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.

Nierengarten-Smith the business manager and administrative officer, by contrast, is wanting for similar praise. Even one of her stoutest defenders, lawyer and former board president Don Wolff, generously compliments her abilities in the art side of her job but says that, as a manager, "she needs to be removed from those other aspects."

It is her handling, or mishandling, of "those other aspects" that recasts the overview of her accomplishments at Laumeier.

Some 30 employees, from a staff of a dozen, left Laumeier from 1997-99 alone. Over the years, the number of former Laumeier staffers still living in the region has reached a point that informal "ex-employee clubs" gather to swap horror stories like veterans of some grueling campaign. They talk of staffers' being prized for loyalty rather than merit. Those who fall into Nierengarten-Smith's disfavor, they claim, are not long for the institution.

Former St. Louis County Parks and Recreation director Jerry Shober "was adamant that he'd never seen a manager in all his years of public service who was as divisive and ineffective as Beej (above)," says a former Laumeier board member.
Former St. Louis County Parks and Recreation director Jerry Shober "was adamant that he'd never seen a manager in all his years of public service who was as divisive and ineffective as Beej (above)," says a former Laumeier board member.
Former members of the Laumeier board observe that St. Louis County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall, whom many describe as "conflict-averse," is not going to get into a fight over an institution that has all the appearance of success.
Former members of the Laumeier board observe that St. Louis County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall, whom many describe as "conflict-averse," is not going to get into a fight over an institution that has all the appearance of success.

Former staffers make more serious charges than office tyranny, however. They talk of the division between personal and professional being blurred by Nierengarten-Smith, with the director taking advantage of her position and purchasing works by artists she exhibits for her private collection -- an activity akin to insider trading on the stock market and deemed unethical by the American Association of Museums (AAM). They talk of art inventory going missing and then being "found" at Nierengarten-Smith's home (a former registrar recalls that "It's at my house" was a frequent explanation). They talk of artists being treated irresponsibly by the director and of more artworks being deaccessioned without the artists' knowledge. They talk of Nierengarten-Smith running Laumeier as her personal fiefdom, using financial resources as she sees fit, regardless of whether donations are restricted toward a specific project. They talk of accounts being altered to show a more amenable financial picture. They talk of a "midnight cleaning lady" -- such as the unknown culprit in the Sept. 22 incident -- who has a history of deleting computer files.

Or, just as often, they don't talk at all, for what would be the use, they say. It's all been said before and nothing has changed. Few will speak on the record. (Nierengarten-Smith herself chooses not to speak to the press and repeatedly denied a request for an interview for this story because of pending litigation.) She's too powerful, and she's too well protected, many people say.

Her list of protectors is formidable. Adam Aronson, former chairman of Mark Twain Bank, prominent art patron and one of Laumeier's founders, is in her camp, as is wealthy businessman and patron Bob Orchard. Don Wolff has come to her defense. Jo Ann Harmon, current Laumeier board president and an Emerson Electric executive, maintains the status quo. Missouri Court of Appeals Judge Larry Mooney, who formerly served in the county executive's office, steered Nierengarten-Smith through her most difficult crisis in 1995. And Westfall, the longtime St. Louis county executive, has seen fit to keep Nierengarten-Smith's directorship secure.

Security of another sort is an ongoing issue at Laumeier. Who would find value in removing accounting records and artist files?

The burglary, or "miscellaneous incident," occurred only two weeks after news broke of plans to bulldoze "Cromlech Glen" ("Pepper Game," RFT, Sept. 8, 1999). During the "Cromlech Glen" fiasco, Judy Aronson -- a member of the board's executive committee who, with her husband, Adam Aronson, helped found Laumeier in 1976 -- asserted that Nierengarten-Smith had been in contact with artist Pepper and her gallery representative, Dale Lanzone for months; when asked, however, Pepper and Lanzone said they hadn't heard from Laumeier in years. Laumeier public-relations director Pete Smith told the RFT that members of the St. Louis County Council had inspected the sculpture and deemed it unsafe. However, no such inspection occurred. Smith then said the county counselor's office actually judged "Cromlech Glen" unsafe on Aug. 31 (long after a letter was sent to Lanzone and Pepper on Aug. 16 informing them of the planned removal). County Counselor John Ross, however, says the Aug. 31 judgment had nothing to do with an assessment of safety but involved a review of the original contract between Pepper and the park.

Other incidents over the last few months have elicited questions about the administration of Laumeier.

On June 24, 1999, Nierengarten-Smith shipped her private Brazilian folk-art collection -- co-owned with her husband, psychiatrist Jim Smith -- to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M., with the costs for shipping, appraisal and insurance -- amounting to more than $11,000 -- charged to the nonprofit.

In July 1999, a lawsuit was filed by former business manager Bryan Knicely against Nierengarten-Smith and the park. Nierengarten-Smith fired Knicely on Dec. 14, 1998, after he had served a little more than a year on the job. In his suit, Knicely alleges that Nierengarten-Smith directed him to change his time sheets to reflect a 40-hour work week rather than the actual hours he'd accumulated. He alleges that she instructed him to alter a profit/loss report for a Laumeier fundraiser to reflect a profit rather than a loss. He alleges that Nierengarten-Smith directed him to alter personnel reports to reflect fewer employees over four preceding years and to code certain jobs as replacement positions when they were not. He alleges that Nierengarten-Smith directed him to revise a memo to Laumeier's executive committee to divert attention from a deficit in the December financial reports. His suit also refers to the appraisal costs of the Brazilian folk-art collection, paid by the park.

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