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

Bryan Knicely, it seems, also experienced Nierengarten-Smith and company's unique form of personnel management, as well as their demands for "excellence." Knicely came to Laumeier from BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio. Those who worked in the Laumeier offices at the time of his employment believe that whatever excellence he could have contributed to the institution was undermined by Nierengarten-Smith.

Kniceley chose not to discuss his experiences at Laumeier because of his pending lawsuit, but according to various sources, Knicely sought to implement responsible accounting procedures at Laumeier in regard to money handling. This included the coding of donated funds (to firmly differentiate between restricted and unrestricted donations) and maintaining stricter supervision of nonprofit funds used for professional expenses, instituting a system in which each expense would be described in writing and signed for approval.

A former employee who worked closely with Knicely says Nierengarten-Smith responded to his new accounting procedures with disdain. Although some donations that come to Laumeier are restricted to specific projects, such as the Art Fair or the planned children's sculpture garden, Nierengarten-Smith allegedly told Knicely that she would decide where to put the money. All she wanted him to do was to keep track of where it was going. If Knicely questioned one of Nierengarten-Smith's directives, a source says, she told him, "This is where I want it to go." Knicely's concern for year-end audits by Ernst & Young did not faze Nierengarten-Smith, either. "The board and Ernst & Young don't need to know all our business," she allegedly told her business manager.

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.

One of the more serious, and repeated, allegations by former Laumeier personnel is that little or no distinction exists between Nierengarten-Smith's personal and professional business dealings.

For example, Nierengarten-Smith's charges to Laumeier's American Express card for September 1999 reveal a number of expenses that appear to fudge the line between personal and professional: a charge for $21.05 to L.L. Bean, restaurant charges for $606.90 (including a bill for $395 at Tiny's in Santa Fe, N.M.), lodging at the El Rey Inn in Santa Fe for $440.67 and a charge for $31 to Mental Health Resources in Saugerties, N.Y.

Museum directors, like all business professionals, certainly incur professional expenses. But some expenses should have raised red flags. Although Santa Fe is a notable art-world destination, an accountant might ask about the division between personal and professional on this trip. Not only have Nierengarten-Smith and her husband donated their Brazilian folk-art collection to the Santa Fe's Museum of International Folk Art, they have been building a home in Santa Fe, where they plan to move in two years (according to Bakewell Realty, a bid has been placed on their current Westmoreland Place home).

Expenses incurred on Laumeier's American Express for Jan. 1, 1998-Dec. 27, 1999, total $23,363.05 (including a board lunch on May 2, 1998, that came to $1,098.95). Nierengarten-Smith is listed specifically to have incurred $5,927.29 in expenses over this period, including a trip to Brazil -- purportedly with her husband, to plan yet another Brazilian exhibition -- totaling $3,800.

Nierengarten-Smith also charges expenses to a MasterCard, which the nonprofit pays. Charges for June 1999 include not only the shipping for the Brazilian collection ($4,128.64) and a meal at Big Sky ($103.05) but the gas and upkeep of the Jeep Cherokee the nonprofit leases for her. The vehicle was in the shop for repairs totaling $100.95 that month. In the meantime, she leased another vehicle for $287.35.

The blurring between personal and professional occurs in regard to art as well, according to a number of curators and registrars who have passed through Laumeier over the years. Many of them describe the confusion that ensued when they attempted to maintain an accurate art inventory.

A registrar's job is to catalog the artwork, recording data such as title, artist, the work's condition, where the work is kept and where it has been loaned. But Laumeier registrars, when perplexed as to the whereabouts of artwork that appeared to be missing, were typically told by Nierengarten-Smith: "It's at my house."

"You couldn't tell what was hers and what was Laumeier's," says one former registrar.

Former employees also allege that Nierengarten-Smith often purchased work from exhibiting artists for she and her husband's private collection. Numerous artists contacted by the RFT would not comment about their relations with Nierengarten-Smith and Laumeier, but former curators and registrars allege that artists who exhibited at Laumeier knew that a select work from their exhibition would be slated for the director and her husband.

Michel Krevenas, curator at Laumeier from 1992-95, alleges that she was directed to order two sets of the artist Donald Judd's prints: one for Laumeier, one for Nierengarten-Smith. "If Beej doesn't get something out of it," Krevenas claims, "it doesn't go."

And some art just goes. "Cromlech Glen" is not the first endangered artwork at Laumeier. Dennis Fortna served as preparator at Laumeier during the construction of Giuliano Mauri's "La Casa della Memoria (House Remembered)" -- a structure made of branches that twist into the configuration of a tall shelter, completed in 1997. Mauri's choice of material does not imply flimsy construction; he builds works to last at least 20 years. But Fortna has reason to believe "La Casa della Memoria" won't be around that long.

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