Conservancy of Arizona and as director of The Center for Sonoran Desert Studies at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. She also worked as a production partner for the Arizona Public Media program The Desert Speaks.

Christine Conte, Ph.D., executive director of Tohono Chul, says her position combines her favorite things — nature, art and culture. Photo by Tom Spitz.
Christine Conte, Ph.D., executive director of Tohono Chul, says her position combines her favorite things — nature, art and culture. Photo by Tom Spitz.

For the last eight years, however, Dr. Conte has been at the helm of Tohono Chul, whose name in O’odham translates to “desert park.” It has been deemed one of the best botanical gardens in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine.

Once considered a city outlier, the gardens are just west of the intersection of Ina and Oracle Roads, hidden by tangles of all floras Sonoran. Dick and Jean Wilson created Tohono Chul by gifting their home and property in the late ’80s, and three decades later Tohono Chul is 49 acres of art, educational and performance offerings, succulents and succulent things to eat.

The Garden Bistro has been a favorite for years and features foodstuffs grown in the on-grounds ethnobotanic gardens. Breakfast for Conte may be an “amazing” fresh-made pistachio muffin. “I also love the diversity of salads, and the chile relleno is a masterpiece,” she enthuses.

Welcome is her mantra … and visitors, members and school classes are welcomed to the park at a Conte-curated entrance. One may go left or right, but each way leads to a visual delight — gardens, exhibits, shops or the heralded Bistro. Prior to her arrival, Tohono Chul’s entrance was a rather inelegant stick-straight graded pathway that left nothing to the imagination and older patrons in need of a bench.

Welcome also manifests in Conte’s mandate to build and maintain a healthy organizational culture. The voices of employees, docents and volunteers alike are heard and appreciated. “Honing talents and inspiring employees to feel a sense of ownership” is what she says is her mission.

You’ll find those inspired humans happy to educate or guide as you wander Tohono Chul’s paths, which are designed to encourage exploration and meandering. The unique designations include the Sin Agua Garden, the Desert Palm Oasis, Hummingbird and Butterfly Gardens as well as a one-of-a-kind Penstemon Garden — a nectar-rich wildflower species.

The lush grounds will accommodate a new $1.5 million pavilion by next fall. Designed by award-winning architect and Tohono Chul board member John Douglas, the facility will accommodate 420 people for presentations, or 240 at tables for dining. The pavilion will be powered by the sun, and its roof will collect rainwater for the gardens. “We simply could not accommodate all who want to attend performances and special events,” explains Conte about the reason for the new build. “It’s neither about the money, nor the building. It’s what we can do to build community.”

Rotating on a quarterly basis, the art exhibits in Tohono Chul’s galleries almost exclusively feature Arizona artists. Docents meet with exhibit curators to pass on knowledge and history to the curious. Conte admits she may have to fashion herself a pair of blinders, as the park gift shop and gallery offerings are so appealing. She sighs with pleasure identifying her latest acquisition, a photo of three butter-yellow blossoms that is so beautiful, the urge to touch must be stifled.

Conte urges membership to Tohono Chul, commenting, “No matter what’s going on in the world, you can come here and feel at peace.” — Betsy Bruce

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