Kathy Gault left work at Laumeier Sculpture Park as usual. The accountant locked her file drawers and her office before heading home on the evening of Sept. 21. Laumeier had been a tumultuous place to work in recent weeks. The news that the artist Beverly Pepper's earthwork "Cromlech Glen" had been slated for removal by Laumeier director Beej Nierengarten-Smith had gotten to the press and created a public-relations fiasco for the park. Curator Kathryn Adamchick, who had publicly protested the planned deaccessioning of "Cromlech Glen," had been moved to an office that her colleagues described as a "closet." Adamchick's keys were taken away, as was her computer. No Laumeier employee was to speak to her or to the press. That evening, Gault left a workplace that was decidedly tense. She probably didn't realize how much stormier Laumeier could become.
The next morning, Gault found her office door unlocked. Two file cabinets had been opened. Two computer discs, containing payroll and accounting records for 1998-99, were missing. Logging onto her computer, she discovered that two files, containing payroll and financial disbursements, had been deleted. Paper files were missing as well -- artist files, which she kept in a brown file box.
Gault told her supervisor, Melinda Compton, about the missing files around 9:30 or 10 a.m. What Compton, Laumeier's arts- program manager, did then is unclear, but it wasn't until 3 o'clock, five hours later, that she called a St. Louis County Parks and Recreation official, Tom Ott, and told him of the break-in. Ott told her to call the police and the park-ranger office. Compton did not make that call until around 4:30 p.m.
When park ranger Ronald Stoff and Sunset Hills police officer Steven Lucas arrived, Gault had gone home because of an ongoing illness. Compton told Stoff and Lucas that one disc was missing and one computer file had been deleted -- not two missing discs and two deleted computer files -- and she did not mention the missing artist files. She suggested that Gault's file cabinet was "jimmied," although neither Stoff nor Lucas could find any evidence of forced entry.
Lucas would later classify the case as a "miscellaneous incident." He says, "It was a computer file that got lost, but they found it. There was no need for a report. There was nothing intentional, no breaking of the law, anything like that. They just wanted to make us aware that the file was missing and they were going to keep us informed, which they did. Nothing criminal came about."
Lucas, however, did not return to the scene of the "miscellaneous incident," as did park ranger Stoff a week later, to question Gault. Because neither Gault (who is no longer employed by Laumeier) nor Compton (who is) is willing to discuss the incident, the events of Sept. 22 are reconstructed from Stoff's report, filed on Sept. 30 after the park ranger interrogated the Laumeier accountant.
Stoff's report conflicts with Lucas' summation. "To date 09/29/99," Stoff writes, "the above (2) computer discs and artist files have not been found, and believed stolen by persons UNK (unknown) at this time."
There are "no suspects," he concludes.
The mystery of the missing files is emblematic of Laumeier Sculpture Park, with at least two distinct sides to every story. Laumeier functions under dual governance: It is both part of the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation system and comes under its purview, and it is a nonprofit arts institution with a board of trustees (selected by County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall) providing governance and supervision in such matters as art acquisition and conservation. Laumeier employs staff who are paid by the county and who receive government benefits and job security; and it employs staff, paid by the nonprofit, who, given the high turnover rate, are less secure in their positions. Former staffers suggest that the definition of who is county and who is nonprofit is vague, even at the time of an employee's hiring.
The bridge between the two governing bodies is Nierengarten-Smith, the one constant at the institution for some 20 years. Her job encompasses two major concerns: that of an artistic director and curator, and that of a financial officer and corporate manager. For the artistic side of her job, she receives high marks from critics. For the managerial, even her staunchest supporters are hard-pressed for words of praise.
Nierengarten-Smith the artistic director and curator receives accolades from both those who defend and those who question her overall accomplishments. Laumeier is the jewel of the county parks system, perhaps the most pleasing art destination in the region. On any weekend, weather permitting, the park is filled with families, couples, teenagers playing Frisbee, people lounging on the grass or walking the trails and encountering puzzling and fascinating art objects. The sculptures on view represent a who's-who of the international art world, including Vito Acconci, Richard Serra, Mary Miss, Jonathan Borofsky, David Nash, Donald Judd, Terry Allen, Robert Stackhouse, Dennis Oppenheim and Beverly Pepper. Alexander Lieberman's "The Way," the giant red cones that emulate classical ruins, has become a symbol of both the park and the city. Nierengarten-Smith has been at the helm for all these years. Laumeier is not an accidental success story.
Nierengarten-Smith the business manager and administrative officer, by contrast, is wanting for similar praise. Even one of her stoutest defenders, lawyer and former board president Don Wolff, generously compliments her abilities in the art side of her job but says that, as a manager, "she needs to be removed from those other aspects."
It is her handling, or mishandling, of "those other aspects" that recasts the overview of her accomplishments at Laumeier.
Some 30 employees, from a staff of a dozen, left Laumeier from 1997-99 alone. Over the years, the number of former Laumeier staffers still living in the region has reached a point that informal "ex-employee clubs" gather to swap horror stories like veterans of some grueling campaign. They talk of staffers' being prized for loyalty rather than merit. Those who fall into Nierengarten-Smith's disfavor, they claim, are not long for the institution.
Former staffers make more serious charges than office tyranny, however. They talk of the division between personal and professional being blurred by Nierengarten-Smith, with the director taking advantage of her position and purchasing works by artists she exhibits for her private collection -- an activity akin to insider trading on the stock market and deemed unethical by the American Association of Museums (AAM). They talk of art inventory going missing and then being "found" at Nierengarten-Smith's home (a former registrar recalls that "It's at my house" was a frequent explanation). They talk of artists being treated irresponsibly by the director and of more artworks being deaccessioned without the artists' knowledge. They talk of Nierengarten-Smith running Laumeier as her personal fiefdom, using financial resources as she sees fit, regardless of whether donations are restricted toward a specific project. They talk of accounts being altered to show a more amenable financial picture. They talk of a "midnight cleaning lady" -- such as the unknown culprit in the Sept. 22 incident -- who has a history of deleting computer files.
Or, just as often, they don't talk at all, for what would be the use, they say. It's all been said before and nothing has changed. Few will speak on the record. (Nierengarten-Smith herself chooses not to speak to the press and repeatedly denied a request for an interview for this story because of pending litigation.) She's too powerful, and she's too well protected, many people say.
Her list of protectors is formidable. Adam Aronson, former chairman of Mark Twain Bank, prominent art patron and one of Laumeier's founders, is in her camp, as is wealthy businessman and patron Bob Orchard. Don Wolff has come to her defense. Jo Ann Harmon, current Laumeier board president and an Emerson Electric executive, maintains the status quo. Missouri Court of Appeals Judge Larry Mooney, who formerly served in the county executive's office, steered Nierengarten-Smith through her most difficult crisis in 1995. And Westfall, the longtime St. Louis county executive, has seen fit to keep Nierengarten-Smith's directorship secure.
Security of another sort is an ongoing issue at Laumeier. Who would find value in removing accounting records and artist files?
The burglary, or "miscellaneous incident," occurred only two weeks after news broke of plans to bulldoze "Cromlech Glen" ("Pepper Game," RFT, Sept. 8, 1999). During the "Cromlech Glen" fiasco, Judy Aronson -- a member of the board's executive committee who, with her husband, Adam Aronson, helped found Laumeier in 1976 -- asserted that Nierengarten-Smith had been in contact with artist Pepper and her gallery representative, Dale Lanzone for months; when asked, however, Pepper and Lanzone said they hadn't heard from Laumeier in years. Laumeier public-relations director Pete Smith told the RFT that members of the St. Louis County Council had inspected the sculpture and deemed it unsafe. However, no such inspection occurred. Smith then said the county counselor's office actually judged "Cromlech Glen" unsafe on Aug. 31 (long after a letter was sent to Lanzone and Pepper on Aug. 16 informing them of the planned removal). County Counselor John Ross, however, says the Aug. 31 judgment had nothing to do with an assessment of safety but involved a review of the original contract between Pepper and the park.
Other incidents over the last few months have elicited questions about the administration of Laumeier.
On June 24, 1999, Nierengarten-Smith shipped her private Brazilian folk-art collection -- co-owned with her husband, psychiatrist Jim Smith -- to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M., with the costs for shipping, appraisal and insurance -- amounting to more than $11,000 -- charged to the nonprofit.
In July 1999, a lawsuit was filed by former business manager Bryan Knicely against Nierengarten-Smith and the park. Nierengarten-Smith fired Knicely on Dec. 14, 1998, after he had served a little more than a year on the job. In his suit, Knicely alleges that Nierengarten-Smith directed him to change his time sheets to reflect a 40-hour work week rather than the actual hours he'd accumulated. He alleges that she instructed him to alter a profit/loss report for a Laumeier fundraiser to reflect a profit rather than a loss. He alleges that Nierengarten-Smith directed 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. He alleges that Nierengarten-Smith directed him to revise a memo to Laumeier's executive committee to divert attention from a deficit in the December financial reports. His suit also refers to the appraisal costs of the Brazilian folk-art collection, paid by the park.
Knicely also charges Nierengarten-Smith with misrepresenting the status of the business-manager position when he interviewed for the job. Knicely believed that he was hired for a county civil-service position with job security and benefits; however, soon after moving from Columbus, Ohio, and reporting for work, he learned that he was an employee of the nonprofit.
At the time, Knicely probably did not realize what an important distinction that was.
Knicely's allegations are not isolated. Rather, they conform to a disturbing pattern reinforced by many former employees. They reiterate, again and again, Knicely's charge that Nierengarten-Smith kept the distinction between county and nonprofit status unclear. Former Laumeier staffers claim that this was both an issue of control for Nierengarten-Smith and one of her ways of dealing with the dual-government bureaucracy overseeing the park. She could lure candidates with a county position but then hire them with nonprofit funds and blame the county for not supporting the position. Also, if and when employees complained, they didn't know where to turn, the county or the nonprofit.
The revising of time sheets to conform to a strict 40-hour maximum is a charge that is also supported by many former employees. They say that in so doing Nierengarten-Smith deflected questions from the nonprofit board about her budget and got overtime work for nothing.
Former Laumeier staff members also tell of "campaigns" implemented against employees who fell into disfavor with Nierengarten-Smith and her administrative allies, Melinda Compton and Pete Smith -- with former employees such as Knicely and curator Kathryn Adamchick being the most recent victims. The results of those alleged campaigns also reveal the importance of the county/nonprofit distinction. Knicely worked for the nonprofit and was fired; Adamchick worked for the county and was shunted to the Museum of Transportation -- a home for wayward Laumeier employees (another former curator, Michel Krevenas, was reassigned there in 1995).
Laumeier employees rarely stay for very long. One former employee remembers a year of nearly 100 percent turnover at the park. Jim Thompson, treasurer of the Laumeier board, has written letters to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (most recently on Nov. 13, 1999) claiming that the high turnover is the result of Nierengarten-Smith's high standards (although it would seem that if those high standards are so rarely met, then perhaps Laumeier should look into its hiring practices). Many of those employees, however, have gone on to institutions as seemingly concerned about excellence as Laumeier, such as the St. Louis Art Museum, the Regional Arts Commission, the Jefferson Memorial and the St. Louis Effort for AIDS.
Yet the removal of specific personnel -- Knicely, Adamchick, Krevenas and many others who have asked not to be named -- imply causes other than failure to measure up to Nierengarten-Smith's lofty standards. One recent example is Carol Cox, who may hold a Laumeier record for being hired and fired in less than a month.
Cox kept detailed notes of her brief tenure at Laumeier, which she decided to do after she "received various warnings from employees about M. Compton and her relationship w/ B. Smith (director). I was told to watch my back and that it would be difficult for me to do my job because of M. Compton."
Cox had applied for the position of part-time museum attendant (a county position), but after Compton and Pete Smith reviewed her résumé, she was offered the full-time position of gallery and shop manager, a nonprofit position.
Compton told Cox that there would be a six-month waiting period before she could receive any benefits, although Cox learned from a Laumeier accountant that the actual period was 60 days. Compton also informed Cox that there was no budgeting for health benefits in the shop-manager position, although the actual budget detail for the museum shop clearly shows a line item for employee insurance.
Compton also appeared to be changing Cox's official duties. Although the shop manager's job description clearly states that the manager is to "work in conjunction" with the arts-program manager and the information officer (Compton and Pete Smith, respectively) in purchasing and marketing, Compton informed Cox that she and Pete Smith would be handling those duties, independent of Cox. When Cox questioned her on these matters, Compton accused her of "challenging" her authority. Cox says that Compton "told me not to check with other people regarding my duties."
Cox responded with a memo detailing her concerns to Compton on June 22, 1999. After receipt of the memo, Cox was fired by Compton. Immediately after her dismissal, Cox says she observed Compton entering Pete Smith's office, laughing. Cox confronted the two and told them that she "would call the Department of Labor because all I did was inquire about the job description and employee benefits." To this, according to Cox, Smith responded by yelling derisively, "Go ahead -- no one cares!"
As for Nierengarten-Smith's response, Cox says she told Cox "not to make a big stink over this with county."
Cox gave her detailed notes of the incident to county parks-and-recreation official Tom Ott, who failed to act on the complaint because it concerned a nonprofit position and was not within his jurisdiction. Compton and Smith declined comment on Cox's firing.
Bryan Knicely, it seems, also experienced Nierengarten-Smith and company's unique form of personnel management, as well as their demands for "excellence." Knicely came to Laumeier from BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio. Those who worked in the Laumeier offices at the time of his employment believe that whatever excellence he could have contributed to the institution was undermined by Nierengarten-Smith.
Kniceley chose not to discuss his experiences at Laumeier because of his pending lawsuit, but according to various sources, Knicely sought to implement responsible accounting procedures at Laumeier in regard to money handling. This included the coding of donated funds (to firmly differentiate between restricted and unrestricted donations) and maintaining stricter supervision of nonprofit funds used for professional expenses, instituting a system in which each expense would be described in writing and signed for approval.
A former employee who worked closely with Knicely says Nierengarten-Smith responded to his new accounting procedures with disdain. Although some donations that come to Laumeier are restricted to specific projects, such as the Art Fair or the planned children's sculpture garden, Nierengarten-Smith allegedly told Knicely that she would decide where to put the money. All she wanted him to do was to keep track of where it was going. If Knicely questioned one of Nierengarten-Smith's directives, a source says, she told him, "This is where I want it to go." Knicely's concern for year-end audits by Ernst & Young did not faze Nierengarten-Smith, either. "The board and Ernst & Young don't need to know all our business," she allegedly told her business manager.
One of the more serious, and repeated, allegations by former Laumeier personnel is that little or no distinction exists between Nierengarten-Smith's personal and professional business dealings.
For example, Nierengarten-Smith's charges to Laumeier's American Express card for September 1999 reveal a number of expenses that appear to fudge the line between personal and professional: a charge for $21.05 to L.L. Bean, restaurant charges for $606.90 (including a bill for $395 at Tiny's in Santa Fe, N.M.), lodging at the El Rey Inn in Santa Fe for $440.67 and a charge for $31 to Mental Health Resources in Saugerties, N.Y.
Museum directors, like all business professionals, certainly incur professional expenses. But some expenses should have raised red flags. Although Santa Fe is a notable art-world destination, an accountant might ask about the division between personal and professional on this trip. Not only have Nierengarten-Smith and her husband donated their Brazilian folk-art collection to the Santa Fe's Museum of International Folk Art, they have been building a home in Santa Fe, where they plan to move in two years (according to Bakewell Realty, a bid has been placed on their current Westmoreland Place home).
Expenses incurred on Laumeier's American Express for Jan. 1, 1998-Dec. 27, 1999, total $23,363.05 (including a board lunch on May 2, 1998, that came to $1,098.95). Nierengarten-Smith is listed specifically to have incurred $5,927.29 in expenses over this period, including a trip to Brazil -- purportedly with her husband, to plan yet another Brazilian exhibition -- totaling $3,800.
Nierengarten-Smith also charges expenses to a MasterCard, which the nonprofit pays. Charges for June 1999 include not only the shipping for the Brazilian collection ($4,128.64) and a meal at Big Sky ($103.05) but the gas and upkeep of the Jeep Cherokee the nonprofit leases for her. The vehicle was in the shop for repairs totaling $100.95 that month. In the meantime, she leased another vehicle for $287.35.
The blurring between personal and professional occurs in regard to art as well, according to a number of curators and registrars who have passed through Laumeier over the years. Many of them describe the confusion that ensued when they attempted to maintain an accurate art inventory.
A registrar's job is to catalog the artwork, recording data such as title, artist, the work's condition, where the work is kept and where it has been loaned. But Laumeier registrars, when perplexed as to the whereabouts of artwork that appeared to be missing, were typically told by Nierengarten-Smith: "It's at my house."
"You couldn't tell what was hers and what was Laumeier's," says one former registrar.
Former employees also allege that Nierengarten-Smith often purchased work from exhibiting artists for she and her husband's private collection. Numerous artists contacted by the RFT would not comment about their relations with Nierengarten-Smith and Laumeier, but former curators and registrars allege that artists who exhibited at Laumeier knew that a select work from their exhibition would be slated for the director and her husband.
Michel Krevenas, curator at Laumeier from 1992-95, alleges that she was directed to order two sets of the artist Donald Judd's prints: one for Laumeier, one for Nierengarten-Smith. "If Beej doesn't get something out of it," Krevenas claims, "it doesn't go."
And some art just goes. "Cromlech Glen" is not the first endangered artwork at Laumeier. Dennis Fortna served as preparator at Laumeier during the construction of Giuliano Mauri's "La Casa della Memoria (House Remembered)" -- a structure made of branches that twist into the configuration of a tall shelter, completed in 1997. Mauri's choice of material does not imply flimsy construction; he builds works to last at least 20 years. But Fortna has reason to believe "La Casa della Memoria" won't be around that long.
Fortna presents a portrait of an arts institution that does more to impede artists than to facilitate the happy completion of their projects. According to Fortna, Nierengarten-Smith withheld Mauri's requests for materials and labor, which the artist sent from his home in Italy before arriving at Laumeier in the summer of 1997. Fortna says Mauri's letters were kept in a file drawer in Nierengarten-Smith's office. Why the director would act in such a manner is one of Laumeier's mysteries, but those who have worked there allude to her need for control and for confrontation as two possible motives.
For example, Fortna describes a contentious relationship between Mauri and Nierengarten-Smith, a relationship between artist and director that many former employees deem typical at Laumeier. When Mauri arrived at Laumeier with his wife, Fortna sat in on a meeting between Nierengarten-Smith, members of the staff and the artist. During the meeting, Nierengarten-Smith argued with Mauri, insisting that he had agreed to be on site for five weeks. Mauri said this was incorrect -- he had agreed to three weeks, and that was how long he was staying. The artist refused to change his plans, despite Nierengarten-Smith's protestations -- his travel accommodations had been set. Mauri completed the project in the allotted time. Fortna says he later saw the written agreement -- Mauri was contracted for three weeks.
Fortna says the artwork's construction proceeded after considerable effort, along with a hasty redesign plan executed by Mauri because of the lack of preparation. Although Nierengarten-Smith had informed the maintenance crew that Mauri would only require one or two people to create the sculpture, eventually the entire maintenance crew took part in the work, says Fortna.
"La Casa della Memoria" was finally completed, and it remains one of Laumeier's most intriguing monumental sculptures, but even as it was in process, according to Fortna, Nierengarten-Smith told him, "Don't say anything to him (Mauri), but it's coming down in three years."
Whereas "La Casa della Memoria" and "Cromlech Glen" share "endangered" status, Meg Webster's "Pass" joined the ranks of the extinct in 1997.
Like "Cromlech Glen," "Pass" figures significantly in Laumeier's history, so much so that through the years since its installation in 1991, the work has been highlighted in Laumeier brochures and in a 1996 catalog, Perfect Unity, issued by Laumeier's PR office. The innovative environmental-landscape work covered about an acre-and-a-half of land on the southwest edge of the park. It consisted of trees, shrubs, ponds, a spiraling trail, a mound of earth covered with grass, a bowl-like trench filled with native Missouri grasses, and fruit trees.
Unlike the situation with "Cromlech Glen," no one informed the artist that her artwork would be deaccessioned.
"It was an unusual piece for a sculpture park in that it was a planting, a wildlife thing," says Webster from her home in New York City. "I know they kept it up for a number of years, but I didn't know if there are any parts to it still there now."
"Pass" is no more. The mound, the ponds, the hollow filled with grasses -- all have been removed. A few trees and some shrubs remain. "They didn't understand it," says Webster. "It wasn't about keeping up."
Laumeier harnessed a workforce of docents and volunteers, called the "Pass Timers," to do the type of garden maintenance to which Webster objects. "They had some problem with the fact that they couldn't mow it," says Webster. "It wasn't supposed to be mowed."
Laumeier isn't the only institution where Webster has run into such problems with her work. She describes "an emotional connection to it and it has to do with controlling. It has to do with every single institution I've put gardens in front of. They almost can't stand it. Art is a conserving system, and the ground is something else. A lot of my works haven't lasted not because they had to be maintained so well; it was that the institution didn't have a mind for it."
Yet in a Laumeier grant application to the Regional Arts Commission (RAC), under plans for conservation, this is written: "In 1997, conservation efforts will focus on Meg Webster's "Pass.'" "Conservation efforts" have a notorious ring at Laumeier. "Pass" was removed, not conserved. In the conservation plans for 1999-2000, "Cromlech Glen" is listed, ominously, in Laumeier's RAC grant application.
"The biggest complaint I would have," continues Webster, "is that I was not notified of the piece's demise. I should have at least been notified and allowed any photographs to be taken of it.
"I was told it would always be there, that it was a permanent piece."
In Laumeier's own catalog, Perfect Unity, it seems that permanence was part of the park's intention as well. Lynn M. Herbert, author of the essay on "Pass" included in Perfect Unity, concludes with words that are now sadly ironic: "Secure at Laumeier, "Pass' will continue to explore the inextricable bond between humankind and nature. A garden is never finished" -- at least until that "inextricable bond" is extricated and the work is deaccessioned.
"If it hadn't been mowed, it would have been this beautiful wild field with lots of habitat," Webster asserts. "That's the sadness of it -- nobody cared to let it be what it was supposed to be. That's the biggest complaint. It should have never been mowed. It should have been let go. It should at least have had 10 years. If the water system didn't work, it could have been changed.
"All you have to do is keep the water filled, just let the spigot run. I have ponds on the roof of my studio I do nothing to. It's a natural thing. Our control of nature is neurotic.
"Beej is a control freak. She's like everybody as far as that's concerned: Her sense of beauty is an ordered, controlled landscape."
But, in other ways, Nierengarten-Smith's concern for control is not like everybody else's. "When I went over budget," Webster recalls, "they demanded I give them a drawing, which I never have." (A sculptor's preliminary drawings and renderings of a planned work often have considerable value.) "I never did it, but then they never called me to tell me they were taking the piece out, either."
Webster has gone over budget on projects before and since, but she has never had any person or institution demand an additional artwork as recompense.
During the interview, Webster asks whether Alice Aycock's work remains. Aycock's "100 Small Rooms" has also been highlighted by Laumeier in its promotional brochures, yet it also is gone. Apparently the wooden structure was deteriorating. The "conservation efforts" concluded with the dismantling of "100 Small Rooms."
The questionable deaccessioning of valuable artworks, the blurring between personal and professional interests, the high turnover of staff all have been problems for a decade, say former Laumeier board members.
In 1995, the Laumeier board called for Nierengarten-Smith's dismissal after a majority of the board voted for her removal. But the vote backfired, with the eventual removal of the board and the retention of Nierengarten-Smith. Those who were involved at the time provide an intriguing scenario of events.
In 1994, says a former member of the board's executive committee, board president Richard Jensen had determined that Nierengarten-Smith had to go. Nierengarten-Smith thrived in Laumeier's early years, being precisely the type of entrepreneurial manager the fledgling institution needed. But those skills were not so appropriate to the institution Laumeier had become. Jensen concluded that Laumeier needed a more competent manager.
But one member of the executive committee had misgivings. He felt that the momentum toward Nierengarten-Smith's ouster was too swift and haphazard -- anecdotes were being told of temper tantrums, of personal issues, of Nierengarten-Smith's purchasing art from exhibiting artists. "My response to all that was that we're all telling too many stories," the committee member recalls. "We need to do this in an organized way."
The board began to meet nearly every week for several months in 1994, interviewing former and current employees, as well as formalizing criteria the board could agree on that defined a sound director. The requisite skills included curatorial expertise, fundraising abilities, the ability to deal with county and parks officials, the ability to manage staff, the ability to forge partnerships with other arts organizations, and fiscal accountability.
Says one former executive-committee member, "I was shocked that when we did it in a very precise, thorough, deliberate way how badly she graded on everything except curatorial." One grade sheet shows Nierengarten-Smith receiving A's for her knowledge of contemporary sculpture and grant-writing abilities but getting D's and F's in numerous categories, including relationships with artists, her ability to work with the board and her ability to work with parks and recreation, the county executive and the County Council, as well as an F for "a basic understanding of financial matters affecting the institution."
The head of the St. Louis County parks system at the time was Jerry Schober, who was appointed by Westfall. Schober came to the county with considerable respect after serving 30 years in the national-parks system. He was director at the Jefferson Memorial before Westfall's appointment. The Laumeier board chose to enlist Schober as a consultant and liaison to the county executive's office.
A former executive-committee member describes the series of events leading to the board's decision: "Schober assured me we had the support of the county executive (Westfall), and Schober had dealt with Westfall's right-hand person (then assistant Larry Mooney, now an appellate judge). We had the full support of the county. We were told we had the support of Westfall. I kept saying we had to get the county counselor (John Ross) in on this: "These are personnel issues. We need to do this the right way.' Beej was going to be given the choice of resigning or taking a different role (solely as curator).
"We thought we had all our ducks in line. I did not go out and meet with Westfall and the county counselor. I should have. We had a board meeting in early January of '95. A majority vote of the full board (actually a unanimous vote) asked her to resign.
"Beej then called Adam Aronson -- and how Adam has any real clout is still beyond me (although Aronson is one of Laumeier's original founders, sources say his actual contributions to the park in recent years are minimal), but Adam is a bully and a bulldog and not afraid of picking up the phone. Starting the next day, after the meeting, he started working on board members, and he called Westfall. He said, "This woman is great. She's the savior.' Within a month, Schober had resigned, never to be heard from again. Beej kept her job. Later that year the entire board, except for Beej's friends on it, resigned. I'd never seen a political flip-flop as bizarre."
Many of those close to the events of early 1995 believe Schober was fired. "Schober was adamant that he'd never seen a manager in all his years of public service who was as divisive and ineffective as Beej," says the former executive- committee member.
As remarkable as Schober's dismissal (he remains in St. Louis but chose not to be interviewed for this article) was the involvement of Mooney. Members of the executive committee, as well as interim board president Jim Usdan, who replaced Richard Jensen, insist that Mooney was present for many of the meetings where Nierengarten-Smith's qualifications were discussed. "He was very involved," says Usdan. "I had many, many contacts with him. He tried very hard to guide the board into what was possible, what was politically practical and possible. Other than Buzz, he was really the decision-maker. He was very, very involved." But after the vote was taken, Mooney disassociated himself from the board's decision.
After the vote, an extensive campaign was lodged to retain Nierengarten-Smith and to denigrate the Laumeier board. This political and media spin was led by two powerful allies -- Aronson and Orchard -- and Nierengarten-Smith herself. They defined the dispute as a personality conflict between the artistic director and members of the board, especially the board president, Richard Jensen.
In stories in the RFT and the Post- Dispatch, Aronson praised Nierengarten-Smith and referred to Jensen and fellow executive-committee member Jacob Reby as "two little boys squawking because they want their diapers changed.... They don't know anything about art."
Usdan was one of the people Aronson lobbied: "He called me and appealed to everything he could think of. One of the stories is that Adam is the guy who brought Richard Jensen into St. Louis as a banker. Richard committed the unpardonable sin that he felt he had a better career opportunity at NationsBank (where Jensen became president) than at Mark Twain. Adam used to say terrible things about Richard, very unprofessional -- that he wasn't a good banker, that he didn't know anything about art. The truth is, he's a terrific banker and he knows a lot about art. None of us are perfect, but Richard is very involved in St. Louis and trying to improve things."
Aronson made the phone calls and spun the media. Orchard began attending Laumeier board meetings, although he was not a member of the board. "For some reason," recalls Usdan, "as we were getting involved in trying to get a new relationship between the county and the not-for-profit, Bob started showing up at board meetings and just beating the tar out of the board. He was very abusive, very supportive of Beej. His feeling, intellectually, was that the job of a board was to raise money, support the director and keep quiet. There's no governance. His perspective was that we were a bunch of know-nothings. We didn't know anything about art. We weren't any good at raising money, and what the hell were we there for, anyway? "Why don't you just leave Beej alone, let her do the art thing and raise money and support her?' It was very strange. Adam Aronson was pretty much the same boat."
With the county refusing to fire or reassign Nierengarten-Smith, the board proceeded to attempt to redesign the system of governance for Laumeier. "This idea of the park owned by the county and the art owned by the not-for-profit -- that wasn't Beej's fault," says Usdan. "But she used it against the best interests of the park. If she didn't get what she wanted from the county, then she would go to the not-for-profit, and vice versa. There was no real control."
As the board worked to forge a new governance agreement with the county, Usdan says, his relationship with Mooney, who again was taking part in the discussions, were "a little bit strained." According to Usdan, Don Wolff -- a lawyer most recently in the news for negotiating a plea bargain for former state Sen. Jet Banks -- joined the board in part to relieve some of those tensions. Wolff would become the next board president.
"I think there was an honest effort to try to make it work with Beej as the head but with a new system of governance," Usdan recalls, "the thought being, if there was a one-headed monster, so to speak, instead of a two-headed monster, Beej would then be accountable, and under a system of accountability she would either do a good job and the board would retain her or, if she couldn't meet the standard, then the board would make the replacement. But the county never kept up its end of the bargain."
Although Usdan recalls a final agreement's being signed and authorized, Nierengarten-Smith and county officials say otherwise. Wolff says the board wrote "drafts and drafts of reorganization agreements" for three years, but, he says, all that was finally confirmed was that Wolff would "consider reorganization," which he eventually decided was "not in the best interest of the park."
Usdan and others on the board were concerned about fiscal improprieties. One accountant, with experience in prosecutorial investigations, was brought in and told the board it would take $50,000 for a full audit to uncover the mishandling of expenses, art inventory and the misappropriation of funds -- discrepancies a standard audit would overlook. "We didn't think we had to go that way," says a former board member. "We didn't think getting nasty was the way to go about it, but we felt a fiduciary responsibility to test rumors."
"It was our board's recommendation that led to Bryan Knicely's position being created," says Usdan. Now Knicely has been fired and is suing his former employers. Meanwhile, a former member of the Laumeier board who came in after those who attempted to remove Nierengarten-Smith were dismissed -- Judy Metzger -- has moved from her position as manager of business development at Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum to work as business manager in a position funded by the county as a donation to the nonprofit.
"Gee, you would think it would be the other way around," Usdan comments drolly.
People don't go to Laumeier because of an interest in the political machinations of a dual-governance bureaucracy. They go to enjoy the pastoral grounds and to look at the art. Along with the sculptural forms situated among the trees and green spaces of the park, Laumeier has a small gallery where artists involved in an installation often show work that provides an accompaniment to the site-specific work. For example, when Richard Hunt was hanging his stainless-steel sculpture "Linked Forms" in a grove of trees, a miniretrospective of his career was on view in the gallery. When Terry Allen was placing his bronze conductor upside down beneath an oak, the public was treated to a gallery show that put that sculpted figure in context.
In 1995, however, as the county and the Laumeier board anguished over what to do about a director who would not leave, an exhibition that was curiously outside the customary Laumeier purview appeared. A collection of Brazilian folk art filled the exhibition space -- a remarkable, even significant collection in the eyes of critics and public. But, as a former docent recalls, no one was told to whom this brilliant collection belonged. When the docent queried Nierengarten-Smith, the director told her the collectors wanted to remain anonymous.
But those anonymous collectors were none other than James and Beej Nierengarten-Smith, as was reported by Robert Duffy in the Post-Dispatch in a piece that noted the conflicts of interest inherent in the Brazilian exhibition.
The story of Laumeier and Brazil remains a complicated knot to untangle. According to one former Laumeier board member, "Beej went to Brazil with Laumeier paying the way."
Then why did Nierengarten-Smith and her husband purchase the collection themselves?
One answer to that question goes like this, as provided by a former board member who does not hide her incredulity: "Beej told (Don) Wolff that the old board and Jensen called her in Brazil and told her to come back, but she cashed an IRA and bought all the stuff on her own and had the exhibit anyway because she didn't want to disappoint the public."
Wolff offers another account. He says that according to Nierengarten-Smith, she had been planning the exhibition for five years when "Jensen took the position that they didn't want to do any more exhibits like Brazil." But, Wolff says, Nierengarten-Smith told him the "project had been preapproved and the trip had already occurred. Commitments were made for the nonprofit to buy the art and for the shipping. Enter Jensen, who says, "We don't want this show anymore. Stop. You no longer have the authority.' Beej says, "Oh yes I am.' She makes the trip to Brazil to finalize the show. She has already contracted to purchase work. She decides she will do whatever she can to do the show and pays for the work out of her personal funds."
When the collection arrived, it was stored at the Smiths' home. Wolff refers to "Brazil I," an exhibition "she shows at her house." He says she then discussed with the new board "Brazil II," the show that eventually appeared in Laumeier's gallery, which the board approved. "We liked everything Beej did," Wolff says.
Wolff and other members of the board perceived that the director had been boxed into an untenable situation. But what to do with the work now? Wolff says the board considered buying the work from Nierengarten-Smith, "but what would we do with it?" (a question that, apparently, the previous board had also asked itself -- and answered).
Wolff says the board made a deal with Nierengarten-Smith: She would donate the work to a museum, and the nonprofit would pay for the shipping, handling, appraisal and insurance.
Wolff considers this a lamentable decision, with Laumeier losing an important collection (that it had no use for) and Nierengarten-Smith becoming the subject of a controversy that was not her fault and from which she made no profit (although, according to the tax laws in regard to the donation of art, Nierengarten-Smith and her husband may take a tax deduction for the full market value of the work donated).
At Laumeier, history tends to repeat itself, and before there was Brazil, there was Mexico. "It was not collecting," says former curator Michel Krevenas, "it was shopping indulgence." Nierengarten-Smith began exhibiting Mexican folk art at Laumeier in 1991. Krevenas came on as curator in 1992 but, as with Brazil a few years later, never accompanied Nierengarten-Smith on her art-buying trips. The true assistant curator to Nierengarten-Smith, says Krevenas, is James Smith. "I've never seen as much spousal input as at Laumeier," says Krevenas.
However the work was selected, its shipment makes for a curious story. Krevenas and one of her former assistants recall that when work arrived from Mexico for a "Day of the Dead" exhibition in 1992, some of the artifacts were broken. They allege that Nierengarten-Smith then told Krevenas to repack the contents of the shipping container but to throw away the protective packing materials. That way, Nierengarten-Smith told Krevenas, it would make it easier to recover an insurance claim. Krevenas refused. Later, Nierengarten-Smith told Krevenas' assistant to track down the shipper, but to no avail, although it would be assumed that Nierengarten-Smith would have known the shipping arrangements. Nierengarten-Smith never told staff from whom the work was purchased. Nor was it certain to Laumeier personnel to whom the collection belonged. "You couldn't tell what was hers and what was Laumeier's," says the former curatorial assistant.
In 1995, after another Mexican exhibition, says Krevenas, there was the question of what to do with the work -- a predicament that would later arise with the Brazilian collection as well. Nierengarten-Smith's solution was a fire sale, says Krevenas. Art was sold for as little as 75 percent of cost, Krevenas claims, with Nierengarten-Smith setting the prices.
The director apparently determined what would become part of her personal collection as well. A list of artifacts, supplied by a former Laumeier registrar, includes pieces Nierengarten-Smith intended for herself. For example, in addition to the name "Alfonso Castillo Orta 2 Pieces" is written "Buy" and Nierengarten-Smith's signature; next to "Ocumido Artist, Altarpiece" is "Hold," with the signature "Beej." Krevenas and others say notations from Nierengarten-Smith were clear directives to the staff about what art was to become part of her private collection.
It would be incredible to find a government employee so engulfed in allegations of improprieties and who has been the cause of a constant exodus of staff whose power remains undiminished.
"To make Laumeier succeed, you need people, you need money, you need contacts," says one former Laumeier executive-committee member. "But Beej would use people and then discard them. A good leader knows how to say no and keep a friend. This is impossible for Beej. You can't alienate the way she does, especially in a small art community."
Over the years, in this small art community, any number of employees have heard the threat "You'll never work in the St. Louis art scene again" from Nierengarten-Smith.
"For reasons that I can't explain," says Jim Usdan, "there seem to be many people in county government who are afraid of Beej. I don't know why. I could never figure it out."
Dennis Fortna, after he disagreed openly with one of Nierengarten-Smith's decisions, was told by his co-workers, "You must not value your job very much."
"No one ever experiences Cruella De Vil until you become one of her Dalmatians," says Krevenas. "What she's running is a fiefdom."
"She's been a power broker for herself," says Meg Webster.
"The art community is small," says a former curatorial assistant, "and there are so many people who are qualified. The number of people who have gone through Laumeier is sad and comical. If anyone has new ideas, she just laughs in their face."
Ron Flier, a former vice president at Ralston Purina who volunteered his services as a Laumeier docent for several years, says, "The bottom line is, she's an extremely poor manager and I've lost a lot of respect for St. Louis County management because they haven't dealt with that problem. I have absolutely no respect for her at all. It's a horrible waste of a terrific facility to still have her as the head of that organization."
Barb Finch, for many years the head of docents, as well as a member of the board, resigned last fall after the "Cromlech Glen" deaccessioning came to light. "I wrote a letter to Beej and I copied it to Jo Ann Harmon (current Laumeier board president). I said I had really enjoyed my time at Laumeier. I think the park is a treasure, but I can no longer in good conscience put on a name tag that identifies me as a representative of the park and stand up in front of the public and talk about it, because I don't believe that what is going on there is ethical or moral or in anybody's best interest. I had to chose to deassociate with the park, just from an ethical standpoint."
Not only is the St. Louis art world a small one, the art world in general is relatively contained, with a few gatekeepers determining who has access to that world. Numerous artists and former staffers would not discuss their experiences at Laumeier with the RFT, and most of those who did chose to speak not for attribution. Even those not in the arts for the most part chose not to be attributed or spoke off the record. Nierengarten-Smith has powerful allies. Usdan speaks on the record, he says, because he doesn't have to make a living in St. Louis anymore.
Many who chose not to discuss Laumeier asked, "What would be the point?" The complaints and allegations that have gone unheeded over the years have created an ethical exhaustion: Nothing has happened before. Nothing will happen now.
Many in the art community argue that to report on the alleged improprieties places a blemish on the facility as a whole, not just Nierengarten-Smith. Rather than afflict the institution with bad publicity, they figure, it's best to leave things alone.
"It's a nice place," says one former executive-committee member. Former members of the Laumeier board observe that Westfall, whom many describe as "conflict-averse," is not going to get into a fight over an institution that has all the appearance of success.
But as much as Nierengarten-Smith is praised as a curator, acquisitions over the last four years have turned the facility into pockets of clutter rather than an integrated art experience. The area around the administrative offices is a hodgepodge of forms. Recent acquisitions now crowd Mauri's "La Casa della Memoria," which is apparently slated for removal anyway.
Nierengarten-Smith's curatorial abilities have reached the level of myth: the park that Beej built. That myth still carries some weight, so much so that her allies seem to believe her to be irreplaceable: People such as Aronson, Orchard, Harmon, Wolff, Mooney and, apparently, Westfall -- who declined to be interviewed for this story -- have concluded that despite the numerous protestations, she's got what it takes. Politics, it is said, makes for strange bedfellows. Art and politics make for stranger bedfellows still. It's enough to give wealth and power a bad name.
Are complaints about Nierengarten-Smith overblown? Is she just demanding excellence?
Krevenas answers these questions most succinctly: "Everybody in the institution has left but her."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.