Art Subcommittee Begins to Show Cards: Hopes to Remove Offensive Art Dim

The Art Subcommittee reviewing art in the Minnesota State Capitol is beginning to flesh out what it considers to be its “low hanging fruit” recommendations, including plans to have all four Civil War painting remain in the Governor’s Reception Room.

At the Jan. 11 meeting, there did not appear to be strong support to remove any of the controversial art from the building. There was some openness to relocating art within the Capitol, including the Governor’s Reception Room paintings of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls at St. Anthony.

A couple of key asides. First, the Subcommittee’s two Native American members, Gwen Westerman and Anton Treuer, both participated in the meeting by phone, so their participation and perspective seemed less than it might have been were they physically present. Second, Healing Minnesota Stories has heard rumblings about a behind-the-scenes proposal to combine some of the controversial art in a larger Civil Rights display within the Capitol. We don’t know if it has any traction, but it’s an interesting idea.

On Jan. 11, Subcommittee members also put proposals on the table to give the House and Senate discretion over the art in their respective chambers, within the limits of current statutes and policies. While there was no final decision, it appeared to have strong support. This would likely end efforts to remove The Discoverers and Explorers Led to the Source of the Mississippi, an offensive and even racist mural in the Senate Chambers. It depicts Native Americans being forcibly converted to Christianity.

The Art Subcommittee will meet one more time, Feb. 5, before submitting its preliminary report to the Capitol Preservation Commission. For more on the Jan. 11 meeting, see our earlier post, including a letter from the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s position on Capitol art.

Here are a few more key details from the Jan. 11 meeting.

Public Input Favors Change

The Art Subcommittee sought public input in three ways. It had an on-line survey, held public listening sessions, and in rare cases allowed people to testify directly to the Subcommittee. This process has had its flaws.

Mariah Levison, a facilitator for the Subcommittee, reported on the results of the on-line survey that drew more than 3,000 responses. It included an open-ended question about the controversial art, asking respondents: “… What do you think should be done with the art that may not reflect our attitudes as Minnesotans today?”

The largest response that people wrote in was to “Keep” the art — 1,296 comments. However, there was not enough information to interpret those write-in comments. Some (or many) could have reflected a concern by some that the art would be destroyed. The state could keep the art in the Capitol, or keep it in a museum. The generic “Keep” comments are not specific enough to be useful, Levison said. Other responses were:

  • Remove from the Capitol (524 comments)
  • Do not make any changes (324 comments)
  • Utilize interpretation (250 comments)
  • Balance Old with New [Art] (187 comments)
  • Move within the Capitol (163 comments)
  • Not applicable (142 comments)
  • Rotate the art (128 comments)
  • Civil War (keep) (120 comments)

In summary, Levison said, there were more comments in favor of making some change, 687 — that’s 524 supporting removing art from the Capitol plus 163 that support a move within the Capitol — compared to the 324 favoring no change.

We reported in an earlier post on the results of the public listening sessions. (People did not speak directly to the Art Subcommittee, but instead participated in small group discussions. Moderators took notes and reported the results to the Subcommittee.) At the Jan. 4 Art Subcommittee meeting, a report on these listening sessions said the highest number of comments received on any one topic (63) was to: “Move art that some people feel is insensitive or inaccurate.”

However, at the Jan. 11 meeting we learned that there were concerns that note takers were inconsistent in how they recorded individual comments. The Subcommittee is unsure of the accuracy of the note takers numbers. It has decided to remove any numerical data from its report on the public listening sessions and use only qualitative analysis of general themes, such as, “More people favor some change vs. no change at all,” and “Use new art to create balance.”

This seems to dilute the strong presence and participation of people who made strong appeals to remove the offensive art.

Lastly, only two groups have been allowed to speak directly to the Art Subcommittee. They both defend status quo positions, an indication of who gets the Art Subcommittee’s ear and how the public input process has been out of balance.

People wanting to keep Civil War paintings in the Governor’s Reception Room got a chance to address the Subcommittee in December. Speaking were Major General Rick Nash, Commissioner for the Department of Military Affairs and the Adjutant General, and Don Kerr, Executive Director for Military Affairs. Here is their 27-page written testimony.

Next month, the Minnesota Catholic Conference is expected to testify. It has recommended that the Father Hennepin painting stay in the Governor’s Reception Room.

Healing Minnesota Stories has submitted a petition with more than 550 signatures asking that the most controversial art be removed from the Capitol. We have requested the opportunity to speak to the Subcommittee about a different vision for the Capitol. We are waiting to hear back.

Finger Count for Change

At one point, Subcommittee members were asked to hold up a number of fingers representing their support for changing the art, with five being strong support, three being neutral, and one being no change. From an observer’s eye, Tri-Chair Sen. David Senjem and Rep. Dean Urdahl (participating by phone) were twos. Tri-Chair Rep. Diane Loeffler was a four and Tri-Chair Paul Anderson was a five.

The three members of the Minnesota Historical Society, ex-oficio members to the Subcommittee, all held up three fingers, neutral to change. Not surprising, but not a great sign for those who want change.

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