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.

Nobody's singing, "Ding-dong, the witch is dead" -- at least not on the record -- but nobody's admitting that anything was wrong, either, or that anyone was responsible for the thornier past. When Goodman is asked to address questions about the "old" Laumeier, he grins and asks, "Why?"

Many of the principals in Laumeier's ongoing quarter-century melodrama -- a group that has excused, ignored or denied park malfeasance and mismanagement for years -- are back on the board for return engagements.

Most significantly, the indomitable Aronson remains. For 25 years he's been the force at Laumeier, which he helped create with then-parks director Wayne Kennedy and local sculptor Ernest Trova. Now, with Nierengarten-Smith gone, he is central to Laumeier's reconstruction efforts. His proprietary hold over the park has not weakened, although he has neither title nor legal claim. Aronson's belief in his right to the Laumeier legacy is reflected in his unsuccessful attempt to lure the St. Louis Art Museum into becoming overseer of the park in return for a $1 million donation. The park was not Aronson's to give, but this did not stop him from making the offer.

Beej Nierengarten-Smith's mistake was believing that her proximity to St. Louis' elite would make her one of them.
Jennifer Silverberg
Beej Nierengarten-Smith's mistake was believing that her proximity to St. Louis' elite would make her one of them.
The wandering "Solstice" made Adam Aronson chuckle.
Jennifer Silverberg
The wandering "Solstice" made Adam Aronson chuckle.

Rebuffed by the museum, Aronson ensured his influence over Laumeier for years to come by helping endow the new director's position, with the University of Missouri-St. Louis pitching in to contribute a professorship to the director as well. Aronson was integrally involved in the search process. Goodman praises Aronson for being "especially helpful -- he did a tremendous amount of background work on these people."

Aronson and the others return as if untainted by the "problems" of the past -- "and there's no point in discussing them." They return in a manner not unlike the way in which Wordsworth described the French going back to the emperor after the Revolution, like "the dog/Returning to his vomit." You can do that in St. Louis, if you have the power, position and privilege to get away with it.

Board chairman Goodman, for example, formerly vice president and chief financial officer for the board since 1996, admits that he was responsible for monitoring Nierengarten-Smith's expenses. In fulfilling this duty, he approved of at least five trips to Santa Fe, N.M. -- at Laumeier's expense -- ostensibly for the director to research Latin American art. Although she and her husband, psychiatrist James Smith, coincidentally were building a retirement home there, Goodman did not see this as a conflict. He had "no concern about her expenses." He considered Nierengarten-Smith a "professional."

However, in 1998, the accounting firm of Ernst & Young reported concerns over expenses in their audit for that year. "The Park has no formal policy for the review and approval of officers' expenses," they noted, although Goodman says, "I was perfectly capable of monitoring her expenses and did so."

In 1998-99, Nierengarten-Smith's expenses exceeded $23,000. Laumeier's tax records for 1999 show $32,000 going to travel expenses alone. The nonprofit paid for the lease on her Jeep Cherokee, including gas and upkeep. Yet Laumeier's 1999 tax record reports that Nierengarten-Smith accrued no expenses.

A $300 Ellen Tracy dress, purchased by Nierengarten-Smith at Dillard's with the Laumeier credit card, would have gone unreported, too, had business manager Judy Metzger not questioned the director about the purchase. Moreover, in her deposition for the Knicely lawsuit, Metzger told attorneys how Goodman had informed her that the director's expenses were "no concern of mine."

Goodman appears incredulous when he hears Metzger's statement, his former euphoria deflated. "Judy Metzger said that?" he asks. "Well, when I say 'none of her concern,' I guess, being vice chairman and chief financial officer as I was, I felt that that was really my function. I don't think I meant that to be rude or anything to Judy. I just felt that it really was none of her business."

Besides, Goodman had another "real professional" keeping track of Laumeier accounting: Frank Megargel, who also happened to be the personal accountant for the Smiths and James Smith's business accountant. Goodman does not explain why, with a cloud of scandal over the park's dealings, the only accountant for Laumeier was also under hire to the Smiths.

Goodman admits that before Nierengarten-Smith was shunted off to write her notes in exile, she was spending money at a time when none was being raised by Laumeier. People had to be paid, so Goodman approved the liquidation of stock in the Laumeier trust, which is a sure sign of an organization in trouble.

But these problems are all in the past -- and there's no point in discussing them.

The present and future belong to those who survive. Who cannot be fired or exiled. Who have the money and power to remain, be heard and stay immune to responsibility.

Laumeier is a nice place. Great art -- truly great art by Borofsky and Stackhouse and Lieberman -- appears juxtaposed marvelously over open fields and wooded trails. Sculptures by Miss and Pepper and Ferrara reveal themselves magically on those trails and change in mood and tone throughout the seasons. Artful yet familiar, Laumeier possesses the charm of a park with the awe of a museum.

But the philanthropy that has provided these charms has been a mask for greed at Laumeier, ever since the sculpture park's inception. No one knows this better than the embittered director, Beej Nierengarten-Smith, and she says so.

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