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.

Many of those close to the events of early 1995 believe Schober was fired. "Schober was adamant that he'd never seen a manager in all his years of public service who was as divisive and ineffective as Beej," says the former executive- committee member.

As remarkable as Schober's dismissal (he remains in St. Louis but chose not to be interviewed for this article) was the involvement of Mooney. Members of the executive committee, as well as interim board president Jim Usdan, who replaced Richard Jensen, insist that Mooney was present for many of the meetings where Nierengarten-Smith's qualifications were discussed. "He was very involved," says Usdan. "I had many, many contacts with him. He tried very hard to guide the board into what was possible, what was politically practical and possible. Other than Buzz, he was really the decision-maker. He was very, very involved." But after the vote was taken, Mooney disassociated himself from the board's decision.

After the vote, an extensive campaign was lodged to retain Nierengarten-Smith and to denigrate the Laumeier board. This political and media spin was led by two powerful allies -- Aronson and Orchard -- and Nierengarten-Smith herself. They defined the dispute as a personality conflict between the artistic director and members of the board, especially the board president, Richard Jensen.

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.

In stories in the RFT and the Post- Dispatch, Aronson praised Nierengarten-Smith and referred to Jensen and fellow executive-committee member Jacob Reby as "two little boys squawking because they want their diapers changed.... They don't know anything about art."

Usdan was one of the people Aronson lobbied: "He called me and appealed to everything he could think of. One of the stories is that Adam is the guy who brought Richard Jensen into St. Louis as a banker. Richard committed the unpardonable sin that he felt he had a better career opportunity at NationsBank (where Jensen became president) than at Mark Twain. Adam used to say terrible things about Richard, very unprofessional -- that he wasn't a good banker, that he didn't know anything about art. The truth is, he's a terrific banker and he knows a lot about art. None of us are perfect, but Richard is very involved in St. Louis and trying to improve things."

Aronson made the phone calls and spun the media. Orchard began attending Laumeier board meetings, although he was not a member of the board. "For some reason," recalls Usdan, "as we were getting involved in trying to get a new relationship between the county and the not-for-profit, Bob started showing up at board meetings and just beating the tar out of the board. He was very abusive, very supportive of Beej. His feeling, intellectually, was that the job of a board was to raise money, support the director and keep quiet. There's no governance. His perspective was that we were a bunch of know-nothings. We didn't know anything about art. We weren't any good at raising money, and what the hell were we there for, anyway? "Why don't you just leave Beej alone, let her do the art thing and raise money and support her?' It was very strange. Adam Aronson was pretty much the same boat."

With the county refusing to fire or reassign Nierengarten-Smith, the board proceeded to attempt to redesign the system of governance for Laumeier. "This idea of the park owned by the county and the art owned by the not-for-profit -- that wasn't Beej's fault," says Usdan. "But she used it against the best interests of the park. If she didn't get what she wanted from the county, then she would go to the not-for-profit, and vice versa. There was no real control."

As the board worked to forge a new governance agreement with the county, Usdan says, his relationship with Mooney, who again was taking part in the discussions, were "a little bit strained." According to Usdan, Don Wolff -- a lawyer most recently in the news for negotiating a plea bargain for former state Sen. Jet Banks -- joined the board in part to relieve some of those tensions. Wolff would become the next board president.

"I think there was an honest effort to try to make it work with Beej as the head but with a new system of governance," Usdan recalls, "the thought being, if there was a one-headed monster, so to speak, instead of a two-headed monster, Beej would then be accountable, and under a system of accountability she would either do a good job and the board would retain her or, if she couldn't meet the standard, then the board would make the replacement. But the county never kept up its end of the bargain."

Although Usdan recalls a final agreement's being signed and authorized, Nierengarten-Smith and county officials say otherwise. Wolff says the board wrote "drafts and drafts of reorganization agreements" for three years, but, he says, all that was finally confirmed was that Wolff would "consider reorganization," which he eventually decided was "not in the best interest of the park."

Usdan and others on the board were concerned about fiscal improprieties. One accountant, with experience in prosecutorial investigations, was brought in and told the board it would take $50,000 for a full audit to uncover the mishandling of expenses, art inventory and the misappropriation of funds -- discrepancies a standard audit would overlook. "We didn't think we had to go that way," says a former board member. "We didn't think getting nasty was the way to go about it, but we felt a fiduciary responsibility to test rumors."

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