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.

However the work was selected, its shipment makes for a curious story. Krevenas and one of her former assistants recall that when work arrived from Mexico for a "Day of the Dead" exhibition in 1992, some of the artifacts were broken. They allege that Nierengarten-Smith then told Krevenas to repack the contents of the shipping container but to throw away the protective packing materials. That way, Nierengarten-Smith told Krevenas, it would make it easier to recover an insurance claim. Krevenas refused. Later, Nierengarten-Smith told Krevenas' assistant to track down the shipper, but to no avail, although it would be assumed that Nierengarten-Smith would have known the shipping arrangements. Nierengarten-Smith never told staff from whom the work was purchased. Nor was it certain to Laumeier personnel to whom the collection belonged. "You couldn't tell what was hers and what was Laumeier's," says the former curatorial assistant.

In 1995, after another Mexican exhibition, says Krevenas, there was the question of what to do with the work -- a predicament that would later arise with the Brazilian collection as well. Nierengarten-Smith's solution was a fire sale, says Krevenas. Art was sold for as little as 75 percent of cost, Krevenas claims, with Nierengarten-Smith setting the prices.

The director apparently determined what would become part of her personal collection as well. A list of artifacts, supplied by a former Laumeier registrar, includes pieces Nierengarten-Smith intended for herself. For example, in addition to the name "Alfonso Castillo Orta 2 Pieces" is written "Buy" and Nierengarten-Smith's signature; next to "Ocumido Artist, Altarpiece" is "Hold," with the signature "Beej." Krevenas and others say notations from Nierengarten-Smith were clear directives to the staff about what art was to become part of her private collection.

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.

It would be incredible to find a government employee so engulfed in allegations of improprieties and who has been the cause of a constant exodus of staff whose power remains undiminished.

"To make Laumeier succeed, you need people, you need money, you need contacts," says one former Laumeier executive-committee member. "But Beej would use people and then discard them. A good leader knows how to say no and keep a friend. This is impossible for Beej. You can't alienate the way she does, especially in a small art community."

Over the years, in this small art community, any number of employees have heard the threat "You'll never work in the St. Louis art scene again" from Nierengarten-Smith.

"For reasons that I can't explain," says Jim Usdan, "there seem to be many people in county government who are afraid of Beej. I don't know why. I could never figure it out."

Dennis Fortna, after he disagreed openly with one of Nierengarten-Smith's decisions, was told by his co-workers, "You must not value your job very much."

"No one ever experiences Cruella De Vil until you become one of her Dalmatians," says Krevenas. "What she's running is a fiefdom."

"She's been a power broker for herself," says Meg Webster.

"The art community is small," says a former curatorial assistant, "and there are so many people who are qualified. The number of people who have gone through Laumeier is sad and comical. If anyone has new ideas, she just laughs in their face."

Ron Flier, a former vice president at Ralston Purina who volunteered his services as a Laumeier docent for several years, says, "The bottom line is, she's an extremely poor manager and I've lost a lot of respect for St. Louis County management because they haven't dealt with that problem. I have absolutely no respect for her at all. It's a horrible waste of a terrific facility to still have her as the head of that organization."

Barb Finch, for many years the head of docents, as well as a member of the board, resigned last fall after the "Cromlech Glen" deaccessioning came to light. "I wrote a letter to Beej and I copied it to Jo Ann Harmon (current Laumeier board president). I said I had really enjoyed my time at Laumeier. I think the park is a treasure, but I can no longer in good conscience put on a name tag that identifies me as a representative of the park and stand up in front of the public and talk about it, because I don't believe that what is going on there is ethical or moral or in anybody's best interest. I had to chose to deassociate with the park, just from an ethical standpoint."

Not only is the St. Louis art world a small one, the art world in general is relatively contained, with a few gatekeepers determining who has access to that world. Numerous artists and former staffers would not discuss their experiences at Laumeier with the RFT, and most of those who did chose to speak not for attribution. Even those not in the arts for the most part chose not to be attributed or spoke off the record. Nierengarten-Smith has powerful allies. Usdan speaks on the record, he says, because he doesn't have to make a living in St. Louis anymore.

Many who chose not to discuss Laumeier asked, "What would be the point?" The complaints and allegations that have gone unheeded over the years have created an ethical exhaustion: Nothing has happened before. Nothing will happen now.

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