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.

Sachs' son didn't seem to take to all this tutelage, however. The next sentence reads cryptically, "Shortly thereafter, there was a problem and Lou's son left Sachs Properties. They never purchased another piece."

Five years later, when Nierengarten-Smith still held sway over Westfall, she wanted her sculpture back and got it. In 1998, however, her influence with Aronson and Westfall had diminished, and "Solstice" was moved to Faust, precipitating Aronson's chuckle.

This was no way to run a sculpture park.

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."

But Laumeier was a muddled concept from the start. After Aronson hired Nierengarten-Smith as director, he informed her that the board he had assembled was "in name only"; she couldn't expect any fundraising out of them.

In Aronson's mind, the only service the nonprofit was going to pay for was shipping and handling of artwork. Aronson and co-founder Trova were not interested in creating a museum facility -- as Nierengarten-Smith envisioned Laumeier -- but in forming an open-air gallery to exhibit blue-chip art among Trova's sculptures and then selling some of that work to local collectors. "It was less important to the founders and the board that the selection of the art program at Laumeier be based on scholarship," writes Nierengarten-Smith, "than on advertising certain selected artists who would buttress the Trova collection."

Laumeier would be Aronson and Trova's gallery, with the county paying the maintenance and the board paying solely for transportation costs for works on loan. The bizarre nature of such an enterprise can be seen in Laumeier's early years. A Jean Dubuffet sculpture was accepted on loan from a gallery in Belgium in partnership with local art dealer Ron Greenberg. Laumeier paid shipping and repair costs, then Greenberg sold the work to local collector Martin Margulis, absconding with the piece one summer night. Nierengarten-Smith includes in her appendixes a salty letter she had sent to Greenberg demanding her shipping costs back, which were never received.

Without a fundraising board, Laumeier in the early '80s "took out a loan with Mark Twain Banks," which conveniently happened to be Aronson's bank, "to pay the organization's bills," reports Nierengarten-Smith. "The loan was later repaid when outstanding grant money was paid." When it became obvious that the sculpture park's financial situation was unworkable, then-board chair David Mesker and Nierengarten-Smith decided it was prudent to raise $5 million for operating expenses. Aronson, in another letter in Nierengarten-Smith's archives, aborts the plan, saying it was the county's job to raise the money.

The new director found herself the head of a sculpture park nobody wanted to pay for, with a founder who believed the park was for himself and his friends. A plan for a new building at Laumeier was canceled when Aronson and the board rejected the county's choice of architect (Barry Thalden) in favor of one of their own (architect and fellow board member Gene Mackey), even though the structure was to be built with the county's money.

According to Nierengarten-Smith, with a friend like Aronson she didn't need enemies. "Richard Tombough, the director of A&E (Arts and Education Council) in 1979," Nierengarten-Smith remembers, "told the museum director that there would be no funding for Laumeier because of Aronson." She also paraphrases a report from a development consultant hired by Laumeier: "The major representative of the program, Aronson, had many enemies as a result of personality and the banking business. Unfortunately, the consultant continued, the museum director was contaminated by this situation."

Aronson made promises to Nierengarten-Smith he did not keep. Her list includes a $500,000 grant from the A&E that never materialized, as well as a $250,000 operating budget that never existed. She came on with no budget, no staff and debt from a previous exhibition and designs but no funding for Lieberman's monumental "The Way."

Yet somehow Laumeier came to be, and remains, a great artistic treasure. Nierengarten-Smith managed to construct an epic creation over the years. Had she not become so enamored of her sleight-of-hand work, grown so dismissive of the help, turned so arrogant toward those in charge of oversight, she would not have found herself in exile, writing from her spleen. You can practically see Nierengarten-Smith sticking her tongue out at her old mentor and saying, "Yah, yah, yah, I got you back, albeit only in this report. I got you back, begad."

Her most tragic mistake was believing that her proximity to St. Louis' elite would make her one of them and, like them, immune to responsibility. Nierengarten-Smith truly gave her life to the park, but as Laumeier celebrates 25 years, she's not invited to the festivities.

Nierengarten-Smith's notes from exile are not the only documentation of mismanagement, and possible illegalities, at Laumeier. Business manager Bryan Knicely was fired in December 1998 and brought suit against Nierengarten-Smith and the nonprofit board in July 1999. He alleged that Nierengarten-Smith offered him a position as a county civil-service employee. He moved to St. Louis from Columbus, Ohio, with that assurance in 1999.

Knicely soon learned about the issues of dual governance of the park. Although a few Laumeier employees, including Nierengarten-Smith, work for the county, others work for the nonprofit board, receiving fewer benefits and less job security.

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