Brookgreen Gardens’ curator, Robin Salmon, celebrates forthcoming book and nearly five decades of service
With a title befitting her 47 years of service, Vice President of Art & Historical Collections/Curator of Sculpture, Robin Salmon, has served under four Brookgreen Gardens presidents and has seen monumental changes along the way. At 69 years old, Salmon is the longest serving current employee of Brookgreen Gardens, a 9,100-acre non-profit historical sculpture garden located in Murrells Inlet. BG first opened its doors to the public in 1932, and Salmon came along in 1975. With no immediate plans to retire, and with her sixth book set to release in the spring of 2022, Salmon continues to fulfill the mission of BG, with a long list of duties and responsibilities focusing on the art, sculptures, historical archives, a library and educational programs that are the heart and soul of this cherished jewel of the South Strand.
Nestled among stacks of books and a mountain of papers on her desk, Salmon works mostly in a large, overstuffed office at the Tarbox House, named for Frank Tarbox, the first horticulturist and director hired by the institution in 1931. Her office was once the Tarbox family home.
“When people see my desk and my office, they’re either in awe, or they think I’m crazy,” says Salmon, with a laugh. Her office and The Tarbox House sit within a mostly unseen part of Brookgreen Gardens, at the end of a long dirt road. As the department head with a staff of six, Salmon seems to take the tasks with which she’s charged in stride.
“Ours is The Collection Department,” she says, “and that doesn’t mean we’re about collecting money. We’re in charge of art, historical objects, the library and archives.”
Salmon has a calm, quiet demeanor, long, thick white hair and bespectacled eyes that sparkle and reflect the many changes over her tenure, changes she teaches about in her long-running public program Brookgreen 101.
Salmon will launch her new book and speak at a lecture/luncheon originally scheduled for December, but moved to next spring. The luncheon/book launch is sponsored by the publisher, Linda Ketron, at Ketron’s popular Moveable Feast. The luncheons are ticketed events featuring local, regional and national authors, held at area restaurants, requiring advance reservations via firstname.lastname@example.org or by (843) 235- 9600. The book, tentatively titled “Brookgreen 101,” is an encapsulation of Salmon’s programs offered at Brookgreen Gardens.
“Brookgreen 101 started as an adjunct program for staff and volunteers years ago,” explains Salmon, “a way to teach the history, mission and function of Brookgreen Gardens. Then a few years ago we [formalized it] and opened it to the public.”
The program is held at 1 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of every month, January – November, and is free to attend with a paid admission to the Gardens.
“We cover all kinds of topics,” said Salmon, who was finishing the final layout of the new book. “We might cover Brookgreen history, or Horse in Sculpture,” which was one of Brookgreen Gardens co-founder Anna Huntington’s favorite subjects; her 1950 masterpiece aluminum sculpture, Fighting Stallions, has greeted visitors at the entrance for some 70 years. “In another session we might cover the Frank Tarbox letters, in another we might talk about colonial and antebellum funeral and burial practices, or various important people who’ve been instrumental at Brookgreen over the many years.”
The program schedule may be found online at www.brookgreen.org, or by calling Salmon’s office at (843) 235-6012.
When not leading lectures or writing—Salmon has authored six additional BG-related titles—her daily duties vary, but are far removed from her entry-level responsibilities at the start of her career.
“I got a job here 47 years ago because I could type,” she muses, “and could help in the office. I answered the phone, paid bills, worked in the library, took dictation, and worked in our one little old ticket booth. In a lot of ways I learned Brookgreen from the inside out.”
A native of Columbia, S.C., but local to the Grand Strand for many years, Salmon studied History and Art History at the University of South Carolina. She’s widowed, with a son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons living in Columbia. A college football fan, she follows her alma mater Gamecocks, but is just as enthusiastic about Conway’s Coastal Carolina University Chanticleers. Brookgreen Gardens’ Director of Master Sculpture, former CCU artist in residence, Bryan Rapp, just saw his 12-foot tall bronze Chanticleer sculpture placed at the entrance to Brooks Stadium at Coastal Carolina University.
As Salmon recalls the changes at Brookgreen Gardens over the years, she notes that for many years the Gardens was strictly an outdoor affair, and seeing new climate- controlled galleries with permanent and rotating indoor installations was a “big deal” for Brookgreen.
“In 1994 we opened and added the first real, permanent indoor spaces,” said Salmon. “That was a profound change for Brookgreen. Once we added indoor exhibits that come and go, more people began to visit to see what was new, and more importantly, guests began to regularly re-visit the Gardens.”
Just a year after her arrival, Brookgreen Gardens celebrated the birth of America in a big way, she recalls. “In 1976, the Bicentennial year, we had huge outdoor programs, cannons, reenactors, quite a big deal.
“Up until the last year I was in and out every day, all over the property doing various things,” says Salmon, “but now I have such a great staff, I don’t have to be out as much, so I spend more time writing and preparing. Even though I’m not planning to retire, I still have to think in terms of succession. I need to make sure the people who work in this department know the things they need to know.
“We acquire sculptures, various artwork, historical objects, books, and archival material,” she says. “We determine where the sculpture is to be placed, and then we do it. We get permanent sculptures for placement periodically. Earlier this year we placed six new pieces, and have 15 more to go. Other years we might not get any.
“Brookgreen is well known in the American figurative sculpture realm, so [new] artists find us, but I’ve also developed relationships with artists over the years.” Acquiring new works and arranging temporary shows are a big part of Salmon’s day-to-day, but once a permanent outdoor home is found for a sculpture, and once it’s in place, the real work begins.
“Once the sculpture is placed outdoors, they have to be cared for,” she explains. “I have one staff member that does that fulltime. We also have a conservator on contract who does the things we can’t do; repairs, welding, that kind of thing. Outdoor sculptures, over time, develop issues only a conservator can deal with.
“We have a workshop and residency program, where we generally host two sculptors in residence annually, and offer up to 15 workshops each year. Of course, the pandemic has forced the cancellation of many of them, but they’ll be back. Our instructors are professional sculptors from all over the U.S.
“We manage the changing indoor exhibits – up to 6 per year. We have a library and archives (not open to the public). Staff and researchers are welcome to visit by appointment.”
Salmon’s team is busy working on Nights of a Thousand Candles, Broogreen’s flagship fundraising event, as her staff designs and builds the indoor model railroad display annually at the Rosen Galleries.
“Harry Potter has been a very popular addition to the model railroad,” she says, noting that she and her staff also are busy going to meetings, answering visitors’ questions and planning new exhibits.
Salmon says she’s looking forward to her fifth Moveable Feast lecture and book signing, and that “Brookgreen 101” will be available at Litchfield Books, through Amazon, and at the Brookgreen Gardens gift shop, Keepsakes.
Does she recognize the significance of, and reflect upon, her long career and a lifetime devoted to one institution?
“I guess I realize my senior status when some of the younger folks call me ‘Miss Robin,’ which, when I was younger, was reserved for the elders, and now to be called that… well, I get it.”
Brookgreen Gardens is located on US Hwy 17 in Murrells Inlet. The Gardens are generally open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days per week, except during dangerous weather. The Gardens do open for special nighttime events including Nights of a Thousand Candles. Visit www,brookgreen.org for ticketing and schedule information, or call 843-235-6000.