The Rural We: Michael Beck
Michael Beck, a former patent lawyer with a master’s degree in biochemistry, has been the executive director of the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass. since 2014. Beck had been a part-time Richmond, Mass. resident and a trustee of the BBG since 2012 when the directorship became available. He felt it was a no-brainer for him to apply for a full-time job in a part of the country he and his husband had fallen in love with at first sight.
I’m originally from Germany, and came to the U.S. for college, where I studied chemistry as an undergrad and then earned a graduate degree in biochemistry. But eventually I decided science wasn’t for me, so I switched gears, got a law degree and practiced patent law at several large companies.
After a while, I felt I needed a change. My husband and I already had a place in Richmond, since 2004, and were using it as a part-time, holiday and weekend getaway. So when this opportunity presented itself, I became a full-time resident, with my husband joining me on weekends. I was new to the nonprofit world when I joined the board, but was interested in plants and planting.
We had been living in New York City and had friends with a pace in Okemo, Vermont who we loved visiting. We both love skiing; the only thing we didn’t like was how far away it was from NYC. Our friends knew the area and recommended that we stop in the Berkshires on our way home. It was all by chance, but we really fell in love with the area immediately. Then we researched the area and found out about all the cultural organizations here. We took a leap of faith a year or two later, we found our house pretty much immediately, and here we are 12 years later.
When the Garden was looking for a director, I felt comfortable enough with the organization by that time that it was a logical next step. The board is a very diverse group of people; they’re not all horticulturalists, but they have a healthy appreciation of gardens. We have people that work here with a deep knowledge in that area, which allows me to focus on the management.
The biggest thing I’m working on right now is the renovation of the “Center House.” It’s the oldest and largest building at the BBG. It’s a late 18th-century farmhouse, and one of the oldest buildings in Stockbridge. We broke ground on it after last year’s Harvest Festival, and we’re cautiously optimistic that it will be open for this year’s Festival. We expanded the footprint a little, but didn’t want to overwhelm the garden. The public space includes a library, a classroom, a kitchen and gallery space. We added a second floor and office space, so we can grow, expand and hire more staff.
It’s been a real crazy ride; you don’t think about focusing on buildings when you’re running a garden, but the fact of the matter is that the 15 acres are pretty much fully developed, so there’s not a lot of changes going on in that area. We have such a short season and the grounds are basically closed after Columbus Day. But with the new building, we can host art exhibitions, cooking classes and workshops all year round.