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.

Exile has often been the source of potent literature, be it by Ovid or Dante or Ahkmatova. Nierengarten-Smith's "Confidential Internal Report" doesn't have the ring of the Eclogues or The Divine Comedy or "Requiem," but it's a page-turner.

Nierengarten-Smith lets the shit fly. Her report is a victim document throughout, beginning with the title page, where the banished director complains that she was denied access to Laumeier files "to accurately check the statements made in this report."

"I have not a clue as to why she made that statement," Zakrzewski retorts, noting that the heft of those three-ring binders proves Nierengarten-Smith had plenty of documentation at her disposal.

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."

The former director's history of Laumeier compares to the afflictions of Job. She bemoans the ineptitude of the county maintenance crew, which "treated the sculpture no better than fence posts." She notes the "numerous requests" it took to get a handrail built in the office stairwell and the time she spent in the state's surplus-furniture store in Jefferson City, finding herself in "the unheated state warehouse" like a scavenging waif picking through leftovers. She even comes in conflict with the very ground on which the Laumeier gallery and offices stand. After 21 years, she exclaims, "The hill, however, remained too steep for anyone except a sturdy hiker."

She may not be Ovid or Dante or Ahkmatova, but in response to slights and slanders, Nierengarten-Smith is ready with a well-honed phrase. In describing the political pressures of county budget cuts in 1979, she writes, "There was a mad scramble for territory and resources, and Laumeier was not in the race. In a manner of Shakespearean tragedy, the stage was set and the characters in place."

Not quite iambic pentameter, but she does arrive at a surprising rhyme.

Nierengarten-Smith liberally heaps metaphor on those who've opposed her, such as the hundreds of employees she either dispatched or who leapt Laumeier's walls on their own: "intrigue from former disgruntled staff members was chewing at Laumeier's heels."

The press did some chewing as well, and their sour reflections inspire Nierengarten-Smith's prose. The Post-Dispatch's Robert Duffy "took a position against crafts, ethnic art, folk art, special events," and his critical successor, Jeff Daniel, "willingly continued to perpetuate the Duffy blockade." Kevin Horrigan gets special excoriation. When Horrigan worked for the short-lived Sun, he wrote a negative article about an NEA grant going to Terry Allen, an artist Laumeier had commissioned. Nierengarten-Smith did not forget it. "At this writing," Nierengarten-Smith reflects, "Horrigan is currently writing for the Post and so ignorance has come full circle."

Nierengarten-Smith's notes from exile would be the stuff of tabloid entertainment, or a fascinating psychological blueprint of victimology, but as widely as she lets it fly, some of that shit sticks.

Laumeier functioned as a vehicle for all sorts of wheeling and dealing of an unartistic nature, as documented in Nierengarten-Smith's three-ring binders. At the center of these schemes was founder Adam Aronson.

In 1978 Aronson formed a syndicate with seven partners (Robert Baudendistel, John Dubinsky, Bob McKelvey, David Mesker, Fred Pillsbury, Al Siteman and Lou Sachs) to purchase 20 acres of woodland adjacent to the park, at a cost of $184,000, to protect it from encroaching development. Over the ensuing years, site-specific sculptures by Jackie Ferrara, Robert Murray, Mary Miss and Beverly Pepper were installed on the property, solidifying its value to the county park. After the property served as a tax deduction for the syndicate for eight years, in 1986 the land was sold to the county for $400,000. Some of the members, including Aronson, donated their profits from the sale to the Mark Twain Endowment Fund, set up and controlled by Aronson. Sachs demanded and got his investment back, apparently still miffed about losing to Laumeier "Solstice," the sculpture he purchased for the Chesterfield Mall. Aronson's letter to Westfall, in which he chuckles over the final installation of "Solstice" at Faust Park, reveals more of the curious atmosphere in which Aronson and Laumeier functioned.

In the letter Aronson explains to Westfall that Sachs had agreed to develop a Laumeier annex near the Chesterfield Mall, with Sachs to purchase a sculpture per year for five years, exhibiting the works in Chesterfield before gifting them to Laumeier Park. With this agreement, Aronson says, Sachs instructed him to pursue the purchase of "Solstice," "because he expected I could buy it for less" than the asking price.

"I went to the dealer who then talked about a $100,000 price," Aronson continues. "I reminded her that we had discussed it when it was, I believe, still at the Chicago Art Fair and that she agreed to a $35,000 price if it went to Laumeier where she felt it would be good for the artist to have a piece. I so arranged."

Aronson, with Lau-meier's name and Sachs' money, managed to buy a $100,000 sculpture for $35,000. After this, the tale gets murky. For some unexplained reason, Nierengarten-Smith placed Sachs' son on the Laumeier board and, continues Aronson in his letter to Westfall, "took him to Chicago with her to teach him fundamentals about sculpture at the Chicago Art Fair. I then gave him many hours of time, showing him various pieces of sculpture that were then available for Laumeier at very good prices."

« Previous Page
Next Page »