The Philadelphia Flower Show has made a serious miscalculation in selecting “Riviera Holiday” as the theme of its annual flower show in February 2020.
Many hoped the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) would select from among the urgent themes we increasingly address in our gardening, such as water conservation, organic resilience, edible gardening, or endangered pollinators. To bravely engage any of these options would help lead us into the challenging future we face, where the climate crisis will impact all new and historic gardens. So we were offended to read the theme would be a holiday in the South of France.
I can see how some at the PHS would argue that audiences — especially suburban, upper middle class, older ones — wish to escape the current political crisis into the Riviera’s aesthetic realm. But we should never make the mistake of underestimating audiences. I strongly believe American audiences are changing and the PHS is shortchanging them.
In addition, this myopic theme is not an act of beauty, but an act of dated Hollywood kitsch. A Riviera Holiday is an outdated cultural trope that feels desperate: the product of a bankruptcy of the imagination, of an inability to embrace our ecological and social realities with updated, relevant cultural metaphors. The organization’s decision to honor Princess Grace Kelly feels offensive to her memory when a living icon like Greta Thunberg walks around insufficiently heeded by the powerful.
No one needs to defend the admirable work of the PHS to me. I eagerly read its materials and recognize the work of its empathetic, generous field staff. But the medium is the message. Words create realities. How we package things matter. And to package this show right now in Philadelphia as going for a Mediterranean holiday is outrageous.
Let us be clear, this is about a crisis of values: the social message conveyed through this vain theme is that at a time when gardeners and garden lovers across Philadelphia witness and experience crises in politics, health coverage, the opioid epidemic, homelessness, immigration, and social tensions over aggressive gentrification, all simultaneously storming our garden gates no matter our exclusive address, the Horticultural Society’s aristocratic recommendation is that we all eat cake.
The PHS needs to realize the theme of the Riviera Holiday is nothing less than an immoral choice. While China dedicates the 2019 Beijing Horticultural Expo to the theme of “Live Green, Live Longer,” and the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico has doubled down efforts, including an annual festival, to promote ecological resilience since its people endured a devastating hurricane that hurt the families of many of our Puerto Rican neighbors in Philadelphia, we choose to party on á la française.
This is a moment of reckoning for the PHS. I cannot believe everyone inside supports this egregious theme. The PHS is not a ship of fools. Ongoing conversations with the gardening community lead me to believe that this is a theme unfairly forced on hardworking troops who are obliged to defend it. But some banners are indefensible. It is disrespectful to the good people of the PHS who did not concoct this theme to have to defend banality. The show’s planned “environmental summit” reads as evidence that the PHS is internally split between a self-complacent old guard and a visionary new guard. But the old guard still seems to be calling the shots.
If you are going to gift us flowers, it better be flowers we can intellectually accept. The PHS owes a public apology to the people of Philadelphia and needs to reconsider its show’s theme. In the meantime, as a card-carrying PHS member, I am forced to say: Shame on you.
Ernesto Pujol serves as an interdisciplinary creative consultant and volunteers as an organic gardener with greening groups in Philadelphia.