Arkansas Capitol Art: How Do You Interpret a Difficult History?

We continue with our art tour of other state capitols to see what lessons Minnesota might learn as we reassess our own controversial capitol art.

Today we visit Arkansas. (We have a bit of a state-to-state link. Architect Cass Gilbert designed the Minnesota Capitol and was brought into finish the Arkansas Capitol.)

The Arkansas Capitol grounds feature a number of monuments, and we will point out three. Two acknowledging the Civil War, the “Monument to Confederate Soldiers” and the “Monument to Confederate Women.” One monument acknowledges the Civil Rights Movement, called “Testament: The Little Rock Nine Salute.”

The self guided walking tour of the Capitol grounds produced by the Arkansas Secretary of State describes the Civil War monuments in a way that avoids controversy by filling the space with trivia. For instance, it describes the Monument to Confederate Soldiers as follows:

This monument is located on the northeast corner of the Capitol grounds. Designed by Frederick W. Ruckstuhl and dedicated in 1905, this memorial was underwritten by the State of Arkansas, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the United Confederate Veterans, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and private donations. It was originally placed immediately in front of the Capitol’s east face, but was relocated soon after construction was completed. In 2004 the monument was cleaned, its base repaired and the surrounding landscaping reconfigured to resemble its early appearance.

So, how many people on a walking tour of the Capitol grounds ask themselves: “I wonder when the last time was that they cleaned this statue?” I’m guessing none.  Apparently, some things are too difficult to talk about, so best to fill the space with information on cleaning and repairs.

This critique isn’t unique to Arkansas. Here in Minnesota we could certainly improve on how we interpret the art in our State Capitol and being clear about the messages sends about Native Americans and early Minnesota history.

To Arkansas’ credit, the interpretation of the Little Rock Nine statue provides more context and meaning. The guide book says:

In 1957, nine African-American students enrolled at Little Rock’s Central High School, beginning the process of desegregating Little Rock’s public schools and marking a seminal event in America’s civil rights movement. This sculptural grouping was dedicated in August 2005 to honor the courage of those students, known collectively as the Little Rock Nine. Quotations from each of the Nine are featured around the bronze figures, which are the work of artists John and Cathy Deering.

Moving inside the Arkansas Capitol, you see a series of lunettes (crescent-shaped paintings) reminiscent of the lunettes in the Minnesota Capitol rotunda. They share a classical style and images that tie the building to the values and images of ancient Greece or Rome. The four lunettes in the Arkansas Capitol, painted by Paul Martin Heerwagen are titled: Education, Justice, Religion, and War. Interestingly, a woman is the central character in each of the four lunettes (though the self-guided tour provides no explanation of any of the paintings’ symbolism.)

We close with something of a bizarre statement from the self-guided tour’s description of the Governor’s Reception Room:

The room is in the Craftsman style, an interior design style that emphasizes natural materials. At each end of the room are fireplace mantels carved from Batesville limestone. The west mantel has carvings that represent European settlers; the east mantel’s carvings bear the likenesses of Native Americans. These two groups were the first inhabitants of Arkansas, therefore a rich part of its heritage.
OK, so the statement is this: “These two groups [Europeans and Native Americans] were the first inhabitants of Arkansas, therefore a rich part of its history.” The only way that statement might make a teeny bit of sense is to assume they meant that Arkansas came into existence as a state in 1836 and at that time both Europeans and Native peoples were first inhabitants. If that is the thinking, it is tortured logic. To write in an official document that Europeans were in any way “first inhabitants of Arkansas” is silly, and another example of how difficult it appears to be to interpret Capitol artwork.
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