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.

Fortna presents a portrait of an arts institution that does more to impede artists than to facilitate the happy completion of their projects. According to Fortna, Nierengarten-Smith withheld Mauri's requests for materials and labor, which the artist sent from his home in Italy before arriving at Laumeier in the summer of 1997. Fortna says Mauri's letters were kept in a file drawer in Nierengarten-Smith's office. Why the director would act in such a manner is one of Laumeier's mysteries, but those who have worked there allude to her need for control and for confrontation as two possible motives.

For example, Fortna describes a contentious relationship between Mauri and Nierengarten-Smith, a relationship between artist and director that many former employees deem typical at Laumeier. When Mauri arrived at Laumeier with his wife, Fortna sat in on a meeting between Nierengarten-Smith, members of the staff and the artist. During the meeting, Nierengarten-Smith argued with Mauri, insisting that he had agreed to be on site for five weeks. Mauri said this was incorrect -- he had agreed to three weeks, and that was how long he was staying. The artist refused to change his plans, despite Nierengarten-Smith's protestations -- his travel accommodations had been set. Mauri completed the project in the allotted time. Fortna says he later saw the written agreement -- Mauri was contracted for three weeks.

Fortna says the artwork's construction proceeded after considerable effort, along with a hasty redesign plan executed by Mauri because of the lack of preparation. Although Nierengarten-Smith had informed the maintenance crew that Mauri would only require one or two people to create the sculpture, eventually the entire maintenance crew took part in the work, says Fortna.

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.

"La Casa della Memoria" was finally completed, and it remains one of Laumeier's most intriguing monumental sculptures, but even as it was in process, according to Fortna, Nierengarten-Smith told him, "Don't say anything to him (Mauri), but it's coming down in three years."

Whereas "La Casa della Memoria" and "Cromlech Glen" share "endangered" status, Meg Webster's "Pass" joined the ranks of the extinct in 1997.

Like "Cromlech Glen," "Pass" figures significantly in Laumeier's history, so much so that through the years since its installation in 1991, the work has been highlighted in Laumeier brochures and in a 1996 catalog, Perfect Unity, issued by Laumeier's PR office. The innovative environmental-landscape work covered about an acre-and-a-half of land on the southwest edge of the park. It consisted of trees, shrubs, ponds, a spiraling trail, a mound of earth covered with grass, a bowl-like trench filled with native Missouri grasses, and fruit trees.

Unlike the situation with "Cromlech Glen," no one informed the artist that her artwork would be deaccessioned.

"It was an unusual piece for a sculpture park in that it was a planting, a wildlife thing," says Webster from her home in New York City. "I know they kept it up for a number of years, but I didn't know if there are any parts to it still there now."

"Pass" is no more. The mound, the ponds, the hollow filled with grasses -- all have been removed. A few trees and some shrubs remain. "They didn't understand it," says Webster. "It wasn't about keeping up."

Laumeier harnessed a workforce of docents and volunteers, called the "Pass Timers," to do the type of garden maintenance to which Webster objects. "They had some problem with the fact that they couldn't mow it," says Webster. "It wasn't supposed to be mowed."

Laumeier isn't the only institution where Webster has run into such problems with her work. She describes "an emotional connection to it and it has to do with controlling. It has to do with every single institution I've put gardens in front of. They almost can't stand it. Art is a conserving system, and the ground is something else. A lot of my works haven't lasted not because they had to be maintained so well; it was that the institution didn't have a mind for it."

Yet in a Laumeier grant application to the Regional Arts Commission (RAC), under plans for conservation, this is written: "In 1997, conservation efforts will focus on Meg Webster's "Pass.'" "Conservation efforts" have a notorious ring at Laumeier. "Pass" was removed, not conserved. In the conservation plans for 1999-2000, "Cromlech Glen" is listed, ominously, in Laumeier's RAC grant application.

"The biggest complaint I would have," continues Webster, "is that I was not notified of the piece's demise. I should have at least been notified and allowed any photographs to be taken of it.

"I was told it would always be there, that it was a permanent piece."

In Laumeier's own catalog, Perfect Unity, it seems that permanence was part of the park's intention as well. Lynn M. Herbert, author of the essay on "Pass" included in Perfect Unity, concludes with words that are now sadly ironic: "Secure at Laumeier, "Pass' will continue to explore the inextricable bond between humankind and nature. A garden is never finished" -- at least until that "inextricable bond" is extricated and the work is deaccessioned.

"If it hadn't been mowed, it would have been this beautiful wild field with lots of habitat," Webster asserts. "That's the sadness of it -- nobody cared to let it be what it was supposed to be. That's the biggest complaint. It should have never been mowed. It should have been let go. It should at least have had 10 years. If the water system didn't work, it could have been changed.

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