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.

Knicely also charges Nierengarten-Smith with misrepresenting the status of the business-manager position when he interviewed for the job. Knicely believed that he was hired for a county civil-service position with job security and benefits; however, soon after moving from Columbus, Ohio, and reporting for work, he learned that he was an employee of the nonprofit.

At the time, Knicely probably did not realize what an important distinction that was.

Knicely's allegations are not isolated. Rather, they conform to a disturbing pattern reinforced by many former employees. They reiterate, again and again, Knicely's charge that Nierengarten-Smith kept the distinction between county and nonprofit status unclear. Former Laumeier staffers claim that this was both an issue of control for Nierengarten-Smith and one of her ways of dealing with the dual-government bureaucracy overseeing the park. She could lure candidates with a county position but then hire them with nonprofit funds and blame the county for not supporting the position. Also, if and when employees complained, they didn't know where to turn, the county or the nonprofit.

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.

The revising of time sheets to conform to a strict 40-hour maximum is a charge that is also supported by many former employees. They say that in so doing Nierengarten-Smith deflected questions from the nonprofit board about her budget and got overtime work for nothing.

Former Laumeier staff members also tell of "campaigns" implemented against employees who fell into disfavor with Nierengarten-Smith and her administrative allies, Melinda Compton and Pete Smith -- with former employees such as Knicely and curator Kathryn Adamchick being the most recent victims. The results of those alleged campaigns also reveal the importance of the county/nonprofit distinction. Knicely worked for the nonprofit and was fired; Adamchick worked for the county and was shunted to the Museum of Transportation -- a home for wayward Laumeier employees (another former curator, Michel Krevenas, was reassigned there in 1995).

Laumeier employees rarely stay for very long. One former employee remembers a year of nearly 100 percent turnover at the park. Jim Thompson, treasurer of the Laumeier board, has written letters to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (most recently on Nov. 13, 1999) claiming that the high turnover is the result of Nierengarten-Smith's high standards (although it would seem that if those high standards are so rarely met, then perhaps Laumeier should look into its hiring practices). Many of those employees, however, have gone on to institutions as seemingly concerned about excellence as Laumeier, such as the St. Louis Art Museum, the Regional Arts Commission, the Jefferson Memorial and the St. Louis Effort for AIDS.

Yet the removal of specific personnel -- Knicely, Adamchick, Krevenas and many others who have asked not to be named -- imply causes other than failure to measure up to Nierengarten-Smith's lofty standards. One recent example is Carol Cox, who may hold a Laumeier record for being hired and fired in less than a month.

Cox kept detailed notes of her brief tenure at Laumeier, which she decided to do after she "received various warnings from employees about M. Compton and her relationship w/ B. Smith (director). I was told to watch my back and that it would be difficult for me to do my job because of M. Compton."

Cox had applied for the position of part-time museum attendant (a county position), but after Compton and Pete Smith reviewed her résumé, she was offered the full-time position of gallery and shop manager, a nonprofit position.

Compton told Cox that there would be a six-month waiting period before she could receive any benefits, although Cox learned from a Laumeier accountant that the actual period was 60 days. Compton also informed Cox that there was no budgeting for health benefits in the shop-manager position, although the actual budget detail for the museum shop clearly shows a line item for employee insurance.

Compton also appeared to be changing Cox's official duties. Although the shop manager's job description clearly states that the manager is to "work in conjunction" with the arts-program manager and the information officer (Compton and Pete Smith, respectively) in purchasing and marketing, Compton informed Cox that she and Pete Smith would be handling those duties, independent of Cox. When Cox questioned her on these matters, Compton accused her of "challenging" her authority. Cox says that Compton "told me not to check with other people regarding my duties."

Cox responded with a memo detailing her concerns to Compton on June 22, 1999. After receipt of the memo, Cox was fired by Compton. Immediately after her dismissal, Cox says she observed Compton entering Pete Smith's office, laughing. Cox confronted the two and told them that she "would call the Department of Labor because all I did was inquire about the job description and employee benefits." To this, according to Cox, Smith responded by yelling derisively, "Go ahead -- no one cares!"

As for Nierengarten-Smith's response, Cox says she told Cox "not to make a big stink over this with county."

Cox gave her detailed notes of the incident to county parks-and-recreation official Tom Ott, who failed to act on the complaint because it concerned a nonprofit position and was not within his jurisdiction. Compton and Smith declined comment on Cox's firing.

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