On Aug. 16, Beej Nierengarten-Smith, director of Laumeier Sculpture Park, met with members of her staff to discuss conservation problems with various works in the collection. One of those was Beverly Pepper's earthwork "Cromlech Glen," a piece that has been a part of the park's collection since 1985.
"Cromlech Glen" is a site-specific piece made of earth, grasses and stone. When viewed near its base, "Cromlech Glen" appears to be two steep walls of earth and grass, with stone steps leading to the rim of a wide oval. A narrow entryway between the walls opens to a soft lawn that rises along with the slope of the hillside like a small natural amphitheater. Viewed from above on the wooded trails nearby, "Cromlech Glen" appears to be an oval of grass, until the trail descends and the dimensions of the artwork become more apparent.
Pepper is a sculptor of international renown, and "Cromlech Glen" has considerable art-historical significance. The piece was one of Pepper's early earthworks and can be considered a precursor to her later artistic interventions in the natural landscape in Europe. Beyond its art-historical implications, "Cromlech Glen" is one of Laumeier's most significant holdings, a work that invites investigation, a place where children play, lovers embrace, individuals meditate and many walk around shaking their heads at the eternal question "What makes this art?"
In terms of maintenance, the piece has been a headache since its installation. The grasses that were to bind the soil to the steep slopes have not been wholly effective in resisting erosion. "Cromlech Glen" requires watering, but there is no water source nearby. After heavy rains, there is a drainage problem, leaving the nearby ground soft. There have been liability concerns, but since the piece was installed there have been no injuries or lawsuits.
After 14 years, Nierengarten-Smith determined that the piece had taxed the resources of the park for too long. She told her staff that the piece had to be removed, leveled by bulldozer. Nierengarten-Smith instructed Kathryn Adamchick, the park's curator of exhibitions, to draft a "courtesy letter" to the artist and her representative at the prestigious Marlboro Gallery in New York, Dale Lanzone, informing them of her decision and letting them know that the piece was to be removed within 30 days.
Adamchick says her first draft of the letter, dated Aug. 17, was edited by Nierengarten-Smith. She changed the phrase "we are losing the battle against the elements" to "we have lost the battle." The phrase "In a collections meeting on August 16, 1999" became "After careful assessment" in Nierengarten-Smith's modification. Within the phrase "It is our plan to deinstall Cromlech Glen," Nierengarten-Smith crossed out the word "deinstall" and substituted "remove." At the close of the letter, where Adamchick had written Nierengarten-Smith's name for the director's signature, Nierengarten-Smith instructed Adamchick to sign her own. In this way, Nierengarten-Smith distanced herself from her own decision.
On the day the letter went out to Pepper and Lanzone, initial demolition work began on "Cromlech Glen," as directed by Nierengarten-Smith. The stone steps leading to rim of the piece were removed, as were the stone slabs for the rim's walkway. An orange plastic fence was put up to keep people off the site, with a sign reading "Conservation in Progress."
According to a Laumeier official, a request went out to the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation for heavy equipment for earth removal the next week, the week of Aug. 23rd, although Paul Andrews, head of the county's excavation department, denies such a request was ever received.
This same week, Lanzone and Pepper received the 30-day removal notice. Both Lanzone and Pepper say that they had not heard anything about problems with the work in years. According to Laumeier files, there had been no correspondence with either Lanzone or Pepper since 1990.
Both the artist and her representative were seriously concerned. Given the nature of the piece, says Lanzone, "You don't remove it and put it in a warehouse removing means destruction."
Lanzone is the former head of the Arts and Architecture program of the General Services Administration (GSA) and oversaw the installation of hundreds of public-art projects. He was one of the prominent advocates for the Artist Rights Act of 1991, which was established in the wake of the "Tilted Arc" controversy the public artwork by sculptor Richard Serra that was removed from New York City's Federal Plaza in 1989.
In Lanzone's estimation, the Artist Rights Act "spelled out that a serious public discussion and administrative procedures should be followed" before an artwork is removed or changed. He acknowledges that, legally, "Cromlech Glen" does not come under the jurisdiction of the 1991 law because it was constructed in 1985, but he questions the park's motivations: "Laumeier works with artists why would you do this and make it look like you were going against the artist's wishes?"
On Aug. 31, Lanzone sent a response, addressed to Nierengarten-Smith. In the letter, Lanzone writing on behalf of Pepper suggests that the artist be allowed to submit a proposal to stabilize the piece. According to Lanzone, with current soil-stabilization techniques which did not exist in 1985 "you can grow grass on a 90-degree slope." Pepper's more recent earthworks in Europe do not exhibit the problems of "Cromlech Glen." "Beverly has been aware that the piece has been an ongoing problem," says Lanzone, "but not a problem that can't be solved."
Lanzone's letter questions the lack of procedure the park took in making the decision to remove the piece. According to the sculpture park's "Deaccessions Policy," established in 1989, "The decision to deaccession shall be approved by the Collections Committee and the Board of Trustees." No such approval had been granted, or even requested, before Aug. 18. Furthermore, the policy stipulates, "The process requires complete and candid discussion and disclosure of the intent, method, reason and outcome." And yet Nierengarten-Smith had already called for the bulldozer.
"As you know, the destruction of a work of art by an institution whose mission is to preserve, protect and exhibit works of art," Lanzone's letter states, "is a very serious matter and should only be undertaken when there are no viable alternatives." If money were the issue, Lanzone tells the RFT, there are many collectors of Pepper's work in St. Louis: "It would take a nominal amount of money to have it repaired. Collectors could raise money."
But on Aug. 31, the day Lanzone's letter left New York, Nierengarten-Smith wasn't looking for donors to save "Cromlech Glen." She was preparing a slide show for Laumeier's board. Apparently the presentation was effective. Judy Aronson sits on both the board and the executive committee for Laumeier. The sculpture park was created out of the vision and financial backing of Adam and Judy Aronson, and they were major contributors to the funding of "Cromlech Glen."
Whatever feelings of attachment Judy Aronson felt for the artwork were changed by Nierengarten-Smith's picture show. "This thing is a hazard," says Aronson during a phone interview. "These stairs have huge holes in them. Somebody could trip and break their neck."
However, if Nierengarten-Smith were requesting the board's approval to alleviate this safety hazard, the point was moot. The steps had already been removed on Aug. 18.
Asked whether it would have been more proper to contact the artist before deaccessioning the artwork, Aronson testily replies, "They've been in constant contact with them for months."
Who told her that?
On the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 2, the RFT receives a tip that "Cromlech Glen" is going to be demolished. Freelance photographer Carol House is sent out to photograph the site. She calls the park to ask for directions to the artwork "that is being demolished." The receptionist tells here the piece is not being demolished but repaired. House finds that the stone steps have been removed and stacked nearby. The orange guard fence has been pushed down.
On Friday morning, Sept. 3, the RFT first contacts Lanzone in his office at the Marlboro Gallery. He had spoken with Nierengarten-Smith the day before, he says, and Laumeier's director had reached Pepper in Italy as well. Nierengarten-Smith told them both that the demolition was on hold and that the park would wait until Pepper had submitted a proposal before taking any action. Lanzone says it was a "reasonable discussion."
But minutes after speaking with Lanzone, the RFT contacts Laumeier's publicity director, Pete Smith, who has a contradictory and puzzling tale to tell. According to Laumeier's official spokesperson (Nierengarten-Smith does not return the paper's frequent calls), the park is "getting ready to deaccess the piece. It's starting to become a safety hazard. We've been conserving it since 1985. When it was first designed, both parties (Laumeier and Pepper) knew it was an experimental design. We've been fighting battles with soil erosion. After conserving it over the years, it finally got to the point where it had to go."
A letter was sent to Lanzone and Pepper "a couple months ago," Smith says, informing them of the situation, but the park has not received a response. Asked the date of the letter, Smith says he can't recall, that he would have to go to the files to find it. After the RFT requests that he do so, Smith says he will call back.
A few minutes later, Smith calls and begins to talk about the Aug. 18 letter. What about the letter from two months ago? "There was no letter," he replies. "I misunderstood your question."
Smith then refers to Lanzone's letter of Aug. 31. According to Smith, Lanzone included recommendations from the artist for the preservation of the piece "and it was little more than what we've been doing all along." Lanzone's letter contains no such proposals.
Laumeier has gone through all the proper procedures, Smith explains, conferring with its board and the St. Louis County Council, who had inspected "Cromlech Glen" and designated it a "safety hazard."
When did the County Council inspect the work? Who was involved? Smith says to ask the council. At the County Council, no one has heard of such a thing.
"The nature of the piece is to evolve," Smith says. It is "ephemeral" and "no longer represents the artist's original idea."
He admits that Pepper and Lanzone "aren't happy, but she knew it was a faulty design." According to Smith, both parties park and artist regarded the design as flawed from the beginning and believed that the piece was actually made to "return to the earth.
"Demolishing is different from deaccession," Smith explains. "When the piece no longer represents what the artist intended, then the piece is deaccessed and it will be no more. But if you write this, we're not demolishing it. That's a negative connotation."
The RFT then calls Lanzone again and tells him that, according to Laumeier's official spokesperson, "Cromlech Glen" is still going to be deaccessed within 30 days. "That's not what Beverly understood," he replies. "I just had a conversation with Beej to confirm it. She said nothing was going to happen to the site until Beverly responded.
"They've got a very funny public-relations person," Lanzone observes. "How do I get ahold of him? I want him to understand that this is what is happening. We need to get Pete Smith on the correct page."
Beverly Pepper is confident that she's on the correct page when she's reached outside of Rome. "I have nothing to add, except I spoke to Beej and nothing is going to be done until we can address this problem. I can be there in a couple weeks. She assured me absolutely that nothing will be done."
What about the ephemeral nature of the piece, the flawed design? "This is not an ephemeral piece and I'm still alive." She laughs lustily when, on the adjoining phone, her husband comments, "She sure is." Pepper says it is "not true" that the design was considered flawed. "I never considered it so. It was never discussed as an ephemeral piece." There are problems, she admits, "but there are solutions."
Had she received any previous notice about the situation? "No. This was the first I heard. I've known Beej for many years. She maintains nothing is going to happen until they've heard from me.
"I believe in Beej, but if they even think of doing something without my approval, I'll give you some screaming headlines to write."
Toward the end of Friday afternoon, Pete Smith calls to announce, "As of now, we have no decision. We are waiting for a proposal to submit to the board and await recommendations. That's the story now on the park. Things will stay as is as we await proposals from Dale and Beverly and take those into consideration."
Smith responds to a few follow-up questions. Pepper says she never considered "Cromlech Glen" to be an ephemeral artwork, nor was there ever a discussion about the design's being flawed. Who told him about such discussions?
"Beej," Smith says quietly.
Another matter for clarification: No one at the St. Louis County Council had deemed "Cromlech Glen" a safety hazard, as Smith had said.
He admits he was mistaken. It was the county counselor's office, the legal-affairs office of the county, not the County Council, that made the determination, which, according to Smith, came from Jackie Delaet in a memorandum issued Aug. 31.
Aug. 31? But the first letter about demolition went to Pepper and Lanzone on Aug. 18.
Smith mumbles a few more words and hangs up.
Finally, at the end of a curious day, John Ross, chief county counselor, calls, returning a voice-mail query to counselor Delaet. She isn't available, says Ross, but he can talk about the Aug. 31 memorandum. It wasn't anything about a safety hazard or removal, he says; it was the counselor's response to Nierengarten-Smith and the Friends of Laumeier's request to review the contract between the park and Pepper. "You need to talk to Beej," he says.
After a Friday-afternoon meeting with Nierengarten-Smith and other members of the Laumeier staff, curator Kathryn Adamchick issues a public statement decrying the actions of director Nierengarten-Smith. She writes, "As curator, I am responsible for the care and maintenance of the collection.... I would be derelict in my duties as curator if I did not work to prevent the precipitous destruction of Cromlech Glen."
She goes on to charge that Laumeier's own policies regarding deaccessioning were not followed. "The decision to destroy the sculpture appears to have been made without considering either the possibility of restoration or the possibility of obtaining funding for restoration." Her letter further states, "Laumeier's contract with the artist provides that "(the) design plans, site specific drawings, model and completed piece shall be the sole property of Beverly Pepper.' It also provides that Laumeier "shall make significant repairs and restorations of the work solely in accordance with the express written approval of artist.' It would seem reasonable to permit the artist (and her representative) to discuss her rights before destroying the sculpture."
As of press time, Beej Nierengarten-Smith has not answered repeated requests for an interview. Joanne Harmon, chair of Laumeier's board of directors, had one of her assistants call back; the assistant had no knowledge of the status of "Cromlech Glen." The assistant to the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation director says all inquiries should go to Pete Smith. Local collector Ronald Greenberg has issued a letter to protest the removal of the piece and has contacted Laumeier with offers of financial assistance toward its restoration. Tuesday morning, the Laumeier staff found in their mailboxes an order not to talk to the press.
Dale Lanzone's question is still the most puzzling: "Why would you do this and make it look like you were going against the artist's wishes?" Why would Beej Nierengarten-Smith risk her own considerable reputation, and Laumeier Sculpture Park's international standing in the art world, over a few thousand dollars' worth of maintenance? The international art community is a relatively small circle of artists, dealers, collectors, curators, critics, historians and others. These people talk, write, e-mail each other. If it was believed that an artwork by an artist of the prominence of Beverly Pepper were destroyed without her approval, Laumeier's reputation would be damaged severely, perhaps irreparably. Many of the works at Laumeier are on loan. How long would they remain? Would Laumeier be known as the institution that destroyed "Cromlech Glen"?
It takes a lot more than grass and sod to repair a reputation.