Less than a year after the death of the founder of LongHouse Reserve, Jack Lenor Larsen, the nonprofit’s board of trustees has fired longtime executive director Matko Tomicic.
Now numerous LongHouse Reserve donors are demanding to know the motivation for ousting Tomicic on Labor Day weekend after 26 years, and are withholding their financial support from the 16-acre garden and sculpture park in East Hampton.
Reached last Thursday, October 14, Tomicic said that he cannot discuss the matter due to the agreement that he signed with LongHouse.
Alex Feleppa, the chairman of LongHouse’s garden committee, stepped down in response to Tomicic’s firing. In his resignation letter, he was blunt: “I no longer have any desire to give my support to, or have an affiliation with, the current Board of Trustees of LongHouse Reserve.”
During an interview Monday, Feleppa explained that he was the horticulturist at LongHouse, and when he left in 2018 to take another job, Tomicic requested he lead the garden committee. He said he agreed, mostly, to help Larsen and Tomicic.
“Matko’s abrupt firing and dismissal from LongHouse was a real shock,” Feleppa said, adding that he is still waiting for the board to explain why it had to be done this way. “Because I don’t really feel that they’ve answered that.”
He said he does not want to be affiliated with the group while the board is taking the organization in the current direction but that he will still volunteer. “When I left as a staff member, Jack was still in good health,” he recalled. “I made a real serious promise to him to always help LongHouse and his vision and help his vision be realized, and I still intend to follow through with that, just more on my own terms.”
He said a large group is saying: “What happened to Matko? Matko is LongHouse.”
Jane Johnson, a donor who lives in North Haven, supports LongHouse through a family foundation, but that support is on hold right now.
“There are a group of donors that are questioning whether they want to continue supporting this group of board members who have kind of suddenly decided to take LongHouse in their own direction, and you know Jack isn’t even gone for a year,” Johnson said on Thursday, October 14. “It’s pretty crazy. Yeah, the donors are very upset, and there are a lot of us who are withdrawing support.”
According to Johnson, the firing came out of the blue and Tomicic was not given a reason. “To do this so suddenly, it was very cruel,” she said.
She said the board could have asked him to prepare someone to take over and he would have probably done that happily.
“Matko has done the work of about five people and has devoted more time to it than anybody else is ever going to because he was devoted to the idea of what they were doing together, he and Jack,” Johnson said.
LongHouse volunteer Lois Patricia Golder of Eastport wrote in a letter to the board that she was dismayed by Tomicic’s dismissal.
“Mr. Larsen expected Mr. Tomicic and his team to extend his foundation’s vision and legacy beyond his death,” Golder wrote. “Instead, less than a year after Mr. Larsen’s death, the current board has in effect, erased Jack Larsen’s legacy by purging Mr. Tomicic.”
Golder wrote that all of the other LongHouse volunteers she has spoken to are also upset. “At a time when stability and reinforcing the Foundation’s vision should be paramount, all is turmoil,” she continued.
In addition to being a volunteer, Golder is a donor — but she wrote that she will make no further financial contributions until she is assured that a commitment to Larsen legacy’s is restored. She suggested that could be done by reinstating Tomicic.
“Over the years, I’ve volunteered more and more time since I was very impressed by the hard work and accomplishments of Matko Tomicic and the entire team, and I have contributed financially more and more, to the extent that in your last publication, I seem to have contributed more than most board members,” she wrote. “But no more.”
Nina Gillman, a co-president of the LongHouse board, said on Friday that the board reached an agreement with Tomicic in September to part ways. “We were silent. We did not communicate about it extensively because we wanted to be respectful to a private situation,” she said.
In explaining what led up to the decision, Gillman said that in early 2020, while Larsen was still alive, the board had begun a strategic planning process with his support and encouragement.
“He very much encouraged us to make a good plan for the future when he was no longer there, and he was the kind of person that embraced change and was always urging the board not to treat LongHouse as a static object but to evolve and be relevant,” she said of Larsen.
Gillman described the strategic plan as grounded in Larsen’s vision, writing, thoughts and encouragement.
“After long and careful deliberation, the board concluded that the new chapter ahead of us required new leadership,” she said. “We are very, very grateful to Matko. He did a wonderful job while he was at LongHouse. He worked there for a long time and we’re deeply grateful for the dedicated service that he gave us, and the many significant contributions that he made to the institution.”
She said that the day that the employees learned the news, they were concerned and left early but all have since been back at their jobs.
Asked why Tomicic could not be the one to take LongHouse in a new direction, Gillman said that it was not an appropriate thing to discuss and that the board would like to respect everyone’s privacy.
Susie Gelman, a LongHouse donor, said she was shocked and dismayed by Tomicic’s firing, which she called “unceremonious and sudden.”
“The actions of the LongHouse board have raised serious questions in the minds of many donors like myself,” Gelman said. “All nonprofit institutions have a responsibility to be transparent with the community that they serve and with the donors who make such institutions viable. I have yet to see any level of transparency regarding the firing of Matko and how this action was undertaken in furtherance of the board’s ‘vision’ for the future of LongHouse, and I believe that the board owes the donor community and beyond a full explanation of its actions and the opportunity to have our questions and concerns answered.”