MUSEUM OF THE ABSURD

A new appointment at Laumeier Sculpture Park leaves officials scrambling to define the position -- and brings its director, Beej Nierengarten-Smith, to tears

Laumeier Sculpture Park's tranquil pastoral setting belies the administrative turmoil in recent months involving those entrusted to maintain and further improve on that setting. In August, for example, Laumeier director Beej Nierengarten-Smith planned the removal of sculptor Beverly Pepper's earthwork "Cromlech Glen" -- that is, until the artist and her representative got word of it ("Pepper Game," RFT, Sept. 8). Then Laumeier curator Katherine Adamchick, who publicly protested the bulldozing of the popular public artwork, became persona non grata at the park's administrative complex, where Nierengarten-Smith tagged her as the enemy with the directive that no employee was to speak to her and forbade Adamchick from speaking with any artist -- a complicating factor for a curator.

Perhaps to lighten the mood, county employee Adamchick was transferred to another county facility, the Museum of Transportation, where she is now one of two curators. Laumeier Sculpture Park now has none; the park had to give up Adamchick's salaried county position as the price for her forced relocation.

This week, more staff changes occurred, but what they officially are -- as with most things at Laumeier -- is unclear. The most that can be surmised is that Nierengarten-Smith met with her staff on Oct. 4 to notify them of significant changes in administration, changes that made her so upset that, sources say, "she looked like she'd cried all weekend." Apparently Nierengarten-Smith's duties as director were being redefined. Judy Metzger was coming in to take over the business and managerial aspects of Laumeier, and Nierengarten-Smith would oversee only the artistic side of things -- essentially, Nierengarten-Smith would fill the curatorial position that Laumeier no longer had while maintaining her director's title and her director's salary.

Nierengarten-Smith met with her staff on Oct. 4 to notify them of significant changes 
in administration, changes that made her so upset that, sources say, "she looked like she'd cried all weekend."
Tom Carlson
Nierengarten-Smith met with her staff on Oct. 4 to notify them of significant changes in administration, changes that made her so upset that, sources say, "she looked like she'd cried all weekend."

However, in speaking to the RFT on Tuesday, her second day at the office, Metzger is unable to describe what her duties are. "We're still working on what exactly it is," she says amiably, "so I'm not quite sure. I haven't seen anything in writing. I'm working with Joanne Harmon (chair of Laumeier's board of directors) and Beej and Genie Zakrzewski (head of the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation)."

How did she become aware of this nebulous position? "I knew some of the people," she offers cryptically. "I've been involved with the park, and I've always been very passionate about it, and the opportunity arose and I just jumped on the bandwagon."

Is she co-director of Laumeier, perhaps? "I don't think anything like that has been decided. They're still crafting what my job description is." Metzger says she comes to Laumeier "from the business community" but doesn't want to talk about specifics. "Being new on the job, I don't know what the protocol is for speaking with the press. I certainly don't want to get in trouble on my second day."

Avoiding a quick exile to the Museum of Transportation, Metzger urges the RFT to contact Zakrzewski at St. Louis County Parks and Rec for clarification. Zakrzewski does not return the calls, however.

Mac Scott, spokesman for St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall, does call back with the official version: "St. Louis County and the board of Laumeier have been looking at a reorganization plan for the whole structure of the management of the park, and that includes the hiring of a business manager. The business manager has been hired by the board."

Scott can't specify how long this reorganization plan has been evolving, just that it has been "part of an ongoing discussion."

Laumeier Sculpture Park is an odd administrative hybrid, run with funds from both the county and the nonprofit Laumeier endowment. Metzger is not a county employee, says Scott, but hired and paid by the nonprofit organization. "There was a vacancy in the position, I assume," Scott says, "and they looked for a business manger."

Scott cannot say for certain, however, whether Metzger is to serve as co-director. "I don't know how the division of duties are going to break out."

It's hard to comprehend why Nierengarten-Smith would get so teary-eyed over the hiring of a business manager, and after Scott affirms that Metzger's position is just that, a source reports that when Nierengarten-Smith introduced Metzger at an Oct. 11 staff meeting, the term "business manager" was never mentioned. Although Metzger has many of the duties of a business manager, it's clear to that staff that she's much more than that.

So what is Metzger doing there? Various sources say that Nierengarten-Smith has seriously strained her relationships with her board and with the county. "A number of people got together and placed Metzger here for a reason," says one source, with some of those people being Buzz Westfall and Joanne Harmon.

Metzger may not know it yet, but she's in a difficult if not perilous position. Although those who have placed her at Laumeier have done it to limit Nierengarten-Smith's powers, "as soon as Beej has to report to somebody else," a source says, "things will change dramatically."

And whether Metzger is or isn't the official business manager, she should be aware of the case of former business manager Bryan Knicely, who is suing both Laumeier and Nierengarten-Smith for personal injury -- but more about that in next week's "State of the Arts" column.

 
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