The Life and Death of the Philadelphia Flower Show Miniature Settings

This is the most difficult post I have ever written on this blog because it involves the deterioration of a miniature exhibition opportunity that I was involved in for years. As many of you know, this blog was started as a way to share  the Miniature Settings exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show.  From 2011 to 2015, this blog highlighted not just the exhibits themselves but also shared techniques, provided instructional lessons, celebrated the accomplishments of the exhibitors, created a miniature plant database, and gave examples of other forms of miniatures and miniature artists as a way to inspire exhibitors in the Miniature Settings group at the Flower Show. It also provided documentation of each entry in the exhibit, a documentation that has been abandoned by the current organizers of the Miniature Settings so now you can’t see all the entries unless you go to the show.

As many of you also know, my involvement with the Flower Show ended two years ago when I was supposed to become chair (the person who for the past few years has selected and nurtured the exhibitors) but I resigned because the Flower Show administrators decided to open up the Miniature Setting to anyone, despite a lack of experience in creating miniatures and a miniature garden, who could get their entry postmarked before other applicants. This was not an act of snobbery on my part: it was a way to protest the loss of the most important and most viewed exhibit of miniatures and miniature gardening in the country.

No one has documented the 2016 show and I am not going to document the 2017 show here. What I want to do is explain what has happened to this once premiere exhibit. I will use entries from the current show and contrast them with entries from previous shows. None of these works are mine and I will not identify any of the artists by name.

Is this rude? Maybe, but I think the current track of the Miniature Settings is a great insult to the artists who for at least the past 35 years have created serious, detailed, fascinating, and careful work. I hope the incoming Chair and vice-Chair take their jobs of vetting and, more importantly, nurturing the incoming class of exhibitors. I encourage all serious miniaturists to apply now to the 2018 show even if the first-come-first-served rule is still in effect: they can’t ignore quality miniature work forever. You can apply by calling Flower Show staff and asking for an application at: 215-988-8826. Even if you don’t get in, we need to let them know we will not let this exhibit of miniatures deteriorate further or even disappear altogether.

Scale is the most important aspect of creating a coherent and compelling Miniature Setting. This involves scale of the materials as well as all the other components like props and furniture. In the Flower Show, it also involves selecting correctly scaled plants.

Here is an example of a carefully scaled exhibit with all the elements, including the building materials, properly scaled:

In 2017, most of the exhibits did not utilize a carefully executed scale in plants, accessories, or materials. This is usually a matter of experience and could be easily learned:

Including figures is always problematic in the Miniature Setting and while some exhibits require the figures, they also need to be scaled and created with care, including their hair and clothing. Here is an example of a perfect use of a figure. All the materials, including the clothing and hair, are perfectly scaled:

In 2017, there were few figures but they were not as careful. Again, this is a matter of looking at what has to be done to a figure to make it either realistic or at least match the aesthetic of the setting:

Lighting can make or break an exhibit and uniform harsh lighting can be as problematic as too dark a scene. An otherwise interesting and well-scaled exhibit can be lost to poor lighting. A fine example of good lighting is one that included a variety of lighting techniques:

In an otherwise nicely done 2017 exhibit, the very low lighting takes away from this scene. A balance of indoor lighting with the interesting shelving lighting would have made the interior easier to see (it was even darker than this photo shows):

The difficulties of miniature construction are highlighted by both good and less well-executed examples. In a fine example, the edges of buildings and the meeting points of unlike materials do not draw your attention away from the overall scene:

Looking carefully at a 2017 entry reveals unfinished edges and mismatched materials:

The overall message here is that the Miniature Settings has featured over the years some of the best miniature and miniature gardening work in the country. Now it does not and as a platform for promoting miniatures as a valid and exciting art form, it falls short. The show needs to reinvigorate the model of consulting with its exhibitors during the construction process, providing assistance and encouragement to follow the criteria set out in the judging rules. It also needs to make the entrance into the Miniature Setting competitive, with selection by quality and not by how fast you can run to the post office or get a paper entry into the Flower Show office (how about an online entry form, folks, with a well publicized deadline).

17 comments

  1. Completely agree, Dr. K. The powers that be for the best and biggest garden show in North America – totally missed the point with this change in how they collect the exhibitors. They are doing a huge disservice to their customers and the garden community. People go to these shows to see the best of the best to learn what they can do themselves at home. So, the full-size garden displays, the floral exhibits, the container exhibit, etc. are not vetted too? Anyone can enter anything? My god, imagine the outcry if that was the case!

    In any industry we look to the professionals and the experts because it challenges and inspires.

    Well, when one door closes, one opens. This may be a rallying cry. Our Northwest Flower and Garden Show doesn’t have room for miniature gardening but that will have to change too. Miniature gardening is here to stay.

  2. Your comment about vetting the large exhibits is perfect: they would never let inexperienced exhibitors in those displays. The Miniature Settings attract a huge crowd (or they used to; the lines were short when I was there) and it is a shame that, as you point out, they are not being educated about quality miniatures or even entertained by clever and witty ones.

  3. I just got back from the A Philadelphia Flower Show. The miniatures are always my favorite exhibit. My husband, not a gardener, remarked that the exhibit was not so good this year ! This article explained why. Thank you and I hope the powers that be go back to the high standards that once were in effect.

  4. As a former chair of the miniature settings and an exhibitor for 5 years I concur with Dr. K’s comments. I would like to add a few additional comments based on my own experience. When my wife and I first started exhibiting in the miniatures we considered it both an honor and a privilege to participate in the oldest and largest indoor garden show. Feeling that way it was incumbent on us to exhibit something we thought worthy of the Flower Show. We usually started working on our exhibit in June some 9 months before the Flower Show. Crafting fine miniatures to scale and incorporating plant material of top quality is by no means a trivial undertaking. The year before we started exhibiting I was fortunate enough to have helped someone who was doing a miniature exhibit so one might say I entered with eyes wide open. For those who have never exhibited it is a difficult undertaking. Consequently when I became chair and Dr. K was my vice-chair we initiated workshops to help all exhibitors put together a better exhibit. Many of these issues have been outlined in Dr. K’s blog. Initially this was met with some resistance from PHS old timers who see this as a competitive event only and are secretive about what they are doing, but with time there was a perceptible change such that people discussed the on-going construction of their exhibits including any attendant problems. I like to think that as a class we moved forward to better exhibits. In the past two years things seem to have regressed significantly as shown in this post.

    So what is the solution? In order to insure good quality exhibits, acceptance should be a juried competition and not by the system of accepting entries based purely on order of receipt, which is a PHS anachronism from decades past when garden clubs ruled the Show. This means that all entries should be submitted by a certain date and should be vetted by a qualified person, presumably someone who has at a minimum done these exhibits. Applicants should be selected on the basis of either the quality of their previous exhibits in the show or some tangible evidence of their skills with miniatures and horticulture. To encourage first time or inexperienced applicants, PHS could institute an apprentice program where a new person could be paired to help a veteran exhibitor for one year.

    Finally PHS needs to decide whether it wants quality versus quantity. Do we really need to have 12 exhibitors every year? Quite frankly a few truly artistic exhibits are better than a dozen mediocre ones.

    • Thanks, that really adds some historic depth to the problems I tried to highlight. It should be noted that the person who apprenticed with you for a year won last year’s Best of Show and your nurturing her enthusiasm and skills made that possible. All that cooperative development of the exhibits is now gone, sadly.

  5. As a former participant and first place winner (2015) I understand dr. K,’s positition. I was very serious about the work I submitted, and kept to the strict 1 to 12 inch scale.
    When the standards of any show are lowered, that’ s when the exhibits start to look bad. First come, first served is a poor way to look for artists to be chosen to participate in the show. Vetting is a good way to keep the standards high.
    The exhibition should be kept to the quality of work submitted by miniaturists, that we as artists can all be proud of. I applaud dr. K for bring this , not only to my attention, but to serious miniaturists everywhere.
    Pamela Goldman

    • Thanks for your comment, Pamela. Your work is a good example of how an artist can be creative and witty in their miniatures yet still create excellent quality exhibits. I think that more than most exhibitors you cared about connecting to the audience.

  6. Janit, your work as an artist has been trendsetting in the horticulture world. The ability to match scale, detail, and style is truly the work of a master artist and your point is well made that this should be what is displayed at our top flower shows. You have helped open up a new venue of gardening that brings delight to many who may not have the space, physical ability, or income to create large gardens. So I want to add to this conversation, just because this is public opportunity to praise you, that it is BECAUSE of the attention to detail, the perfection of your work and the work of those like you that this horticultural niche has become so popular. Holding the standard of excellence and originality in an exhibit promotes creative minds to greater work. It inspires. It challenges. And it provokes highest admiration and enjoyment from those of us who know that we would never be able to create such artwork. But we enjoy trying and that’s why we want to come back year after year to see the kind of work that you do. The excellence of your creative work is needed at these shows.

    • Excellent points. Janit has elevated miniature gardening to a true art form and those of us who combine scaled miniatures (like dioramas and exhibit) with miniature gardening admire her work. We were honored to have her with us in Philadelphia a few years ago. Bring her back!

  7. As former Chair of the Philadelphia Flower Show Executive committee and four-time Double-blue winner of the miniature settings, I agree with most of what is posted here. I did my first three minis in the 1990’s when one needed to be juried and exhibitors were highly accomplished. When I saw a continuing decline in quality about 2005 (Ireland) I stepped up to do one more, an Irish Castle, which won my last double blue, not to win, but to “raise the bar” by example. At that time I offered to give classes, pointers to exhibitors, but that never happened (for various reasons).

    As former Competitive Class Chair, I remember the difficulties of filling the two classes. Some years we had only 4-5 entries per class as we watched the “old timers” slowly retire (Minis of Princeton, Bruce Barnsted, etc). Thus the move to accept new more inexperienced exhibitors, causing a drop in quality. Education is the answer to this, indeed, as stated in another post.

    After seeing last year’s exhibits, I have made the decision to enter again in 2018. This is in the hopes to also talk with, mentor if possible current and future exhibitors. While the subsidy helps (we know these displays can be expensive), I believe it’s a time issue with younger people and perhaps less interest in the craft. I would ask the writer of this article PLEASE do not abandon the Show this year, but keep encouraging those with experience to mentor newer younger exhibitors. Bright Stars will emerge with time. I for one, will be happy to help in anyway I can.
    Hope to see you in March.

    • Hi Midge, Thanks for this wonderful comment. I have seen your work and I am so glad you will be in the show again. We tried to do a mentorship program and I was planning on partnering miniaturists with plant people so the exhibits were less intimidating. And I wanted to bring in young artists and guide them through the process. Unfortunately when the Chair was not allowed to select the participants, that was not possible. By the way, I have tried to enter the show again but there never seemed to be a space when I asked…Looking forward to seeing your entry.

      • I am going work on the issue of exhibitors applications with a jurying process. I will talk to the Chairs this year, along with Staff and we will strive to improve the quality of the Class. I hope you come to the Show this year.

      • Congrats on you blue ribbon win at the show. I hope you can make some progress on improving the quality of the exhibits.

      • Thanks, I enjoyed working on my miniature setting so very much and am proud of the result. The miniatures do seem to be going in a different direction. I think this was most likely my last. But I hope to enter other classes and continue my FS volunteer work.

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