LOOKING A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH 

How Laumeier Sculpture Park director Beej Nierengarten-Smith's art collection traveled to New Mexico -- on Laumeier's dime

Laumeier Sculpture Park director Beej Nierengarten-Smith and her husband, psychiatrist James B. Smith, have been avid collectors of contemporary Brazilian folk art. Their collection has been exhibited twice at Laumeier and has decorated their home on Westmoreland Place. This summer they donated the collection to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M.

Barbara Mauldin, curator of Latin American and Native American art at the museum, says Nierengarten-Smith "came to us when she was thinking about putting the collection together about four or five years ago." After using the museum library and consulting with a Santa Fe expert on Brazilian folk art, "Beej went with her husband and followed up on a lot of leads, and they personally bought this collection and paid for it and had it shipped all themselves," says Mauldin. "Beej did a beautiful job -- all the field collecting, the photos, documentation. She and her husband are both very organized people, I would say.

"They approached us a little over a year ago about the possibility of donating the collection to us. It's a huge collection -- 181 items. It's very extensive and fabulous, incredible, beautiful pieces. This is a major collection," says Mauldin.

But as fine as the collection is, Mauldin and the museum did not immediately leap to accept the offer. "At first I was curious, because I had originally had assumed it had been purchased by Laumeier Sculpture Park, because when I work on a project I don't have my own personal funds to go buy things. So I said to my director -- because they approached her with the offer -- I said, we need to have them make it clear to us that they do own the pieces. Apparently there was no question about that."

For the museum, the collection is a perfect fit, complementing Brazilian folk art it already possesses. And it's apparently also a good deal for the Smiths, who, according to Mauldin, "are planning to relocate to Santa Fe." They are in the process of building a new home there, and James Smith will be moving his practice with them, Mauldin says.

The whole scenario appears rather rosy for all parties involved, except for some quirky details to be found in Laumeier's bookkeeping records. According to those records, Nierengarten-Smith paid more than $11,000 of appraisal and shipping costs for the Brazilian-folk-art collection out of Laumeier funds.

In May 1998, Nierengarten-Smith signed an appraisal agreement with Susan Lerer, a Los Angeles art appraiser, and signed a check for $1,000 from Laumeier funds as a retainer. Lerer inspected the collection over the course of six days and addressed an invoice for $6,600 to Nierengarten-Smith's home address. The collection is described as "Beej Nierengarten-Smith's Ethnographic Art objects" on the invoice. Below the list of expenses is a reminder that the fee for appraisal is tax-deductible. Contacted at her home in Los Angeles, Lerer says she never presumes who is the owner of work she appraises. She says that Nierengarten-Smith contacted her for the appraisal and that Nierengarten-Smith was the client. Lerer inspected the collection in the home of Nierengarten-Smith and her husband.

Bookkeeping records show that $6,600 was paid to Lerer with Laumeier funds in January 1999.

The collection was shipped to New Mexico by Dynamic Packing and Logistics at a cost of $4,128.64 on June 24. This fee was charged on Laumeier's credit card by Nierengarten-Smith.

A number of these details -- although with some discrepancies in actual amounts -- appear in a personal-injury suit brought against Laumeier and Nierengarten-Smith by a former Laumeier business manager, Bryan Knicely. The suit was filed in St. Louis Circuit Court in July by Knicely's attorney, Maria Perron.

Knicely was working as an accountant in Ohio when he applied for the position of business manager at Laumeier in February 1997. According to the suit, Nierengarten-Smith informed Knicely that he would be a civil-service employee, paid by St. Louis County, and would receive health and retirement benefits and job security.

With these assurances, Knicely left his job in Ohio and began working at Laumeier on Sept. 29, 1997. However, according to his suit, he found that what Nierengarten-Smith told him was untrue. He was an employee not of the county but of Laumeier, which is a nonprofit organization. Knicely found himself in St. Louis in a job without the benefits Nierengarten-Smith told him he would receive and, as he would eventually discover, without the promised job security.

Knicely alleges that several incidents occurred in the fall of 1998, directly before his firing on Dec. 14 of that year. Among those allegations:

· That Nierengarten-Smith told him to alter his personal time sheet to reflect a 40-hour workweek rather than the 58 hours he'd actually accumulated.

· That Nierengarten-Smith told him to alter a profit/loss report for a Laumeier fundraiser and preview party to reflect a profit of $1,545 rather than a loss of $2,057.

· That Nierengarten-Smith told him to alter personnel reports to reflect fewer employees over four preceding years and to code certain jobs as replacement positions when they were not.

· That Nierengarten-Smith told him to revise a memo to Laumeier's executive committee to divert attention from a deficit in the December financial reports. The suit states that Nierengarten-Smith told Knicely to "place the burden of the deficit on a shortfall in funding when in fact the deficit was due to overspending on park renovations," which she had approved.

But Knicely's most serious allegation refers to Nierengarten-Smith's personal collection of Brazilian folk art. Knicely alleges that Nierengarten-Smith told him to place the appraisal fee ($5,099 is the figure stated in the suit) for her personal collection as a Laumeier expense.

Knicely alleges that Nierengarten-Smith suspected he was going to blow the whistle on this transaction and that this is why he was fired.

Neither Knicely nor his attorney will discuss the case while it is pending. Nierengarten-Smith has not returned phone calls from the RFT.

A former employee of Laumeier describes Knicely as "a good business manager who looked into things." Another, who began employment at the park not long before Knicely's dismissal, says, "I thought very well of him, but the campaign had already been under way to get rid of him."

"Campaigns" against employees who are in disfavor with Nierengarten-Smith, administrative assistant Melinda Compton or public-relations director Pete Smith are common, according to a number of former staff members at Laumeier, of which there are many. "There are hundreds," one former employee says. And "hundreds" may not be an exaggeration. According to one source, some 30 employees have left Laumeier, which has a staff of about a dozen, since 1997. Staffers rarely remain longer than a year, leaving either of their own volition or after a "campaign" has been waged against them, it is alleged.

In Knicely's case, one former employee says, "The problems with Bryan were personal. Melinda despised Bryan." Another says that Compton, Nierengarten-Smith and Smith were "openly rude to him and worked to keep him out of the loop intentionally." After Knicely's firing, one former staffer reports, "Beej called people into the office in pairs and explained that she had "stopped a problem from happening.' She said the board had asked for information that Bryan hadn't been able to give them."

Many former staffers direct charges of "unprofessionalism" at Compton and Smith. Both graduates of Maryville University, the two are close friends, sources say, and "act like an old married couple." Not a happily married old couple, though, with one source reporting frequent displays of "pushing, yelling, fighting and screaming." Another former employee describes them "like a tag team when they want to get on you."

Smith says of these allegations, "That's odd. I've never heard of that. To be honest, reasons why employees leave, I always gather that they have moved on to separate positions, career moves. The only comment I can say on mine and Melinda's relationship is that we're professionals and we do the day-to-day business of Laumeier."

Compton has not returned calls from the RFT.

The day-to-day business of the sculpture park continues to evolve. Last week it was reported ("Museum of the Absurd," RFT, Oct. 13) that Judy Metzger was hired by Laumeier to oversee business and managerial duties. Mac Scott of the St. Louis County executive's office reported that Metzger was hired by Laumeier's board and would be paid out of the nonprofit's budget. But on Oct. 14, County Executive Buzz Westfall recommended to the County Council that Metzger be contracted through the county, per the Laumeier "Board's assessment and recommendation."

It seems Westfall and Laumeier's board agree that Metzger should get the benefits and job security that Knicely didn't.

Near the close of the day on Tuesday, Oct. 19, a statement from Laumeier's executive committee was hand-delivered to the offices of the RFT. According to the official statement, Metzger has been hired as business manager to report to Nierengarten-Smith. The executive committee also expresses that "the board and the director enjoy a relationship of mutual respect and trust."

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