Office Doors: A Day with Ken Schutz

Executive director of Desert Botanical Garden

As told to | Karen Werner

7:00 a.m. >> RISE AND SHINE

“In our family, I take dog duty in the morning and my partner Craig and I split cooking pretty evenly. I’m a later worker; I usually work from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.”

9:30 a.m. >> TO THE GARDEN GATE

“Walking from the parking lot through the Garden to my office, I think how lucky I am to work here. DBG is beautiful, and has a calming effect. I know where to watch for birds in the trees, so I take stock on my way in and always see something interesting.”


“The seasonality of the Garden means that in the hottest period it may look like we’re hibernating in air-conditioning, but we’re in planning mode. In the summer we do budgeting, marketing and installation plans, and then we shift into installation and testing in September. Come October, everything kicks into high gear and turns into less thinking and planning and more into operations, motivation and mid-course corrections. But in the summer, we are imagining.”

11:00 a.m. >> DIGGING IN

“My typical day is a mix of internal and external. Internally, it’s operating and staff issues, the budget, focusing on the nuts and bolts. Externally, even though our trustees are very involved in running the Garden, they’re not physically here. So I think of relationships with the board members as part of the external as well as keeping the executive committee informed during the summer. Fundraising, donor, staff and volunteer meetings — basically, lots of meetings.”

12:30 p.m. >> THE GARDEN OF EATING

“Unless I have a meeting, I eat at my desk. I’ll run to the Patio Cafe and grab a drink and a sandwich. I like the Santa Fe, and the turkey and chicken are good too. It’s a great time to read email and save the ones to respond to. I don’t go out often for lunch for the notion of having a drink and placing an order and having it prepared — instead of 20 minutes, it turns into an hour and a quarter.”


“Our senior management team has 12 people. I directly supervise half of them and the director of operations supervises the other half. Every Monday we have a weekly meeting and ever fourth Monday is a longer strategic meeting. The weeklies are to touch base and see how everybody is doing. The fourth ones take a deep dive into various topics.”

3:00 p.m. >> SOWING SEEDS

“My training as an undergrad was as a biology major, but I student-taught first grade and was certified as an elementary teacher. I grew up in Baltimore and actually wanted to teach first grade, but because I had a science degree I was assigned to middle school and taught biology and earth science. Even though I’m not in the classroom anymore, I still try to think like an educator. I love to watch cognition and the learning process take place. So I’ll take my badge off and sit on a bench and do informal market research. Staff and volunteers recognize me so I’m not totally anonymous, but I love to watch our guests and see what’s working. I get good insights and can see how special programs are playing with our audience.”

4:30 p.m. >> LEARN, NURTURE, GROW

“We’ve learned a lot, coming off of blockbuster years. We’ve had two Chihulys, a Jun Kaneko and ‘Electric Desert.’ They set a new normal, and then your baseline resets. Every year we have an art exhibit. It won’t be a blockbuster this year but we have a fun, quirky exhibit coming called ‘Wild Rising by Cracking Art.’ On the surface it’s whimsical, but underneath it’s quite profound. It’s a group of artists out of Milan that work in recyclable plastic. They’ve created molds and make a lot of animals out of brightly colored plastics — we’ll have almost a thousand. They bring these animals to a location and stage an invasion. There are so many, you can’t help but stop and think, ‘What are they doing and what does it mean?’ The more subtle context is that plastic is so ubiquitous and deeply woven into our everyday lives. But while you’re here, you can take a selfie, and your kids will like seeing the penguins they designed for us among the prickly pear and barrel cactus. Each part of the invasion has a story about how the colors are chosen and what the animals symbolize. For people who stop, read and contemplate, it will provoke deeper thoughts about plastic in the modern world.”

7:00 p.m. >> SMELL THE FLOWERS

“Between board meetings and social events, sometimes the line between work life and personal life blurs and I’ll leave the Garden very late. But in the summer, that’s generally not the case. Craig and I live in a historic district and still have the postage-stamp lawn. But out front, we’ve done mass plantings of prickly pear and we inherited some aloe veras that line the sidewalk into the house. We put native trees in — took out orange trees and put in palo verde trees. Eight months out of the year I like to grow desert marigolds with blackfoot daisies that spill over like wildflowers. That’s our desert landscape.”


“I love nature and travel. My favorite place is East Africa. This year, I’ll be taking my 16th trip to East Africa — my last group photo safari to Kenya. We’ll go to four different parks, the highlight being the Maasai Mara, which is their version of the Serengeti. Then we’ll go to Rwanda and hike to see the mountain gorillas. As I mentioned, my first job was teaching science in Baltimore. I did that for two years and then got transferred to the zoo as the teacher in residence. Everybody in senior management had to lead at least one safari a year for members. I started then and more or less have gone every other year since. I have tens of thousands of photos on my hard drive and probably won’t get to it for years, but some day I’d like to get it down to my top 25. I’ll be in the air on my 65th birthday, which is Aug. 26.”

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