LongHouse Reserve welcomed a new interim director this month, Carrie Rebora Barratt, who specializes in helping institutions through transitions of leadership.
Barratt is a former deputy director at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and former president and CEO of the New York Botanical Garden. In her role at LongHouse, she is tasked not only with leading the staff of the 16-acre sculpture garden in East Hampton in the short-term but also with identifying the qualities and skills that the nonprofit should look for in its next executive director to achieve its goals.
It’s been 10 months since the death of LongHouse founder Jack Lenor Larsen, a renowned textile designer and gardener who built his house there in 1986 and opened the grounds to the public in the 1990s. In addition to the loss of Larsen, last month the LongHouse Board of Trustees removed Matko Tomicic, who was the executive director of the institution for 26 years. Co-President Nina Gillman said the board had concluded that LongHouse’s next chapter would require new leadership.
The LongHouse board developed a strategic plan last year — a process that Larsen participated in before his death at 93 — and that plan will help guide the selection of the next executive director. But there are a number of questions Barratt is seeking to answer before the role is defined and a search begins.
Barratt said the biggest piece of LongHouse’s transition is the loss of Larsen — the loss of a founder. One question she posed is, “Who is this person to lead LongHouse without Jack there?”
The position profile will include the skillset and capabilities that LongHouse is looking for in candidates. “It’s important before going into a search to know what are the top things,” she explained. It could be managerial ability, financial skill, fundraising acuity, collections building, etc. “Some museums need somebody who’s a chief curator. Does the next head of LongHouse need to be a gardener or horticulturist?” Once the desired skills are identified, an executive search firm will draft a position profile.
Other questions she identified are: What are the core values of an institution? And what problem are you solving? What need does LongHouse serve?
Whether LongHouse is a local museum, a Long Island museum, a greater New York museum or a national museum will also influence the search, according to Barratt.
“A national search for head of a national museum is different than a search for the head of a local museum,” she said. “You’ll get different candidates depending on that.”
“They had a director in place for a very long time, and I think it’s really wise and healthy for an organization to take a moment and really, really think — really think — before they just hire a search firm and hire someone to come in and fix everything,” Barratt said. “So I think they’re being extraordinarily wise to take this time.”
Prior to arrival, Barratt said she spoke to some of the staff and some of the board and got a sense of some of the challenges and opportunities at LongHouse — “a classic SWOT analysis.” That is a strategic planning technique that is an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Barratt emphasized that her role is purely interim — she is not a candidate to take on the post permanently.
“I didn’t do this to get the job or to be the next director,” she said. “I really am there to help with a transition.”
Barratt spent the bulk of her career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she worked for 34 years. She started as a summer intern and became a curator in the American Wing for 25 years before she was promoted to deputy director in 2009. As deputy director for nearly a decade, her work concerned collection conservation, education and libraries, and she created the Met’s digital media department and revamped its website.
In 2018, a search firm for the New York Botanical Garden contacted her about becoming the institution’s president and CEO.
“I was shy of it at first, jokingly,” she recalled. “You know, I have a Ph.D. in art history. I’ve worked at the Met all my life. What makes you think I can run a botanical garden? And they said, ‘Carrie, it’s a museum of plants.’”
“It really is an outdoor museum in the most extraordinary way,” she said. “And the people that take care of those collections in botany and horticulture are just like curators and conservators at an art museum. And the educators do the same thing as they do in the other museums … they program, they develop ways to entice visitors to come and then stay and then to learn.”
She joined that July and stayed for two years. She said much of her work in that position was change management after the retirement of 30-year President and CEO Gregory Long.
“After two years, I really decided that I missed the art world,” Barratt said. “I’ve learned so much about gardens, and that I will bring to LongHouse.”
She also sees the combination of gardens and art as a positive direction for outdoor spaces. “Botanical gardens across the country have invested huge resources over the past 10 years only into bringing art to their properties because they recognize that the combination of arts and nature draws more people,” she said.
Barratt remains connected to public gardens as a member of the board of the American Public Gardens Association, she noted, and she’s a board member of the American Alliance of Museums as well.
She said her job since leaving the botanical garden has been helping organizations get through a transition. When she got the call from LongHouse, she was doing just that for the South Bend Museum of Art in Indiana. She returned home to Harlem and just before arriving at LongHouse.
Though she never met Larsen, she had visited LongHouse a number of times before she was offered the interim director position. “What a smart and dear man,” she said. “I’m sorry that I never met him.”
She credits Larsen with thinking beyond his lifetime. She said the really special thing about LongHouse is its connection between plants, nature and design, as seen in Larsen’s own work and the work of many other artists.
“It may be that that director does have to kind of have the Jack instinct,” she said.
The plan is to complete her work in four to six months, but it could be longer, she said. “Part of what I’ve learned in this work is that the work sort of unfolds. So I’m willing to stay as long as it takes to make sure that LongHouse has the right leadership going forward. … I’d like to be deliberate in my work and slow. There’s no hurry. There’s no rush on my part or, I think, on theirs.”