SIX months after the doors of Inverleith House were closed, this week marks 10 years since the opening of one of its most original exhibition pairings of botanical and contemporary art. On the 1st of May, 2007, No Fixed Points: Drawings by John Cage and Merce Cunningham opened on the ground floor, showcasing the less well-known visual art practice of two of the most prominent artistic figures of the 20th century; Cage and Cunningham are far better known in their respective fields of composition and choreography.

At the same time, the upper galleries were devoted to the highly regarded botanical artist Lilian Snelling’s watercolours and drawings of plants, selected from the collection of the Royal Botanic Garden, along with some of the herbarium specimens she worked from and photographs by Robert Moyes Adam, demonstrating the early use of photography in botanical illustration. A simple, subtle idea united these very different approaches to works on paper: a deep respect for, and fascination with, the natural world.

The title of the Cage/Cunningham exhibition, No Fixed Points, was a favourite reference of Cunningham’s derived from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which informed his approach to choreography as much as his testing of the capacities and limits of the human body. Cunningham’s interest in nature reflected his interest in movement, he naturally gravitated to the animal world, highlighted in the exhibition of his colourful drawings of animals at Inverleith House. Cage was more interested in plants. He was one of the founders of the New York Mycological Society and, infamously, his extensive knowledge of mushrooms led him to win the Italian game show Lascia o raddoppia (Double or Nothing) in the late 1950s. This interest was also reflected in his visual art, most obviously in the three series of Edible Drawings, paper made from edible plants following "recipes" determined by chance, that he made shortly before his death.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, plants also found their way into Cage’s compositional practice.

To compliment the exhibition at Inverleith House curated by Paul Nesbitt, I featured a trio of these compositions in a day-long musical programme that aimed to embrace local and natural sounds, which took place at venues across the Garden on June 24. Cage’s best known work, his "silent" piece, 4’33” (1952) and Scottish Circus (1990) were performed in and around Inverleith House by The Whistlebinkies, who had originally commissioned Scottish Circus from Cage. Cage’s compositions for plants and natural materials, Child of Tree (1975), Branches (1976), and Inlets (1977), were performed by So Percussion in the Victorian Temperate Palm House. Child of Tree and its "silence"-infused variation Branches use cacti, the spines of which are plucked with toothpicks to produce sounds, and a pod (rattle) from a Poinciana tree along with eight other chance-determined plant-based "instruments". The sound for Inlets is generated by tipping conch shells in a range of sizes that have been partially filled with water, one of which remains empty to be used as a trumpet, combined with the sound of burning pine cones.

Clearly, this kind of music is not for everyone but it is the result of a sophisticated creative mind engaging with nature. I don’t doubt that almost every artist that has been invited to make an exhibition for Inverleith House in its 30-year history has taken into account or been inspired by its location within the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). But the result of this engagement may not be immediately obvious or take a predictable or universally palatable form. It may be geometric arrangements of red sandstone quarried in Dumfriesshire (Carl Andre, 1998), white paintings that are transformed by each change in natural light (Robert Ryman, 2006), or an abstract configuration of cellophane and pigment hung in a window echoing the dappled light on the leaves of the tree visible behind it (Karla Black, 2016).

When Inverleith House was closed six months ago, two reasons were offered, one financial, the other emphasised the need to focus on the Garden’s core activities, which those responsible for the decision to close Inverleith House felt the critically acclaimed exhibition programme did not address.

Exhibitions like those briefly described above may not be to everyone’s taste but, like the Cage/Cunningham exhibition which presented their drawings alongside the illustrations and photographs of Snelling and Moyes Adam, the contemporary art programme has always been balanced with exhibitions explicitly related to botanical research and knowledge, including the collections of John Hope and John Hutton Balfour, and the work of botanical artists such as Snelling, Stella Ross-Craig, and Pierre-Joseph Redoute.

As even this cursory examination of exhibitions suggests, the links between art, science, and nature have always been explored and celebrated in Inverleith House’s programme. What this programme didn’t do was to reflect back preconceived ideas of what the exploration of such connections might produce, an approach a scientific institution could surely not approve of.

The day of Cage’s music that I produced at RBGE 10 years ago was the product of a very happy coincidence some 11 years before. In the penultimate year of my degree in the History of Art at the University of Edinburgh I had fallen in love with Cage’s ideas during a lecture that described his infamous Event at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina. At around the same time I answered an advertisement looking for volunteers to help with that year’s summer exhibition at Inverleith House, a Callum Innes retrospective. The budgetary and staffing constraints that have always been an issue meant that, at that time, Nesbitt was the only member of staff and, consequently, we volunteers were trusted with a lot more responsibility than would otherwise be the case. Our main job, once the exhibition opened, was to sit at the front desk, welcome the public, and answer any questions.

One of the unique and irreplaceable features of Inverleith House is that its location within the garden has meant that it is not just a venue for contemporary art that people travel to on purpose, but also a place where people happen across it quite by accident. Sitting on that front desk as a teenager, the public face of the gallery, I learned very quickly that art could occasionally provoke very strong reactions in people expecting tearooms or more traditional botanical fare. But, almost as soon as I had begun to make assumptions about visitors, they began to defy them. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have been associated with Inverleith House as volunteers, staff, collaborators, or artists, which Graham Domke wrote about so eloquently earlier this year, have benefited in innumerable ways. The lesson I learned sitting on the front desk, that people will always surprise you and that you cannot predetermine what kind of art they will find interesting, engaging, or beautiful has always stayed with me.

My association with Inverleith House has also had the complimentary but inverse effect that it had on those visitors who happened across contemporary art by accident. Through it I have developed a greater appreciation of the natural world, which even spending half of my life studying and thinking about Cage failed to achieve on its own, not even being responsible for caring for his plants in the loft he shared with Cunningham while Merce was on tour.

A particular moment stands out: I was looking at the drawings from the John Hope archive that depicted the relative importance of light and gravity in plant growth from the late 18th century in the Evergreen exhibition in 2005. The simple questions illustrated in these drawings reminded me of something Scottish artist Jim Lambie had said to me in an interview several years before. Lambie was describing the thought processes that informed his approach at that time. The belt that solved Lambie’s problem of how to defy gravity without catgut, Venom Wild Pitch (2002), looked nothing like these 18th century drawings, but both were a product of the same kinds of questions.

Ever since that first summer, I have always been at least informally involved with Inverleith House and its programme. Over those two decades, I have witnessed the growing popularity of Cage and contemporary art. Recently, institutions like Blenheim Palace, the Queen’s House at Greenwich, and the National Trust have begun to embrace the newfound popularity of contemporary art to encourage audiences to engage with our historic buildings and gardens in new ways. This is an odd climate in which to close a gallery that has pioneered this approach.

I was one of the small group of people who felt strongly enough about its value to organise the Open Letter in Support of Inverleith House, in tandem with the efforts of other groups and individuals who have also campaigned for its reopening. Writing this piece may be the last thing that I do for Inverleith House, though I hope it is not. Like Hume, I don’t believe in miracles. I believe in hard work, devotion, curiosity, enthusiasm, and that little bit of luck that is so ubiquitous as to seem necessary. That has always been the foundation of the groundbreaking exhibition programme at Inverleith House.

*Victoria Miguel is a writer and the editor of a new book about the radio-works of Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, published by the company she co-founded,