Key decision makers in the debate over Minnesota Capitol Art are charting a new course in public input, granting a request by the Catholic Church to testify. The Catholic Church will be the first group allowed to give public testimony directly to the Art Subcommittee.
The Art Subcommittee met Monday, Feb. 11, to begin crafting its preliminary report, now expected mid-February. Its biggest challenge: deciding what existing art should stay and what art (if any) should be moved to a new location because of its negative depictions of Native Americans or one-sided view of Minnesota history.
In an interview, Sen. David Senjem, a tri-chair of the Art Subcommittee, said the Subcommittee had been asked — and agreed — to hear testimony from the Minnesota Catholic Conference. The Catholic Church has concerns about efforts to remove the painting: Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony. (A letter from the Catholic Church to the Subcommittee explaining the Church’s position is reproduced in full at the end of this post.)
To date, the Art Subcommittee offered the two avenues for public engagement: “listening sessions” held around the state and participation in an on-line survey. (In the listening sessions, participants did not speak directly to the Subcommittee. Only one or two Subcommittee members attended each session. People participated in facilitated small group discussions and volunteer note takers summarized comments.) That public input process finished in December.
Speaking for Healing Minnesota Stories (HMS), we would love the opportunity to testify. As early as the spring of 2014, as the Art Subcommittee was being formed, we met with state officials to express our interest in being engaged. We were told our voices would be heard. We have participated in the listening sessions and attended most of the Art Subcommittee meetings, but have never had the opportunity to present to the full Subcommittee. In contrast, the Catholic Church submitted its letter to the Art Subcommittee on January 8, 2016 and was almost immediately given the opportunity to testify.
Asked if the decision to allow the Catholic Church to speak opened the door for others to testify, Sen. Senjem said the Subcommittee would “entertain requests,” but there were practical time restrictions.
We will submit our formal request to speak; Senjem was very encouraging. Still, I have some concerns about how this might play out. If the Art Subcommittee draws a limited scope for testimony, it opens itself to criticism. Here is its problem. Two pieces of Capitol art are controversial precisely because they highlight the power of the Church, including the Senate mural showing the forced conversion of Native Americans.
If the Subcommittee chooses to make a limited exception to let the Catholic Church testify, life would imitate art. It would send the messages that the church has power and privilege, while others do not. The church would be seen as able to bypass the cumbersome listening sessions and go to the head of the line to testify, while the public has to go to small group discussions and have their words filtered by moderators. That would be the wrong message.
To its credit, the Art Subcommittee has been reaching out to Minnesota tribes to get their comments about Capitol art. (We have reported on comments from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and Leech Lake Ojibwe in earlier posts.) Senjem said the Subcommittee has met with leaders from four of the 11 recognized tribes, and plans to meet with all of them eventually. That is excellent news.
Regardless, if the Subcommittee is changing its process midstream and giving the Catholic Church the opportunity to testify, it needs to 1) publicize the fact that it is taking testimony and 2) let more public voices be heard.
In closing, here is a verbatim of the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s letter. It is dated January 8, 2016, signed by Jason A. Adkins, Esq., Executive Director of the Conference. (Note: We will defer comments on the letter for now. Healing Minnesota Stories invites comments to this blog and this letter.)
Dear Senator Senjem,
Peace be with you. The Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota, writes to express concern about proposals to remove historic artwork from the State Capitol. In particular, we are concerned about the desire of some to remove the painting of Fr. Louis Hennepin from the Governor’s Reception Room. Though we believe that there may be opportunities to better accommodate the perspectives of some of those who do not like the painting, we oppose the removal of this painting from a prominent location within the State Capitol.
The paintings within the Governor’s Reception Room, like many around the State Capitol, depict important moments early in the State’s history. Though the specific historic accuracy of some features of the painting are in dispute, what is clear is that the painting depicts an important moment in Minnesota history: the arrival of Christianity to Minnesota (at least what is today the Twin Cities) and the blessing of the area by Fr. Hennepin with the Cross of Jesus Christ.
The painting thus stands as a symbol of an important legacy of the State’s history: the many contributions of individual Christians and Christian churches, particularly the Catholic Church, to the development and well-being of the State of Minnesota. By contrast, removing the painting entirely from a prominent place in the Capitol may, not unreasonably, be interpreted as a symbolic statement that the arrival of Christianity was to the detriment of both Native Americans and the subsequent development of the State as a whole — a viewpoint with which we would strongly disagree.
We recognize that the legacy of Christianity in Minnesota, or any place, is not without its sins. Like all of us, Fr. Hennepin himself was not perfect, and his writings show that he was a man of his time. And Christian missions among Native Americans have not always been conducted in Christian charity.
We also recognize that some Native Americans may feel that they are depicted in the painting in a way the denigrates their dignity. Their concerns should be taken seriously. Perhaps there are other constructive ways to address those concerns and offer fuller context than simply removing the painting.
Furthermore, we acknowledge that the history of our State is one that continues to be written. New ethnic and religious communities continue to arrive in Minnesota and enrich our public life together. Undoubtedly, there are opportunities to tell that story within the Capitol, perhaps even updating some of the existing artwork.
Still, we are deeply concerned that removing the Hennepin painting would create a symbolic precedent that important aspects of our State’s Christian history may be hidden because they affront the sensibilities of some within our community today. There are many monuments in Minnesota that memorialize Fr. Hennepin’s arrival and blessing of this land. Would a decision to shelve the painting communicate that others should follow suit?
There are two extreme positions in this conversation: one that would banish the painting to the attic never to be seen again, and another that says: “Do nothing. History is history, warts and all.” Our position is not the latter. Though we oppose the removal of the painting from a place of prominence in the Capitol, we are open to solutions that reasonably address the legitimate concerns of some of those who do not like the painting’s continued residence within the Governor’s Reception Room. Such alterations could include better resources to contextualize the art, or slight modifications to the original artwork; even a new painting depicting the same historical moment could be installed as an alternative.
Thank you very much for your consideration and for distributing this letter to the full committee. Please let me know if we can be of further assistance in this conversation.
Jason A. Adkins, Esq.