Director's Cut

Beej Nierengarten-Smith packs up her Laumeier Sculpture Park office and goes home

Dec 13, 2000 at 4:00 am
I was just thinking about you. That is absolutely amazing!" says Beej Nierengarten-Smith, answering a telephone call from the RFT at her home.

Sweet thoughts?

"Yeah, it was more professional -- more about writing, that's all. I was just thinking about you."

To be in the longtime Laumeier Sculpture Park director's thoughts -- especially after a series of articles filled with allegations of malfeasance and mismanagement under her tenure -- is not a comforting idea, but Nierengarten-Smith's noted charm (rather than her notorious fury) is on display. "What's up?" she inquires jauntily.

What's up is that Nierengarten-Smith is no longer director of Laumeier, the institution she has run for all but four of its 25 years of existence. Without any official fanfare, Nierengarten-Smith has been quietly deposed -- or, rather, has been reassigned by her employer, St. Louis County Parks and Recreation director Genie Zakrzewski. As of Nov. 1, Clara Collins Coleman, former registrar, serves as acting director. Nierengarten-Smith has moved out of the Laumeier offices, and, according to Coleman, is "no longer working with us." In a week of such bang-up announcements as a $40 million gift to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Nierengarten-Smith's departure uncharacteristically figures in the whimper category.

"Beej is doing a special project for me," says Zakrzewski. "Obviously she's retiring May 1. What I thought would be helpful and something good to have for our archives -- since we're celebrating 25 years in '01, I want a history of how [Laumeier] began, how it formulated through the years, where we are from then to now and where we might be going down the road. That's her assignment."

Harold Goodman, chairman of Laumeier's not-for-profit board, which shares governance of the park with St. Louis County, alters the scenario slightly: "Beej has retired, in effect." Although the board is involved in the search for her successor, he says, "We had to have a director, and Clara Coleman was on the staff and has considerable experience in museum leadership, so the board named her as acting director." Nierengarten-Smith's reassignment was entirely the county's decision, according to Goodman: "The board had nothing to do with it."

In the meantime, Laumeier's board and the county continue their negotiations on how to best delineate the responsibilities of the dual governance of the park. Goodman and Zakrzewski concur that these discussions are entirely amicable, and both parties are agreeing, at least conceptually, on the presumption that the county will retain the groundskeeping duties and provide support for the board's artistic endeavors. "I don't think we have any disagreements with one another," says Goodman. "The county has been extremely supportive and of great assistance to us during this transition period. We have every reason to believe it's going to be a very workable partnership between us."

But for all the expressions of good feeling, it hasn't always been so convivial between the county parks and the not-for-profit board. The disagreements haven't all been about who cuts the grass and who maintains the art, either. Nierengarten-Smith has been at the center of disputes between county and board, and if negotiations have grown more civil between the two recently, the absence of her influence has been a factor. Moreover, a change in not only the director but who employs the director has transformed the political dynamics of Laumeier. Nierengarten-Smith worked for St. Louis County. Acting director Coleman works for the not-for-profit board, as will whomever is chosen as Laumeier's future director. Goodman explains the reason for this change: "It's somewhat of an awkward situation when you have a county employee responsible to St. Louis County but under the direct supervision of the board. It doesn't make a lot of sense."

There's probably a collective smacking of the forehead by former Laumeier employees, former board members and county officials hearing that statement. They've been making that argument for years. No, it doesn't make sense, unless the director has derived some political advantage by being an employee of one entity while being under the direct supervision of another.

The most dramatic example of how Nierengarten-Smith adapted favorably to that "awkward situation" came five years ago, when the not-for-profit board members tried to fire her because of what they deemed her failings as a manager. But, because she was an employee of the county, she remained -- because of a lack of political will on the county's part and friends in high places on Nierengarten-Smith's part -- and the offending board was removed instead. Nierengarten-Smith turned that awkward situation into a political reversal as smooth as a judo throw.

According to former Laumeier employees -- a list substantial enough to staff another large museum -- Nierengarten-Smith played the dual-governance system in ways that provided her with ultimate authority on all matters relating to the park. In matters of personnel, loyalty rather than performance was the primary virtue. Those not-for-profit employees who fell into disfavor were either harried out or departed of their own free will as soon as their résumés attracted another institution.

Those with the supposed job security of county positions fared no better if they proved disloyal. For years, the Museum of Transportation served as a Siberian depot for county employees exiled from Laumeier by Nierengarten-Smith. Most recently, former curator Kathryn Adamchick found herself at the MOT waystation after she blew the whistle on plans to remove Beverly Pepper's earthwork "Cromlech Glen" in the summer of '99.

"If she couldn't get what support she wanted from the county," former Laumeier board member Jim Usdan told the RFT, "then she would go to the not-for-profit, and vice versa. There was no real control." Nierengarten-Smith further profited from Laumeier's dual governance by receiving a county salary and benefits package along with substantial perks from the not-for-profit.

Signs of Nierengarten-Smith's waning authority have appeared in recent months, however. The county created a business-manager position for Laumeier, but when Judy Metzger resigned from that role, Zakrzewski, exhibiting some authority of her own, decided the position would not be refilled. Two Beej loyalists, former PR director Pete Smith and administrative assistant Melinda Compton, were removed from Laumeier as well. Smith was taken off the county payroll, and Compton was reassigned to the North County Recreation Complex by Zakrzewski, without Nierengarten-Smith's consultation.

Yet, having packed up her office to spend her last months as a county employee in the comfort of her own home, Nierengarten-Smith exhibits none of the characteristics of a lion in winter. Despite what the head of county parks or the Laumeier board chairman or Laumeier's acting director may say, according to Nierengarten-Smith, "I'm artistic director. That means I'm in charge of the arts program until May 1, and then I'm gone."

Nierengarten-Smith says that vacating her office "wasn't any big deal -- just a lot of books." She also supports the decision to make the Laumeier directorship a not-for-profit position: "A wonderful idea."

So between now and the first of May, she says, "I'm working on the 25-year compendium. Not very exciting, but also very necessary. Twenty-five years of exhibits, collecting, decision-making, policies -- everything you ever wanted to know about Laumeier, 25 years of it.

"I am going ahead and getting it done, since I am the person who knows."

The Laumeier history, like all history, is to be written by the victor.