Following a petition by citizens of Atlanta in the year 1973, the garden was incorporated in 1976 as the private, 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation Atlanta Botanical Garden Inc.. Within a year Bill Warner, previously employed at Holden Arboretum, was assigned office as the first executive director. He was followed by Ann L. Crammond in 1979. The following year, 1980, marked a turning point in the history of the gardens as a 50-year lease was negotiated with the city, securing the site of the Garden for years to come.

A number of promotional activities began, including social events, major art exhibitions and the annual Garden of Eden Ball. The Atlanta Botanical Garden welcomed its 50,000th visitor within a mere three years after the lease was arranged – this was even before any permanent structures had been erected. In 1985, the Atlanta Botanical Garden built its first permanent structure, the Gardenhouse. Expansions following this were The Children's Garden (1999), the Fuqua Conservatory in 1989 and the Fuqua Orchid Center which was added in 2002.

Blockbuster summertime exhibitions began in 2003 with TREEmendous TREEhouses. Chihuly in the Garden opened in 2004, while in 2005 Locomotion in the Garden featured G-scale model trains. On April 29, 2006, an exhibition of the sculpture of Niki de Saint Phalle opened to the public. These huge mosaic sculptures came to the Garden fromFrance,Germany, and California. In 2007 the exhibition was David Rogers' Big Bugs and Killer Plants, and 2008 is Sculpture in Motion, Art Choreographed by Nature, a display of moving, kinetic art. In 2009, the Garden hosted an exhibition of the monumental bronze sculptures of Henry Moore. The summers of 2010 and 2011 showcased the Garden's green expansion (see below), and in 2012, the Garden hosted Independent Visions, an exhibition of contemporary sculptures by nine artists. In 2013, the Garden unveiled Imaginary Worlds: Plants Larger than Life, made up of 19 mosaiculture sculptures.

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