A Woman Scorned

Former Laumeier Director Beej Nierengarten-Smith points fingers and names names in her parting shot from THE Sculpture Park. She lets it fly, and some of it sticks.

"I got a chuckle at the Laumeier Board meeting last week, hearing Lou Sachs got his coveted sculpture," retired banker and Laumeier Sculpture Park co-founder Adam Aronson wrote to St. Louis County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall in March 1999. "I could practically see him sticking out his tongue at Beej Smith and saying 'Yah, yah, yah, I got it back, albeit at Faust Park. I got it away from you, begad."'

A copy of this letter can be found within the appendixes of Beej Nierengarten-Smith's 165-page report on the history of Laumeier, submitted to the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Department as fulfillment of her final duty as a civil servant after 21 years as director of the sculpture park. Three thick three-ring binders, filled with long-neglected strategic plans, contracts, catalogs and correspondence, accompany Nierengarten-Smith's report.

The "Confidential Internal Report" was commissioned by county parks director Genie Zakrzewski after she unceremoniously removed Nierengarten-Smith from office last fall. Zakrzewski is one of the few who had the nerve to stand up to Nierengarten-Smith, going so far as to deny her a merit increase in 2000. Zakrzewski characterizes Nierengarten-Smith's notes from exile as a litany of "finger-pointing, editorials, how it was everybody else's fault. She tried to say something bad about every person who was involved. This is her editorial, and I don't know why she did it."

Harold Goodman, chairman of Laumeier: "Whatever problems we've had ... there's no point in discussing them."
Jennifer Silverberg
Harold Goodman, chairman of Laumeier: "Whatever problems we've had ... there's no point in discussing them."

And Nierengarten-Smith did it with the taxpayers supplying her writer's fee, approximately $28,500 -- half her yearly salary as a county civil servant -- right up until her retirement on May 1. "Yeah," Zakrzewski deadpans, "life goes on, I suppose. It's unfortunate."

Few of the documents Nierengarten-Smith has archived are as outlandish, or as telling, as Aronson's missive to Westfall. The Aronson letter reflects shifts in power, or shifts in the attitudes of the powerful, and touches on Laumeier's past, present and future.

It shows how Nierengarten-Smith had fallen in the esteem of Aronson, the man who plucked her from the local public-school system (she had taught at Mehlville High School) to oversee Laumeier, his legacy. He placed her in the high-profile international art world, then defended her from critics throughout her embattled tenure. In 1995, Aronson fought fiercely to keep Nierengarten-Smith in place when the Laumeier board of trustees attempted to sack her.

But only four years after her firing was averted, Nierengarten-Smith had become a joke two old cronies could chuckle over. The sculpture, William King's "Solstice," had been purchased by Chesterfield developer Sachs to be placed on a planned Laumeier annex near his Chesterfield Mall, but with the stipulation that the piece would belong to Laumeier and would eventually be returned to the park. "Solstice" traveled over the years, from Chesterfield to Laumeier and ultimately to Faust Park, not far from Sachs' mall. Nierengarten-Smith vehemently opposed losing "Solstice" to another county park. So the sculpture's final destination leaves Aronson chuckling, imagining a pink tongue stuck in Nierengarten-Smith's face: Yah, yah, yah.

The art world is not as glamorous as people think.

Aronson's letter speaks to Laumeier's future as well. Aronson, the man who gave the sculpture park Nierengarten-Smith, and who declined to speak with the Riverfront Times, has been integrally involved in the selection process of the new director and has partly funded the position with his own money. Laumeier's shady past remains inextricably linked to Laumeier's uncertain future.

Laumeier Sculpture Park is as much a story about St. Louis as it is a story about art.

Hundreds of employees have passed through Laumeier over the last 25 years. Many of them, after experiencing a nightmare working for the park, had to pick up their lives and re-establish themselves elsewhere. Their sufferings involved the imperious director; a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil board of trustees; and a county executive, Westfall, averse to public confrontation. Few who worked in the offices or on the grounds got away easily from Laumeier, except those with the power, position and privilege to allow themselves immunity from responsibility: in essence, a St. Louis story.

One of those employees, former Laumeier business manager Bryan Knicely, after he was fired by those in power, filed suit against Nierengarten-Smith and the board, alleging, among other things, that the director had appraised and shipped her personal collection of Brazilian folk art at Laumeier's expense. A legal dispute with an underling is distasteful to those now touting the "new" Laumeier, especially because the suit is about to be settled, with Knicely receiving compensation.

With a new director hired and a dual-governance agreement forged between the county and the park's nonprofit board, the atmosphere at the "new" Laumeier is significantly more rosy than Knicely found it.

Harold Goodman, a lawyer who became board chairman in 2000, is euphoric. "The attitude today of the board of trustees and the people involved with Laumeier, including the staff, is that it's one of an enthusiastic partnership with St. Louis County," he says, "a feeling that we're moving forward, whatever problems we've had in the past -- and there's no point in discussing them [our italics] -- whatever problems we've had in the past are behind us. The objective now is to move forward. And that's exactly what we're doing."

Next Page »