Capitol Art Subcommittee Says Goal is to “Tell Minnesota Stories That Engage People”

The Capitol Art Subcommittee met Monday and continued crafting what looks to be an excellent vision statement. It is still a work in progress, but as it stands now, it reads:

The role and purpose of art in the Minnesota capitol is to tell Minnesota stories that engage people to:

  • Reflect on our shared history;
  • Understand our government;
  • Inspire citizen engagement;
  • Appreciate the varied landscapes of our beautiful state.

The subcommittee met for five hours, deliberating on process and how to engage the public in a dialogue about what art we should have in the capitol. It had initial discussions about “the elephant in the room”–the controversial art depicting Dakota and Ojibwe people and its narrow view of early Minnesota history. There are difficult discussions ahead about whether some of that art should be removed or interpreted. The subcommittee took no action. They set up several task forces to look at specific issues, notably one to focus on art in the Governor’s Reception Room. Co-Chair Justice Paul Anderson (ret.) asked Prof. Gwen Westerman, who is Dakota, to lead that task force. (The Reception Room has two with two of the more problematic works of art depicting Dakota people.)

Here are seven other takeaways from the meeting.

1. The state has a new website devoted to capitol art: It has four main tabs. The “communications” tab has meeting agendas, minutes, presentations, budgets and correspondence. The “artwork” tab chronicles the 148 pieces of artwork inside the capitol. It has links to images of the most controversial art. The “In the News” tab has links to media coverage of the art debate. (Note: This debate has received national attention. Governing Magazine just published a piece titled: “Wrestling with Dark History, This Time in Minnesota’s Capitol.” The “About the Art Subcommittee” tab lists subcommittee members.

2. The Subcommittee is planning public hearings soon–and other ways to get public input. The Art Subcommittee plans to hold public hearings in October and/or November. Potential sites for public hearings mentioned were Rochester, Mankato, Bemidji, and Duluth. Co-Chair state Rep. Diane Loffeler requested that since half of the population lives in the metro area that there should be an equal number of metro area public hearings as hearings in Greater Minnesota. No decisions were made. The public already can submit comments about the capitol art by emailing: capitol.art@state.mn.us. The Subcommittee also is seeking State Fair venues to get public comments. It may develop a blog or surveys both to solicit ideas from the public and to test potential recommendations.

3. The Subcommittee’s timeline is still vague, but we know a few key dates. Anderson said the Subcommittee would make a preliminary report to the Capitol Preservation Commission in January. It would outline some general concepts and possible tension points. The building will open to the legislature in January 2017, and there will be an official grand opening in mid-2017. Some issues regarding the art will be done and in place by the opening, Anderson said in an interview, others will not.

4. There are statutes on the books that define who supervises “art” in the capitol; they put final decision-making power in the Minnesota Historical Society. The key statutes are 138.67-70. Statute 138.67 defines “Works of art” in the capitol as “paintings, portraits, mural decorations, stained glass, statues and busts, bas-relief, ornaments, furniture, plaques, and any other article or structure of a permanent character intended for decoration or commemoration … ” Statute 138.68 defines the art’s supervision, reading in part:

No monument, memorial or work of art shall be relocated or removed from, or placed in such areas or altered or repaired in any way without the approval of the Minnesota State Historical Society. The Minnesota State Historical Society shall have final authority over the disposition of any monuments, memorials or works of art removed from the State Capitol or the Capitol grounds.”

Minnesota Historical Society staff told subcommittee members that it is in the Society’s DNA to focus on preservation. Brian Pease, the Minnesota State Capitol Historic Site Manager said “we want to keep everything–as much as we can–in its 1905 appearance.” Pressed by Justice Anderson about whether the art of 1905 represents Minnesota today, Pease said: “That is the philosophical question.”

5. There is a considerable amount of new space being considered for new art. One of the more interesting spaces is what some on the subcommittee are calling “The Stone Gallery.” It is about 10,000 square feet in the basement, directly below the G-15 hearing room. This space has many massive stone pillars that are supporting the weight of the dome. It is a space that has not been opened to the public before. Some talked about how the forest of stone pillars could be a challenge for tour guides or families with small children. Way finding will be one challenge. So will lighting for any new art. There is currently no budget for such improvements.

6. Changes to House Chambers art was put on the table. Much has been written about the paintings in the Governor’s Reception Room and the mural of Manifest Destiny in the Senate Chambers, but Co-Chair Loffeler raised a new issue about art in the House Chambers. She described the large tableau above the speakers rostrum, showing a Native man and woman on one side, pioneers on the other side, and a female statue representing Minnesota in the middle. Beneath the sculpture is written: “The Trail of the Pioneer Bore the Footprints of Liberty.” While the statue is beautiful–and while there are instances of Native Americans and pioneers working together–Loffeler said she didn’t think that Native Americans would agree with the statement. “I would like to erase that statement,” she said. Loffeler noted that the art was not part of the original 1905 capitol. It was originally House gallery space, and was filled in to add third floor office space.

7. The Subcommittee’s work does not extend to the statues on the capitol grounds. That means it will not be addressing the issue of the Columbus statue (east of the capitol) that a number of people believe should be removed because of Columbus’ role in Native American genocide.

The next subcommittee meeting is Sept. 14 at 10 a.m., site to be determined.

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