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.

"All you have to do is keep the water filled, just let the spigot run. I have ponds on the roof of my studio I do nothing to. It's a natural thing. Our control of nature is neurotic.

"Beej is a control freak. She's like everybody as far as that's concerned: Her sense of beauty is an ordered, controlled landscape."

But, in other ways, Nierengarten-Smith's concern for control is not like everybody else's. "When I went over budget," Webster recalls, "they demanded I give them a drawing, which I never have." (A sculptor's preliminary drawings and renderings of a planned work often have considerable value.) "I never did it, but then they never called me to tell me they were taking the piece out, either."

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.

Webster has gone over budget on projects before and since, but she has never had any person or institution demand an additional artwork as recompense.

During the interview, Webster asks whether Alice Aycock's work remains. Aycock's "100 Small Rooms" has also been highlighted by Laumeier in its promotional brochures, yet it also is gone. Apparently the wooden structure was deteriorating. The "conservation efforts" concluded with the dismantling of "100 Small Rooms."

The questionable deaccessioning of valuable artworks, the blurring between personal and professional interests, the high turnover of staff all have been problems for a decade, say former Laumeier board members.

In 1995, the Laumeier board called for Nierengarten-Smith's dismissal after a majority of the board voted for her removal. But the vote backfired, with the eventual removal of the board and the retention of Nierengarten-Smith. Those who were involved at the time provide an intriguing scenario of events.

In 1994, says a former member of the board's executive committee, board president Richard Jensen had determined that Nierengarten-Smith had to go. Nierengarten-Smith thrived in Laumeier's early years, being precisely the type of entrepreneurial manager the fledgling institution needed. But those skills were not so appropriate to the institution Laumeier had become. Jensen concluded that Laumeier needed a more competent manager.

But one member of the executive committee had misgivings. He felt that the momentum toward Nierengarten-Smith's ouster was too swift and haphazard -- anecdotes were being told of temper tantrums, of personal issues, of Nierengarten-Smith's purchasing art from exhibiting artists. "My response to all that was that we're all telling too many stories," the committee member recalls. "We need to do this in an organized way."

The board began to meet nearly every week for several months in 1994, interviewing former and current employees, as well as formalizing criteria the board could agree on that defined a sound director. The requisite skills included curatorial expertise, fundraising abilities, the ability to deal with county and parks officials, the ability to manage staff, the ability to forge partnerships with other arts organizations, and fiscal accountability.

Says one former executive-committee member, "I was shocked that when we did it in a very precise, thorough, deliberate way how badly she graded on everything except curatorial." One grade sheet shows Nierengarten-Smith receiving A's for her knowledge of contemporary sculpture and grant-writing abilities but getting D's and F's in numerous categories, including relationships with artists, her ability to work with the board and her ability to work with parks and recreation, the county executive and the County Council, as well as an F for "a basic understanding of financial matters affecting the institution."

The head of the St. Louis County parks system at the time was Jerry Schober, who was appointed by Westfall. Schober came to the county with considerable respect after serving 30 years in the national-parks system. He was director at the Jefferson Memorial before Westfall's appointment. The Laumeier board chose to enlist Schober as a consultant and liaison to the county executive's office.

A former executive-committee member describes the series of events leading to the board's decision: "Schober assured me we had the support of the county executive (Westfall), and Schober had dealt with Westfall's right-hand person (then assistant Larry Mooney, now an appellate judge). We had the full support of the county. We were told we had the support of Westfall. I kept saying we had to get the county counselor (John Ross) in on this: "These are personnel issues. We need to do this the right way.' Beej was going to be given the choice of resigning or taking a different role (solely as curator).

"We thought we had all our ducks in line. I did not go out and meet with Westfall and the county counselor. I should have. We had a board meeting in early January of '95. A majority vote of the full board (actually a unanimous vote) asked her to resign.

"Beej then called Adam Aronson -- and how Adam has any real clout is still beyond me (although Aronson is one of Laumeier's original founders, sources say his actual contributions to the park in recent years are minimal), but Adam is a bully and a bulldog and not afraid of picking up the phone. Starting the next day, after the meeting, he started working on board members, and he called Westfall. He said, "This woman is great. She's the savior.' Within a month, Schober had resigned, never to be heard from again. Beej kept her job. Later that year the entire board, except for Beej's friends on it, resigned. I'd never seen a political flip-flop as bizarre."

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