Capitol Art Update: First Glimpse at the Review Process

Minnesota Public Radio’s segment: “What art should be displayed in the Minnesota Capitol” gave us initial insights and optimism about the upcoming process to review and update capitol art.

The Minnesota State Capitol is in the midst of a $300 million renovation, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to review the art and address some of the more problematic pieces with negative images of Native Americans, distorted narratives of early Minnesota history, and triumphal allegories of Manifest Destiny. Currently, the capitol has approximately 150 pieces of art: nearly 50 murals (painted on canvas and permanently affixed to the walls, 38 Governors portraits, 17 busts, 15 plaques, more than a dozen statues, and additional paintings and portraits

MPR’s Tom Weber interviewed:

  • Steve Elliot, director of the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS). MHS plays a key oversight role in adding new art or removing old art.
  • Paul Anderson, retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice. Anderson co-chairs the Art Subcommittee tasked with reviewing capitol art and making recommendations.
  • Gwen Westerman, an English professor at the University of Minnesota-Mankato. Westerman is Dakota and serves on the Art Subcommittee.

Here are seven take aways from the interview.

1. We are entering new territory when talking about removing offensive art from the capitol. There is no precedent for removing art from the capitol.

2. There are conflicting messages about whether the murals that are glued to the wall can be consider for removal or not. This debate includes the fate of a controversial mural in the Senate chambers titled: “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi.” It shows a Native American man and young woman cornered by a group of settlers, including a priest holding out a cross at them and a man behind the priest holding back snarling dogs.

Justice Anderson said some of the art “just can’t be removed because it is on the wall. … There is some very politically incorrect art that probably won’t be removed.” Speaking specifically about the Senate mural, he said: “Probably that piece is not going to leave,” though it could get better interpretation.

Elliot took a different tone, saying: “The subcommittee is going to be initiating a process this fall of listening to what people think about everything about the art. So I would not say that there are any pre-conclusions at this point about what stays, or if it stays how it is interpreted … That is all up for discussion.”

Elliot also made a strong statement regarding the role art plays in the capitol: “The capitol is not a museum,” he said. “The capitol is an active, living building that represents the people of Minnesota.”

3. Alexander Ramsey, Harold LeVander and Rudy Perpich might move to make way for new art. Renovation plans call for adding new exhibit space. In addition, leaders are talking about moving exiting art to open even more space. One specific example mentioned was moving the governors portraits. These portraits currently hang in prime real estate-high traffic areas in the capitol hallways.

Anderson said: “I don’t think the governor’s portraits will disappear from the capitol. It might be up for grabs as to how they get displayed and where they get displayed. … If the portraits of the governors move into a different style of exhibition, there will be some space available there.”

Anderson offered another nugget of new information. “One of the signature rooms in the new capitol is going to be a library/conference room dedicated to Cass Gilbert,” he said.

4. The St. Paul Interfaith Network/Healing Minnesota Stories (SPIN/HMS) got props for its “Indians In Public Art Traveling Art Exhibit. Anderson made an indirect reference to Rachel Latuff’s art class at North Woods School in Cook. (Latuff is the art teacher who worked with SPIN/HMS to develop the lesson plan around capitol art and first assigned her students to create alternative art. To see examples of their art, click here.)

Anderson said: “We are hearing from all over the state. We heard from a school district up in St. Louis County and they have an art project, and they sent us some things. They have got one picture of James Arness, Prince, … Charles Schultz … this reflects the people of Minnesota. That is the type of rotating art that we should have.” Elliot added his own shout-out to SPIN, calling the student artwork, “very thoughtful and very good.”

5. A few piece of art will get the bulk of the attention, particularly two paintings in the Governor’s Conference Room: Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls at St. Anthony and the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Also in the conversational mix is a lesser known painting of The Battle of Killdeer Mountain.

Westerman said both of the paintings in the Governor’s Conference Room are highly romanticized. The depictions of the Dakota people are not accurate, and the Treaty painting is not historically accurate, she said.

Elliot said The Battle of Killdeer Mountain was done because people wanted to show the Eighth Minnesota Regiment in the capitol. This particular scene depicts an engagement against the Dakota after the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. According to a MinnPost article, historians tend to describe the fight “as less of a battle and more of a slaughter. In all, about 150 Native Americans were killed.” The painting already has been relegated to the shadows, the article said. It used to hang in the House Chambers. Then it was moved to the Rotunda. Now it resides in a third floor conference room.

6. Some people might raise concerns about a visual clash between historic  and contemporary art.

Westerman did not share that concern: “I think that there can be a place here for contemporary art,” she said. “I don’t think it would be incongruous at all. Any time you curate a show about a particular event or a period of time you are going to get a lot of visual interpretations. Based on a theme, they can work together.”

7. The Art Subcommittee’s review process is still coming into focus. It will get clarified at an August meeting, yet to be scheduled. Elliot said after the subcommittee takes testimony and public comment, there would be four key decision points:

  • What do you do with some of the allegories that reflect Manifest Destiny?
  • More specifically, there are several paintings that really place Native Americans “in a light different from how we would reflect them, or tell their stories, today. What do we do with those?”
  • What should be done with the Governors’ portraits?
  • How do we add new art? How do we select it? What is permanent art and what art rotates?
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