Thursday, December 14th, 2017

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Jill Koski to serve as new CEO at Holden Forests and Gardens

Jill Koski is the new president and CEO of Holden Forests & Gardens, and brings great leadership and experience from her positions at the Morton Arbortetum in Lisle, Illinois and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. She started her new position in November. (Photograph courtesy of Holden Forests & Gardens)

 

By RITA KUEBER

In September, Holden Forests & Gardens named Jill Koski new President and CEO, taking over from Clem Hamilton after nine successful years. Discovered through a national search, Koski spent the last 10 years as the Vice President of Development at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. Before that, she was with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago for 10 years, in a series of progressively responsible development positions. She started her new duties at the end of November.

As it turns out, Koski has visited the Cleveland area regularly for over 10 years with her husband and two children, to visit friends who had moved from Chicago to Chagrin Falls. “I’ve seen a lot of Cleveland from a visitor’s perspective,” she says. “There’s a lot to see and do in Cleveland – lots of cool little neighborhoods and unique shops. She describes seeing The Rock Hall, West Side Market, Little Italy, University Circle museums, including the Botanical Garden, and of course, Holden Arboretum as well.

“I never thought I’d be finding a job here,” she says. “I had a great job, and moving is challenging, especially with two kids in high school. But when this came across my desk, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I couldn’t pass up the chance to apply. Holden is so well respected in the Garden/Arboretum world. I was just so fortunate to be considered.”

 

What attracted Koski to Holden is the organization’s focus on the community. “I’m a firm believer that the role gardens and arboretums play in a community is changing, and becoming more relevant and important. For many years, these were pretty places to visit – gardens and trails. These were valuable, but what’s more valuable is what the organization can do in terms of connecting people to trees, plants and nature for the health and wealth of the community from both a social and economic perspective.

Koski’s leadership comes at a time when Cleveland and its cultural entities are on the ascendency. For Holden Forests and Gardens, a merger of the Holden Arboretum and the Cleveland Botanical Garden finalized in 2014, combined annual attendance is up to 400,000 and membership is up to 21,000 households.

Additionally, Holden has successfully engaged the greater community with important programs. The Green Corps, now 20 years old, is an urban agriculture experience for area high school students on five urban farms on Cleveland’s East side. The TreeCorps is a program supported by The Cleveland Foundation to train older teens and young adults to work in urban forestry and advancing green industries. Then, there is the Cleveland Tree Plan, a blueprint for restoring the tree canopy throughout the urban core of the city.

“Both Cleveland and Holden have a great reputation in the arboretum world for the engagement with the Green Corps,” Koski says. “Providing skills for teens in their own community takes an arboretum well past its physical space. The Cleveland plan is leading the way. It’s especially impressive how the program is not just one private or public entity, but a group of people coming together. That’s really reflective of the cultural strength of the city.”

Koski describes how arboretums nationally are slightly behind traditional museums in understanding how their role in the community needs to change. “With so many people living in urban centers, versus having nature in their own back yard, arboretums are needed to engage kids, and get them excited and interested in STEM learning,” she says.

When asked about her upcoming duties, Koski talks about the successful merger of the two organizations and the uptick in membership and visitor numbers. “Next is a strategic vision. We need to look at the long-term picture. Where are we going together? We need input from donors, volunteer and management leadership to put that agenda together and move forward. My job is outward facing. It’s a combination of engagement and positioning in the community in ways that will help the entire Cleveland area.”

Her vision even goes beyond plants and trees, onward to the Great Lake we overlook. “We need to consider the natural resource of the Great Lakes,” she muses, “and the long-term role we can play within the region.”

For enjoyment, the Koski family enjoys museums, hiking and visiting National Parks. They are also looking forward to having greater accessibility access to skiing. “I’m a four-season person – I take advantage of what every part of the year has to offer,” she says.

As residents of Oak Park, Illinois, Koski and her family are looking at houses in Shaker Heights for its similarities in architecture styles and tree-lined streets. Living in Shaker puts her 15 minutes to Holden Gardens, and about 30 minutes from Holden Forests, and she hopes to keep an office at each location. “We don’t know what that looks like yet,” she says, “but we plan to hold events and activities to raise the profile of both campuses.”

“Primarily my job is to be a partner with the community,” Koski adds. “I’m looking forward to working with peer organizations, however that’s defined.”

 

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