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.

"It was our board's recommendation that led to Bryan Knicely's position being created," says Usdan. Now Knicely has been fired and is suing his former employers. Meanwhile, a former member of the Laumeier board who came in after those who attempted to remove Nierengarten-Smith were dismissed -- Judy Metzger -- has moved from her position as manager of business development at Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum to work as business manager in a position funded by the county as a donation to the nonprofit.

"Gee, you would think it would be the other way around," Usdan comments drolly.

People don't go to Laumeier because of an interest in the political machinations of a dual-governance bureaucracy. They go to enjoy the pastoral grounds and to look at the art. Along with the sculptural forms situated among the trees and green spaces of the park, Laumeier has a small gallery where artists involved in an installation often show work that provides an accompaniment to the site-specific work. For example, when Richard Hunt was hanging his stainless-steel sculpture "Linked Forms" in a grove of trees, a miniretrospective of his career was on view in the gallery. When Terry Allen was placing his bronze conductor upside down beneath an oak, the public was treated to a gallery show that put that sculpted figure in context.

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 1995, however, as the county and the Laumeier board anguished over what to do about a director who would not leave, an exhibition that was curiously outside the customary Laumeier purview appeared. A collection of Brazilian folk art filled the exhibition space -- a remarkable, even significant collection in the eyes of critics and public. But, as a former docent recalls, no one was told to whom this brilliant collection belonged. When the docent queried Nierengarten-Smith, the director told her the collectors wanted to remain anonymous.

But those anonymous collectors were none other than James and Beej Nierengarten-Smith, as was reported by Robert Duffy in the Post-Dispatch in a piece that noted the conflicts of interest inherent in the Brazilian exhibition.

The story of Laumeier and Brazil remains a complicated knot to untangle. According to one former Laumeier board member, "Beej went to Brazil with Laumeier paying the way."

Then why did Nierengarten-Smith and her husband purchase the collection themselves?

One answer to that question goes like this, as provided by a former board member who does not hide her incredulity: "Beej told (Don) Wolff that the old board and Jensen called her in Brazil and told her to come back, but she cashed an IRA and bought all the stuff on her own and had the exhibit anyway because she didn't want to disappoint the public."

Wolff offers another account. He says that according to Nierengarten-Smith, she had been planning the exhibition for five years when "Jensen took the position that they didn't want to do any more exhibits like Brazil." But, Wolff says, Nierengarten-Smith told him the "project had been preapproved and the trip had already occurred. Commitments were made for the nonprofit to buy the art and for the shipping. Enter Jensen, who says, "We don't want this show anymore. Stop. You no longer have the authority.' Beej says, "Oh yes I am.' She makes the trip to Brazil to finalize the show. She has already contracted to purchase work. She decides she will do whatever she can to do the show and pays for the work out of her personal funds."

When the collection arrived, it was stored at the Smiths' home. Wolff refers to "Brazil I," an exhibition "she shows at her house." He says she then discussed with the new board "Brazil II," the show that eventually appeared in Laumeier's gallery, which the board approved. "We liked everything Beej did," Wolff says.

Wolff and other members of the board perceived that the director had been boxed into an untenable situation. But what to do with the work now? Wolff says the board considered buying the work from Nierengarten-Smith, "but what would we do with it?" (a question that, apparently, the previous board had also asked itself -- and answered).

Wolff says the board made a deal with Nierengarten-Smith: She would donate the work to a museum, and the nonprofit would pay for the shipping, handling, appraisal and insurance.

Wolff considers this a lamentable decision, with Laumeier losing an important collection (that it had no use for) and Nierengarten-Smith becoming the subject of a controversy that was not her fault and from which she made no profit (although, according to the tax laws in regard to the donation of art, Nierengarten-Smith and her husband may take a tax deduction for the full market value of the work donated).

At Laumeier, history tends to repeat itself, and before there was Brazil, there was Mexico. "It was not collecting," says former curator Michel Krevenas, "it was shopping indulgence." Nierengarten-Smith began exhibiting Mexican folk art at Laumeier in 1991. Krevenas came on as curator in 1992 but, as with Brazil a few years later, never accompanied Nierengarten-Smith on her art-buying trips. The true assistant curator to Nierengarten-Smith, says Krevenas, is James Smith. "I've never seen as much spousal input as at Laumeier," says Krevenas.

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