When Galleries Bloom: A Preview of the de Young’s Bouquets to Art

Floral arrangements mimic the art in the de Young's permanent collections.
Floral arrangements mimic the art in the de Young’s permanent collections.

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

No event signals the arrival of spring in San Francisco quite like Bouquets to Art. Every March for the past 33 years, the Bay Area’s most gifted floral designers have created arrangements inspired by the permanent collections of the de Young Museum. Produced by the San Francisco Auxiliary of the Fine Arts Museums, the weeklong floral exhibition, open to the public from March 14 through March 19ı, is the largest of its kind in the nation. At an exclusive preview gala on March 13, more than 120 of the region’s top florists will debut their stunning creations to an elite crowd, each arrangement placed in front of the painting, object, sculpture, or architectural detail that inspired it. Accompanying these events are a series of educational programs and seated luncheons.

“Bouquets to Art 2017 is an extraordinary display of art and artistry. You’ll love the exhibit and the buzz in the air. There is nothing like it anywhere,” says Claudia Feurey, who chairs the event this year.” She tells Haute Living that the first time she attended the show, she was “recruited by a friend. At first I demurred, saying ‘I really don’t know much about flowers.’ But she said, ‘Bouquets to Art is so much more than that!’ And she was right.” Not only is the event beloved by the team that puts it on, but patrons of the arts and florists look forward to it every year. In fact, nine of this year’s designers have participated every year since the exhibit’s inception in 1985.

According to museum lore, the director at the time saw a similar event at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and wanted to re-create it in San Francisco. “The founders used [the] Art in Bloom [exhibit] at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as their model,” explains Lisa Harris, a Bouquets to Art committee member. Naturally the exhibition has evolved over the years. What began as a five-day event has grown to seven, and while the de Young was closed for seismic renovations the exhibit was transferred to its sister museum, the Legion of Honor.

Floral display by Isabella Sikaffy of Burlingame. Artwork: Margaret Glapp, "No. 4," 1926
Floral display by Isabella Sikaffy of Burlingame. Artwork: Margaret Glapp, “No. 4,” 1926

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

The Chosen Ones

Who decides which florists participate? That’s Harris’s job, one that the novice floral designer looks forward to every year. First she sifts through the entrants—many are returning designers who are loyal to the event and eager to create masterpieces each spring. She also considers new florists who come to the event in various ways and “always with letters of recommendation. I love to get new and exciting designers,” Harris says. “It really adds to the event and keeps the old-guard [designers] on their toes.” Once she has narrowed the group down to no more than 125 florists, they are invited to the museum on a Monday in early January when it’s closed; this is selection day. The designers arrive, then pick up a packet with event details and registration forms. The most important thing in the packet is the map that tells what pieces of art are available. “[Designers] choose five pieces that interest them in descending order of choice and leave that information with me,” Harris explains. “Then the fun begins. It’s a big puzzle and really difficult when they all flock to one piece.”

This year, 21 florists requested English artist Cornelia Parker’s Anti-Mass as their first choice. The 2005 sculpture is made of charcoal collected from the charred wooden remains of a Southern Baptist church that was destroyed by arsonists. It will be interesting to see how the chosen floral designer interprets the work, which hangs like thick disjointed strands from a square frame affixed to the ceiling. Harris says she thinks the florist who’s chosen may use Parker’s art to somehow represent California’s epic drought. Many of the florists also wanted to be in gallery 17, where the museum is displaying new work by famed American painter-printmaker Frank Stella—pieces that no one has ever replicated in blooms before. Harris studies each of the designers before assigning them a piece of art. “It’s also important to know their work. Most designers pick something within their range, but there are times when I have to chuckle if their choices are beyond their scope,” she says. “Designers who tend to make small delicate pieces are not good in front of huge pieces, obviously. The large-scale piece in Wilsey Court is a challenge each year, because they need to understand structure along with everything else, and there are just a handful of designers at that level.”

Once they have been assigned a piece of art, both established florists like Church Street Flowers, which has been serving SF socialites for 35 years, and talented newcomers such as Danielle Rowe of Brown Paper Designs get to work creating their masterpieces. “This is our first year, so it will be an adventure for us,” Rowe tells Haute Living. “We are planning to take a more philosophical rather than literal approach to our design.” Florabella’s Isabella Sikaffy, who has participated in Bouquets to Art for 13 consecutive years, says “the process changes every year for me. It all depends upon the piece that I am given, and then the level of excitement builds from there. I am not a fan of duplicating the artwork exactly with flowers and prefer to select a few elements of the [piece] that inspire me.”

Floral display by Judy Cochran Ward. Artwork: George Hitchcock, "Tulip Culture," 1889
Floral display by Judy Cochran Ward. Artwork: George Hitchcock, “Tulip Culture,” 1889

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

Will the Flowers Last?

Arriving at a design isn’t the most challenging part of the project; florists also have to consider transportation and durability, and Sikaffy relies on the vendors to point her toward the longest-lasting, really interesting blooms. “The most stressful part is the transportation of the piece to the museum and making sure that nothing falls apart. With fresh flowers and mechanics, there is always the chance that something will arrive differently than when we load it into the van, which is why it’s critical to bring in extra materials to finish it off at the museum,” Sikaffy says. The designers all routinely avoid less-durable flowers like lilies of the valley and sweet peas, because these flowers can wilt before the exhibit has ended.

The good news is designers are allowed to tidy up the arrangements as necessary. “I tend to refresh flowers once or twice, depending upon the life of the bloom,” Sikaffy says. “I have to keep in mind that there is a limited amount of time to refresh the arrangements, and it is often impossible to do a complete overhaul on the design. I’m usually purchasing materials the Friday before to work with them on the weekend; I have to be more thoughtful about what my water source will be and what materials are long-lasting. Florists love to participate in this event, not for the publicity, but to up their creative game. Sikaffy explains it like this: “In my business, I draw so much inspiration from my clients and surroundings, which is incredibly fulfilling, but I enjoy creating something that really plays on what I find inspirational. It forces me to work with materials that I don’t usually design with, which can be good since I’ll often incorporate them into other designs moving forward.”

Most of the florists, like Rowe, have relationships with longtime vendors at the San Francisco Flower Mart. “We are lucky enough to shop the best flower market in the country—the SF Flower Mart—where the vendors excel at bringing in the best product from around the world,” she says. “There are so many nuanced shades to choose from right now—especially in the springtime varietals.” The gala chair, Suzanne Vuko, says that Bouquets to Art has a long-standing, flourishing relationship with the mart. The museum has just formed a partnership with Kilroy Realty (the firm tasked with renovating the mart), which resulted in a generous donation to the museum’s fine arts programming.

 Josh Harris, Ruby Wilson, Lisa Harris and Haig Harris attend Bouquets to Art Opening Night Gala April 4 2016
Josh Harris, Ruby Wilson, Lisa Harris and Haig Harris attend Bouquets to Art Opening Night Gala April 4 2016

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

The Preview Gala

Over the years, the fundraiser has drawn nearly 700,000 visitors with net proceeds nearing $6 million, which has been used to help underwrite special exhibitions, conservation projects, and educational programs at the Legion of Honor and the de Young.

A big draw is the opening night gala and preview. “Our theme this year is Le Beau Jardin, reflecting [our conversion of] the de Young into a beautiful spring garden each year and giving a nod to the Monet exhibit at the Legion of Honor,” Vuko says. “As the opening night of Bouquets to Art week, the gala allows our donors—both patrons and corporate donors—the opportunity to preview the wonderful floral designs in the galleries and offers them the unique opportunity to do so while enjoying a delicious dinner, which this year is a French-themed buffet, [on] the main floor of the museum.” McCall’s is catering the meal, French jazz group Les Copains d’Abord will provide live entertainment, and floral fashions will be created by City College of San Francisco students. Throughout the evening, models will stroll through the reception wearing clothing made entirely of fresh flowers and other plant materials. “They look dazzling—different every year,” Feurey says. “Everyone wants their photo taken with them, including me.”

One thing that makes this year’s Bouquets to Art unique in comparison to past events: It doesn’t coincide with other exhibits at the de Young. “Being our own exhibition allows us to exclusively serve our constituencies and for new Bouquets to Art visitors to fully appreciate our floral designers’ work and to appreciate the permanent collection in a new way,”  Vuko says. “I am particularly excited about this, because it offers visitors a chance to look at our museum’s world-class permanent collection, which they might not do if another special art exhibition were on display [at the museum].”

2015 floral display by Garden Party. Artwork: Thomas Westerman Wood, (left) "Moses, the Bal-timore News Vendor," 1858; (right) "Market Woman," 1858
2015 floral display by Garden Party. Artwork: Thomas Westerman Wood, (left) “Moses, the Bal-timore News Vendor,” 1858; (right) “Market Woman,” 1858.

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

The team from the San Francisco Auxiliary of the Fine Arts Museums does its best to make the week a celebration of spring—and flowers—in every way possible. Two years ago, they added a flower cart, and the day after the gala the event’s centerpieces are sold at the cart. During the remainder of the exhibit, Stargazer Barn bouquets are available for purchase there. “The cart looks like a cart one might see on the streets of Paris with a canopy and steel buckets [filled with] fresh bouquets for sale,” Vuko says. “All of the bunches available are fresh, California-grown flowers,” Feurey adds. “So when you leave the museum, you don’t have to leave the flowers. You can take some Bouquets to Art home with you.”

Several internationally renowned guest speakers—from London, New York, Monterey, Portland, and San Francisco—are expected to give talks. Elizabeth Murray, a Monet expert and author of Monet’s Passion, will speak on the artist’s color theories, horticultural info, and personal images. Ariella Chezar, a New York florist whose designs have been featured at the White House, will teach a class on creating lush, loose, and organic spring bouquets. Star local event planner Riccardo Benavides will share his secrets on everything from inspiration to implementation. So all in all, Bouquets to Art is a beautiful exhibition that no flower lover should miss.