QUEEN BEEJ

Beej Nierengarten-Smith runs Laumeier Sculpture Park like her personal fiefdom. Despite the damage she's done, powerful allies keep her in charge.

Kathy Gault left work at Laumeier Sculpture Park as usual. The accountant locked her file drawers and her office before heading home on the evening of Sept. 21. Laumeier had been a tumultuous place to work in recent weeks. The news that the artist Beverly Pepper's earthwork "Cromlech Glen" had been slated for removal by Laumeier director Beej Nierengarten-Smith had gotten to the press and created a public-relations fiasco for the park. Curator Kathryn Adamchick, who had publicly protested the planned deaccessioning of "Cromlech Glen," had been moved to an office that her colleagues described as a "closet." Adamchick's keys were taken away, as was her computer. No Laumeier employee was to speak to her or to the press. That evening, Gault left a workplace that was decidedly tense. She probably didn't realize how much stormier Laumeier could become.

The next morning, Gault found her office door unlocked. Two file cabinets had been opened. Two computer discs, containing payroll and accounting records for 1998-99, were missing. Logging onto her computer, she discovered that two files, containing payroll and financial disbursements, had been deleted. Paper files were missing as well -- artist files, which she kept in a brown file box.

Gault told her supervisor, Melinda Compton, about the missing files around 9:30 or 10 a.m. What Compton, Laumeier's arts- program manager, did then is unclear, but it wasn't until 3 o'clock, five hours later, that she called a St. Louis County Parks and Recreation official, Tom Ott, and told him of the break-in. Ott told her to call the police and the park-ranger office. Compton did not make that call until around 4:30 p.m.

Recent acquisitions now crowd Giuliano Mauri's "La Casa della Memoria" (right foreground), which is apparently slated for removal.
Jennifer Silverberg
Recent acquisitions now crowd Giuliano Mauri's "La Casa della Memoria" (right foreground), which is apparently slated for removal.

When park ranger Ronald Stoff and Sunset Hills police officer Steven Lucas arrived, Gault had gone home because of an ongoing illness. Compton told Stoff and Lucas that one disc was missing and one computer file had been deleted -- not two missing discs and two deleted computer files -- and she did not mention the missing artist files. She suggested that Gault's file cabinet was "jimmied," although neither Stoff nor Lucas could find any evidence of forced entry.

Lucas would later classify the case as a "miscellaneous incident." He says, "It was a computer file that got lost, but they found it. There was no need for a report. There was nothing intentional, no breaking of the law, anything like that. They just wanted to make us aware that the file was missing and they were going to keep us informed, which they did. Nothing criminal came about."

Lucas, however, did not return to the scene of the "miscellaneous incident," as did park ranger Stoff a week later, to question Gault. Because neither Gault (who is no longer employed by Laumeier) nor Compton (who is) is willing to discuss the incident, the events of Sept. 22 are reconstructed from Stoff's report, filed on Sept. 30 after the park ranger interrogated the Laumeier accountant.

Stoff's report conflicts with Lucas' summation. "To date 09/29/99," Stoff writes, "the above (2) computer discs and artist files have not been found, and believed stolen by persons UNK (unknown) at this time."

There are "no suspects," he concludes.

The mystery of the missing files is emblematic of Laumeier Sculpture Park, with at least two distinct sides to every story. Laumeier functions under dual governance: It is both part of the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation system and comes under its purview, and it is a nonprofit arts institution with a board of trustees (selected by County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall) providing governance and supervision in such matters as art acquisition and conservation. Laumeier employs staff who are paid by the county and who receive government benefits and job security; and it employs staff, paid by the nonprofit, who, given the high turnover rate, are less secure in their positions. Former staffers suggest that the definition of who is county and who is nonprofit is vague, even at the time of an employee's hiring.

The bridge between the two governing bodies is Nierengarten-Smith, the one constant at the institution for some 20 years. Her job encompasses two major concerns: that of an artistic director and curator, and that of a financial officer and corporate manager. For the artistic side of her job, she receives high marks from critics. For the managerial, even her staunchest supporters are hard-pressed for words of praise.

Nierengarten-Smith the artistic director and curator receives accolades from both those who defend and those who question her overall accomplishments. Laumeier is the jewel of the county parks system, perhaps the most pleasing art destination in the region. On any weekend, weather permitting, the park is filled with families, couples, teenagers playing Frisbee, people lounging on the grass or walking the trails and encountering puzzling and fascinating art objects. The sculptures on view represent a who's-who of the international art world, including Vito Acconci, Richard Serra, Mary Miss, Jonathan Borofsky, David Nash, Donald Judd, Terry Allen, Robert Stackhouse, Dennis Oppenheim and Beverly Pepper. Alexander Lieberman's "The Way," the giant red cones that emulate classical ruins, has become a symbol of both the park and the city. Nierengarten-Smith has been at the helm for all these years. Laumeier is not an accidental success story.

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