Deaccessioning Beej

Beej Nierengarten-Smith retires from her position as director of Laumeier Sculpture Park next spring. Her legacy remains in dispute.

"I'm no longer going to be a public person," says Beej Nierengarten-Smith. On May 1, her reign as director of Laumeier Sculpture Park comes to an end. She's retiring after putting in her 20 years as a St. Louis County employee and moving with her husband, psychiatrist Jim Smith, to Santa Fe, N.M. If anyone wants to know what she'll be up to in the Sun Belt city, she says, "You'll have to catch up with me there to find out."

Critics of Nierengarten-Smith's tenure at Laumeier -- of which there are many -- might find some irony in her invitation to catch her, as if anyone could. The embattled administrator has survived perennial controversy. Her board attempted to fire her in 1995. A former employee is suing her. According to her detractors, her concern for the very artwork that makes Laumeier an internationally recognized institution has been impetuous at best, showing a disregard for older work -- allowing decay or even destruction -- in favor of the new. Amid allegations of mismanagement and malfeasance, with a perpetual revolving door of staff exits and entrances, Nierengarten-Smith has been the one constant at Laumeier. If no one's caught up with her here, no one's going to catch up with her in Santa Fe.

Nierengarten-Smith's supporters -- of which there are many as well -- look on a legacy that has produced a world-class institution. Harold Goodman, Laumeier board president, says that in the search for a future director, Nierengarten-Smith is the model. "We'd like somebody with the competence and experience of Dr. Smith," he says by phone from his law office, "because we think a lot of her, and in terms of her abilities with the artwork of the collection, she's done what we consider a marvelous job in bringing Laumeier to the national limelight." Goodman wonders whether the board can find anyone who will be able to fill her shoes. "Dr. Smith was somebody who pitched and caught and played third base. She had to, and she did so from the very beginning, from the get-go. I don't know if we'll be able to find somebody with all those characteristics."

"I have been greatly criticized because of some of the deterioration in the park. Quite frankly, I have no control over that. That's a government issue; that's a county issue," says Laumeier Sculpture Park director Beej Nierengarten-Smith, who is, nonetheless, a county official.
Jennifer Silverberg
"I have been greatly criticized because of some of the deterioration in the park. Quite frankly, I have no control over that. That's a government issue; that's a county issue," says Laumeier Sculpture Park director Beej Nierengarten-Smith, who is, nonetheless, a county official.

In the meantime, Laumeier will have to function with Nierengarten-Smith's duties significantly reduced. Those county employees involved in the maintenance of the facility are now under the supervision of St. Louis County Parks and Recreation official Tom Ott. Nierengarten-Smith is "handling all of the art side," says county parks director Genie Zakrzewski.

Zakrzewski says this change came about through discussions between the two bodies that share governance of the park -- the county Parks and Recreation Department and Laumeier's not-for-profit board. Nierengarten-Smith says that she was involved in those discussions -- "I've always been part of the discussion about what I do" -- and is amenable to the change: "Absolutely. I started talking to the board about a year ago about the procedure for succession and how to develop a new plateau for someone else who should come in and take over stylistically and in every other way and continue to grow the park. Principally, what I'm trying to do is a lot of future referencing and help the board put together a search for a successor, which they haven't done yet but they will."

However, it doesn't sound as if she believes she's turned loose of any of the reins of her directorship. "I don't know that (my duties) have changed that much. I'm still managing the park and still managing the art program."

Laumeier functions, or dysfunctions, under the dual governance of the Parks and Recreation Department and the not-for-profit board. With Nierengarten-Smith's imminent departure, it appears that both the county and the not-for-profit are motivated to forge a workable system that defines who is responsible for what, who pays for what and who is responsible to whom. Laumeier celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer, yet Zakrzewski still calls the governance agreement "a work in progress."

Zakrzewski proposes a clear delineation between the art side of the park (to come under the aegis of the not-for-profit board) and the handling and operation of the physical site (to be managed by the county): "It's the board's money that is responsible for the art, the exhibits, the art programs, those kinds of things. It seems that is the way we need to look at that and see how we can make that work. I do think it will delineate who needs to do what on what side. It seems to me they're bringing the ability to secure the art and the art exhibits and the special-events programs. We have the resources: the site, the park. We need to mow, do the tree maintenance, the building maintenance, help with the setup -- support the art, in other words. They buy the art, and we install. They do the art programs, and we set up and take down. They do the special events, and we do the trash -- keep the park nice, balancing the art with the experience of the art in a wonderful park setting. In theory, that's how we can make it work."

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