"I'm no longer going to be a public person," says Beej Nierengarten-Smith. On May 1, her reign as director of Laumeier Sculpture Park comes to an end. She's retiring after putting in her 20 years as a St. Louis County employee and moving with her husband, psychiatrist Jim Smith, to Santa Fe, N.M. If anyone wants to know what she'll be up to in the Sun Belt city, she says, "You'll have to catch up with me there to find out."
Critics of Nierengarten-Smith's tenure at Laumeier -- of which there are many -- might find some irony in her invitation to catch her, as if anyone could. The embattled administrator has survived perennial controversy. Her board attempted to fire her in 1995. A former employee is suing her. According to her detractors, her concern for the very artwork that makes Laumeier an internationally recognized institution has been impetuous at best, showing a disregard for older work -- allowing decay or even destruction -- in favor of the new. Amid allegations of mismanagement and malfeasance, with a perpetual revolving door of staff exits and entrances, Nierengarten-Smith has been the one constant at Laumeier. If no one's caught up with her here, no one's going to catch up with her in Santa Fe.
Nierengarten-Smith's supporters -- of which there are many as well -- look on a legacy that has produced a world-class institution. Harold Goodman, Laumeier board president, says that in the search for a future director, Nierengarten-Smith is the model. "We'd like somebody with the competence and experience of Dr. Smith," he says by phone from his law office, "because we think a lot of her, and in terms of her abilities with the artwork of the collection, she's done what we consider a marvelous job in bringing Laumeier to the national limelight." Goodman wonders whether the board can find anyone who will be able to fill her shoes. "Dr. Smith was somebody who pitched and caught and played third base. She had to, and she did so from the very beginning, from the get-go. I don't know if we'll be able to find somebody with all those characteristics."
In the meantime, Laumeier will have to function with Nierengarten-Smith's duties significantly reduced. Those county employees involved in the maintenance of the facility are now under the supervision of St. Louis County Parks and Recreation official Tom Ott. Nierengarten-Smith is "handling all of the art side," says county parks director Genie Zakrzewski.
Zakrzewski says this change came about through discussions between the two bodies that share governance of the park -- the county Parks and Recreation Department and Laumeier's not-for-profit board. Nierengarten-Smith says that she was involved in those discussions -- "I've always been part of the discussion about what I do" -- and is amenable to the change: "Absolutely. I started talking to the board about a year ago about the procedure for succession and how to develop a new plateau for someone else who should come in and take over stylistically and in every other way and continue to grow the park. Principally, what I'm trying to do is a lot of future referencing and help the board put together a search for a successor, which they haven't done yet but they will."
However, it doesn't sound as if she believes she's turned loose of any of the reins of her directorship. "I don't know that (my duties) have changed that much. I'm still managing the park and still managing the art program."
Laumeier functions, or dysfunctions, under the dual governance of the Parks and Recreation Department and the not-for-profit board. With Nierengarten-Smith's imminent departure, it appears that both the county and the not-for-profit are motivated to forge a workable system that defines who is responsible for what, who pays for what and who is responsible to whom. Laumeier celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer, yet Zakrzewski still calls the governance agreement "a work in progress."
Zakrzewski proposes a clear delineation between the art side of the park (to come under the aegis of the not-for-profit board) and the handling and operation of the physical site (to be managed by the county): "It's the board's money that is responsible for the art, the exhibits, the art programs, those kinds of things. It seems that is the way we need to look at that and see how we can make that work. I do think it will delineate who needs to do what on what side. It seems to me they're bringing the ability to secure the art and the art exhibits and the special-events programs. We have the resources: the site, the park. We need to mow, do the tree maintenance, the building maintenance, help with the setup -- support the art, in other words. They buy the art, and we install. They do the art programs, and we set up and take down. They do the special events, and we do the trash -- keep the park nice, balancing the art with the experience of the art in a wonderful park setting. In theory, that's how we can make it work."
Nierengarten-Smith hedges at giving validation to Zakrzewski's theory: "It's a possibility. I wouldn't discard anybody's -- she is the parks director ...
"I don't know if you ever roomed with anybody and if you ever drew a chalk line down the middle and said, 'If you cross to my side of the bedroom, your lights go out.' In order to make this successful, I think there has to be real, real agreement about how you're going to operate. That's all I can really tell you. I don't think you can grow trees and ignore the sculpture that's under it. I think you have to work very hard to try and get it to work together.
"On the other hand, when it comes to matters of who's going to pay for what -- and sometimes that is a big question -- the county parks department, by definition, probably wants to make sure they're paying for trees and park and they're not paying for art."
The dilemma with Zakrzewski's facile delineation of responsibilities, NierengartenSmith believes, is when the physical art is also part of the physical park. Beverly Pepper's "Cromlech Glen" is an example: a mound of soil and grasses that Nierengarten-Smith proposed deaccessioning last summer, before the artist got word of it.
When the art is also part of the park site, says Nierengarten-Smith, "There you have a real challenge, and that's why you need somebody who is wise and well informed and courageous" as the new Laumeier director. "I have been greatly criticized because of some of the deterioration in the park. Quite frankly, I have no control over that. That's a government issue; that's a county issue." Nierengarten-Smith says this even though she is a county official.
Nierengarten-Smith says she has no idea as to why a governance agreement between the county and the not-for-profit is still unresolved: "Boy, I tell you, I'm the wrong person to ask that question. If you've got a good contact at county government, I'd talk to somebody at county government. I have to tell you, that's an inside question I don't have the answer to." It hasn't been for lack of trying, she says. Back in '95, when the board that attempted to have her fired dissolved, Nierengarten-Smith says that she, then-parks director Bob Hall and former board chairman Don Wolff worked to resolve key questions: "We were all very dedicated to sorting out some of the issues you wrote about ("Queen Beej," RFT, Jan. 19) -- who's in charge of what and who should be cutting the grass and who should be making the decisions about art."
So over the next few months, the county and the Laumeier board will finally decide who should cut the grass. In the meantime, more than Nierengarten-Smith's job description has changed. Laumeier board chairman Jo Ann Harmon has resigned. The business-manager position at Laumeier, funded by the county, has been left vacant since Judy Metzger resigned last spring. Another county-funded position, administrative assistant, has been eliminated since Melinda Compton was transferred to the North County Recreation Complex. Nierengarten- Smith says she was not consulted on Compton's transfer and that no one is available to fill her responsibilities.
The county isn't going to be filling those positions anytime soon, at least until that governance agreement gets resolved. As to the future directorship of Laumeier, Zakrzewski says, "It makes sense that the artistic director, if we keep that title in that position -- and I shouldn't say 'we'; if the board is so inclined -- it seems to make the most sense that the person responsible for the art needs to be reporting to the board. And the person responsible for the site -- that person needs to be on the county side."
Nierengarten-Smith's proposed job description for her successor is less specific: "Wisdom at the top, caring, passion and a practical management theory."
To Laumeier board chairman Goodman, that means someone just like Nierengarten-Smith. To her detractors, it means anyone but.