Donors withhold gifts to protest changes to the Hamptons Sculpture Garden

With its carved charms, lush borders and winding alleys, the Longhouse reserve is a 16-acre sanctuary in the legendary East End of Lon...


With its carved charms, lush borders and winding alleys, the Longhouse reserve is a 16-acre sanctuary in the legendary East End of Long Island, a quiet respite where visitors enjoy not only peaceful garden views, but also sculptures by Willem de Kooning and Sol LeWitt.

Created by Jack Lenor Larsen, an internationally renowned textile designer, the East Hampton Preserve has operated for decades as both Larsen’s home and as an attraction run by a seasoned executive director and overseen by a board of volunteers.

But Larsen passed away last December at the age of 93, and this fall the harmony of retirement he created was shattered by bitterness and recriminations.

Much of the upheaval stems from the sudden sacking in September of Matko Tomicic, the manager who had led the reserve for 26 years. LongHouse’s board gave little explanation for the change at the time, and more than 30 donors, many of whom are major supporters, said they were withholding more gifts.

Several donors have said they have removed LongHouse from their wills. A board member resigned in October but gave no reason for leaving. An ex officio member of the board of directors resigned in protest.

“I was amazed,” said Marcia Wilson, a donor and former administrator who suspended her donations. “Stunned. Everyone had nothing but praise for Matko. I still don’t understand the logic.

Some of the donors are also upset because they say Larsen changed a trust agreement seven weeks before his death to reduce his bequest to the organization. Last month, a donor filed a complaint with the New York State Attorney General’s Office, claiming that several board members failed to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to LongHouse because, according to the complaint, they had actively supported changes to the agreement that reduced the legacy to LongHouse. .

Supporters of the board say the decision to replace the director was prompted by an expansion of LongHouse’s mission. They say the institution will soon become not only a garden and sculpture storehouse, but a full-time museum, which incorporates Larsen’s house as an exhibition site. For this, the trustees decided they wanted a curator with more experience.

An interim director, appointed in October, is Carrie Rebora Barratt, a former deputy director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art who then headed the New York Botanical Garden as president for two years, ending in 2020.

Karen A. Monroe, the lawyer who incorporated LongHouse in 1991 as a nonprofit the year before it opened to the public, criticized Tomicic for encouraging dissent. “Only some donors are unhappy,” she said.

“It’s not by any stretch of the imagination, the majority of them,” she continued. “There are always a few, what do they call it, the ‘noisy minority’?”

Tomicic declined to comment. “I don’t want any problems for myself or my family,” he said.

Advocates on the board say it was Larsen’s prerogative to decide how he wanted to allocate his assets. They also say the institution is in good financial shape despite the potential reduction in donations, and that donations are ahead of last year as some existing donors have increased their support and new benefactors have stepped forward.

“Despite messages from a few disgruntled donors, we remain confident, financially strong and grateful to our supporters,” the board said in a statement.

While the way forward for LongHouse now looks more complicated, Larsen’s legacy as a textile designer is clear. His textiles adorn interiors that include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and his work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In 1975, he purchased land in East Hampton to create a microcosm reflecting his designs, his travels around the world, and his art collection. Today it includes the house where he had lived and a plot filled with around 60 contemporary sculptures, a combination of loaned pieces and permanent works, including Buckminster Fuller’s “Fly’s Eye Dome” and the monochrome chess set. giant of Yoko Ono, “Play It by Confidence.”

Tomicic, 56, who studied at the University of Zagreb in Croatia, started at LongHouse in 1996 as an executive director and was paid $ 194,075 in 2019, according to the institution’s most recent tax returns . He had previously worked as a personal assistant for Henri geldzahler, curator of the Met and former cultural affairs commissioner for New York City.

During his years at LongHouse he forged personal relationships with board members and staff, which is why the conflict that now engulfs the sculpture garden is so emotional. When Dianne Benson, one of the board members who voted to replace Tomicic, got married last year, it was Tomicic who walked her down the aisle.

“It’s not a ‘and you brutal’ moment,” Benson said of his vote. “My personal feelings and what is best for LongHouse are two totally different things.”

Some staff members were also upset by the news that Tomicic had been fired, according to Joanne Kahn, who worked part-time in the gift shop and said she then resigned as a result.

An arborist, Ray Smith, said he had donated specimen trees and his company’s services to LongHouse for 18 years, work he said cost the institution well over $ 900,000.

“After what happened,” Smith said. “Everything they need they will have to pay for. “

Susie Gelman who, along with her husband, Michael Gelman, said she has donated $ 100,000 to LongHouse since 2012, said she was stunned.

“I really don’t see how my husband and I can continue to support LongHouse,” Gelman wrote in an email. “It hurts a lot.”

Some of the donors who say they withhold their gifts say they are concerned that Tomicic’s strained relationship with Peter Olsen, 68, a director and 30-year-old Larsen companion, who had lived with him, played a role in Tomicic’s departure. .

The board denied this. He admitted he was not initially clear on what exactly precipitated his decision to remove Tomicic, but said his reluctance to reveal details earlier this fall in the face of criticism was an attempt to be professional and low-key. . In an October 19 letter to members of the institution, the co-chairs of the board said the “silence on the change in leadership was meant to be respectful to all parties”, who “agreed to go their separate ways.”

More recently, in an email to the New York Times, the board expanded on its explanation and said it understood the commotion as a signal of its members’ deep esteem for the institution. “We ask for patience and in return we promise to be more open and open,” the board wrote.

The change in director, he said, was based on LongHouse’s need to move from “a one-man residence with limited public field visits, to a more fully public institution.” One of the top priorities of his plan is to convert Larsen’s 13,000 square foot home into a museum, the board said.

The board described Barratt, the acting director who had, during his time at the Met, helped oversee the renovation of the American wing and Islamic galleries, as having “extensive experience in running museums and public gardens.”

The complaint filed with the Attorney General’s office argues that LongHouse will be significantly affected by the changes to the trust agreement shortly before Larsen’s death. The lawsuit says that under a trust agreement Larsen entered into in April 2020, the bulk of his estate, including his Park Avenue apartment, was to go to LongHouse upon his death.

But the deal, according to the complaint, was amended in November 2020, just before Larsen’s death, to significantly reduce the gift to LongHouse by allocating additional money to a trust that will pay Olsen a stipend of $ 120,000. per year. Olsen also got lifetime use of the apartment with his maintenance costs covered.

The board said it could not comment on the complaint because it had not seen a copy of it, but issued a statement to present its views on the changes to the trust agreement.
“The majority of Jack’s estate goes to LongHouse,” the statement read. “What is provided to Peter also comes back to LongHouse upon his disappearance.”

The complaint says several board members campaigned for the changes that would help Olsen, to the detriment of LongHouse.

“How can you sit on the board of LongHouse and not stand up for LongHouse and let the money originally directed to LongHouse go elsewhere?” Said Wilson, a donor who has suspended her donations.

The board, responding to these concerns, said in a statement: “In all of these matters, the board has acted ethically and in the best interests of LongHouse after careful deliberation and in the performance of its fiduciary duty. “

Olsen declined to comment beyond saying he fully supports the actions and plans of the board, “which I believe are consistent with Jack’s vision.”

The complaint filed with the attorney general’s office expresses concern that Larsen had approved these changes during a period of his health and mental acuity in jeopardy, just after his release from hospital after fracturing a femur during surgery. a fall. He indicates that a draft of the modifications was shown to Larsen while he was still in the intensive care unit and that the final draft was signed six days after his release from that unit.

Other friends suggest that such concerns are unfounded. “Although his physical condition has deteriorated dramatically,” said Roseline Koener, an artist from Westhampton who visited her friend Larsen several times after being released from hospital, “he always kept his mind”.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Donors withhold gifts to protest changes to the Hamptons Sculpture Garden
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