Breaking News: Art Subcommittee to Recommend Moving Controversial Paintings Out of Governor’s Reception Room

This painting of Father Hennepin is the most troubling to Minnesota tribes. A key committee is recommending it be moved out of the Governor's Conference Room.
This painting of Father Hennepin could be moved from the Governor’s Reception Room and become part of a centralized Capitol collection of Native American-themed art with better historic interpretation.

The paintings of Father Hennepin Discovering St. Anthony Falls and the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux would both be removed from the Minnesota Governor’s Reception Room and relocated elsewhere in the Capitol, under recommendations approved today by a key committee.

The recommendation fell short of the hopes of many Native leaders, who had hoped to move it out of the Capitol into a museum. Still, Subcommittee member Gwen Westerman, who is Dakota, said she was satisfied with the results. “In my mind, we have been heard,” said Westerman, a professor at the University of Minnesota-Mankato. “That is a major accomplishment.”

The Art Subcommittee will present its preliminary recommendations to the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission on Tuesday, Feb. 23, at the Veterans Service Building, fifth floor. The meeting starts at 11 a.m. (The Commission is overseeing the $300 million-plus Capitol renovation.)

The Art Subcommittee has heard strong opinions on both sides of this debate.

Sen. David Senjem, one of the Subcommittee tri-chairs, said he had participated in private talks with leaders of nine of the state’s 11 tribal nations. Tribal leaders said the best response would be to remove all the current Capitol painting depicting Native Americans. Their fall back position would be to remove the two paintings from the Governor’s Conference Room to another location where they could be interpreted better. They were especially concerned with the Father Hennepin painting, because it was inaccurate and demeaning to Dakota women, showing the woman half naked. Nor did they like the image of the spreading of Catholicism.

“Feelings were strong,” Senjem said.

The opinion of Native leaders stands in strong contrast to the position taken by the Minnesota Catholic Conference defending the Father Hennepin painting. Subcommittee leaders met with Catholic leaders in private. They also received a letter from the Catholic Conference Jan. 8, which read in part:

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.

Art Subcommittee member Anton Treuer, who is Ojibwe, made a motion to remove the Father Hennepin painting from the Capitol altogether, placing it in the Minnesota History Center. Truer, a professor at Bemidji State University, said he was not proposing to destroy the painting, or make people walk around on egg shells. But Native people have been walking around on egg shells themselves because of these paintings.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “We want to say: ‘The government is for all of us.'”

Treuer called the Father Hennepin painting a “poke in the eye” to American Indian peoples and said moving it out of the Capitol would be a symbolically significant. His motion failed, with Treuer, Westerman, and Rep. Diane Loeffler, a tri-chair, voting yes.

The compromise motion to move Father Hennepin to another spot in the Capitol passed 6-1 with only Rep. Dean Urdahl voting no. A similar motion to move the Traverse des Sioux painting out of the Governor’s Conference Room to a different Capitol location passed 4-2, with Urdahl and Peter Hilger of the University of Minnesota voting no.

Westerman said the Traverse des Sioux painting glorified a deceptive treaty-making process and “tacitly endorsed imperialism and corruption.”

More Interpretation Sought, Will it Fly?

Treuer proposed a less controversial recommendation — that tribal leaders and historical experts should be asked to participate in the interpretation of any art in the Minnesota State Capitol with Native American content. That motion passed.

D. Stephen Elliott, Director and CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, noted that the Art Subcommittee had an emerging recommendation to centralize Capitol art with Native American themes and history and offer more robust interpretation. There is a similar recommendation for more robust interpretation of the Governors portraits. This focus on interpretation would create a very different Capitol from the Capitol we have now, he said. He wondered whether this vision had buy-in from the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission.

Elliott seemed concerned that they not get too far ahead of themselves, and then have to change course later. “We want to be ready for the roll out,” he said.

That topic of historic interpretation should be front and center at the upcoming Feb. 23 Capitol Preservation Commission meeting.

Next Steps

The Art Subcommittee’s recommendations are the first step in the process, but an important one. They frame the debate. However, the Capitol Preservation Commission could change the recommendations, and ultimately, the State Legislature could weigh in. And the Minnesota Historical Society has statutory authority over Capitol art. These decisions could become a hotly debated political mess.

Part of the political mess could be money. The draft recommendations say that the money for fine art conservation “has proven inadequate.” The Art Subcommittee is seeking additional funds.

There also is the matter of turf. As we reported earlier, most of the debate over art has focused on the Governor’s Conference Room. That’s because the Governor invited the recommendations. It appears that any changes to the art in the House or Senate Chambers will be left to those bodies themselves.


2 thoughts on “Breaking News: Art Subcommittee to Recommend Moving Controversial Paintings Out of Governor’s Reception Room

  1. Thank goodness. Removing art that reflects or perpetuates harmful prejudices and misconceptions. Making room for art that, hopefully, inspires us towards our cherished democratic ideals.


  2. Thank you, for this important update, Scott.
    Wish the museum option had been approved, partial removal is a step in the right direction


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