Capitol Art Update: Timid Recommendations Put Forward by Art Subcommittee

A recommendation is now on the table to move two controversial paintings out of the Governor’s Conference Room to some other spot in the Capitol. Chairs of the Art Subcommittee presented that recommendation to the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission Tuesday, Feb. 23.

The recommendation would relocate the paintings of Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls at St. Anthony and the painting of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux to less prestigious Capitol locations. That plan is contained in the Art Subcommittee’s preliminary report. The final report is expected in late summer or early fall.

Art Subcommittee Tri-Chairs Paul Anderson, Rep. Diane Loeffler, and Sen. David Senjem all spoke at the Commission hearing. Anderson opened their remarks by giving the report some gravitas, noting that this is “a once in a 100 year opportunity to do it right.” He asked the members of the media to note “that what we have here is a story of government working for its people.”

Anderson was doing a hard sales job for a very timid set of recommendations — especially timid for something as grand as a once-in-a-century opportunity.

There are at least four deeply troubling pieces of Capitol art in terms of how they portray early Minnesota history and Native American peoples. In addition to the Father Hennepin and Treaty of Traverse des Sioux paintings, the other two are the Battle of Ta-Ha Kouty and the Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi. (More details available on our Capitol Art page.) Apparently they are all staying in the Capitol.

(BTW, City Pages this week published a story: Battle Rages Over Racist Paintings in the Capitol, the latest take on the debate. Check it out.)

Here are key takeaways from this week’s discussion at the Capitol Preservation Commission:

There was never any possibility that the Art Subcommittee was going to recommend removing the racist painting: “Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi.”  Recommendation 5 reads: “While some Minnesotans have raised concerns regarding the fine art work within the House and Senate Chambers, the Subcommittee defers to those bodies to determine art content within legislative chambers.”

This means the House and Senate get final say over art in their chambers. This recommendation allows for the restoration of offensive art to move forward without the Art Subcommittee having to take a stand. It ducks responsibility for this supposed once-in-a-century opportunity. (Note: The Art Subcommittee has both Senators and Representatives on it. They could have been in communication with their colleagues.) This recommendation kicks the can down the road, leaving it for someone else to fix in 2116. For now, the decision cements in place art that is hostile towards Native Americans.

The Art Subcommittee recommends keeping all the Civil War paintings in the Governor’s Conference Room — and Governor Dayton pushed back. The whole debate about Capitol art started at a 2013 Capitol Preservation Commission meeting when Governor Dayton (who chairs the commission) questioned whether they needed to have Civil War art dominate the Reception Room. When Dayton learned this week that the Art Subcommittee did not recommend any changes to the Civil War art, he balked: “It is the exclusive nature of that presentation that bothers me,” he said. “The war should certainly be honored … but to say that is all we have in our history … I think it is very unrepresentative.” At a press conference, he went on to say that: “I am very uncomfortable being in there and having that be the presentation. ”

Significantly, the one and perhaps only outside presenters invited to speak directly to the Art Subcommittee were military people who favored keeping the Civil War art in the Reception Room. The Subcommittee gave them special treatment, perhaps previewing members’ intended outcome. Other groups that wanted to present to the Art Subcommittee were denied, including Healing Minnesota Stories and the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

The Art Subcommittee chose to be silent about dissenting voices — those who wanted art removed from the Capitol and moved to a museum where it could be better interpreted. The Art Subcommittee had an online survey with 3,000+ responses and held 11 public listening sessions around the state. The Subcommittee’s preliminary report did not summarize information from a strong subset of people who supported removing offensive art. It made no mention of the Healing Minnesota Stories petition seeking to move Capitol art to a museum. We had 550+ signatures, or more than double the total number of people who attended all of the public listening sessions.

The Art Subcommittee also met privately with tribal leaders, yet its preliminary report said nothing about what it learned from the tribes. We previously reported on the Shakopee letter and a Leech Lake Letter received by the Art Subcommittee. Since then, the Subcommittee received a Leech Lake follow up letter on Feb. 2 and an Upper Sioux Community letter Feb. 4. Both letters were sent after meetings with Art Subcommittee tri-chairs Anderson, Senjem, Loeffler, and State Commissioner of Administration Matt Massman.

The Leech letter states in part:

As we discussed in our meeting, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe reiterates our original recommendation to remove offensive, traumatizing paintings from the Capitol, including The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi; Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls at St. Anthony; The Signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux; and The Battle of Killdeer Mountain. …

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is not advocating for the destruction of the offensive and traumatizing paintings, but rather to have them moved to a new home where they can be remembered and interpreted in a way that more accurately reflects history and culture.

The letter from Upper Sioux seems to indicate that state leaders have already privately acknowledged to them that removing art from the Capitol to a museum already was off the table.

As stated at the meeting, the position of the Upper Sioux Community is to seek the removal of all the subject artwork as an inaccurate portrayal of the history of the Dakota people in the State of Minnesota. However, given the apparent unwillingness of the Capitol Preservation Commission to simply remove/retire the subject artwork, the Upper Sioux Community makes the following additional comments. …[Emphasis added]

The Upper Sioux letter goes on to make specific requests, such as allowing Dakota interpretations of the paintings to have “prominent and equal display.”

As currently written, the Art Subcommittee’s preliminary recommendations fall far short of that request. Recommendation 4 reads in part: “Tribal leaders and historical experts shall be solicited to participate in the interpretation of works of art with American Indian content.” The promise to “solicit participation” is weak. There is no guarantee that “participant” voices will be heard. As was the case with the Art Subcommittee’s public input process, I believe many participants left feeling they were not heard.

The reason the Art Subcommittee could declare “consensus” on leaving the art in the Capitol is not because the art isn’t offensive. It is because Native Americans have a small percentage of the population and an even smaller share of political power. Even with allies, there apparently was not enough outrage to create needed change.

In sum, the recommendations the Art Subcommittee made regarding the most offensive art was about as small a tweak as could be made and still called a change. They are rearranging two pictures in the Capitol. It’s a good move, just not enough. Better art interpretation would help, too. How that plays out is a big question mark.

Comments welcomed.

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4 thoughts on “Capitol Art Update: Timid Recommendations Put Forward by Art Subcommittee

  1. Very disappointing. I’very been amazed since I moved to Minnesota how much prejudice still exists against Native Americans (not to mention other ethnic groups). Very sad.

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  2. Offensive and racist art in our State Capitol is not how Minnesotans should want to be portrayed…is it? Do we want our children to see this art on display and feel that they’re not important but are exposed to racism in a venue that should represent equality for all? The Native American community is asking for scraps, fair and equal representation, and they still may be denied their small request. Until more people become involved fighting the good fight, apathy, racism and white privilege will dominate.

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