Art Subcommittee’s Slouch Towards the Status Quo

The Subcommittee delivered its preliminary report to the State Capitol Preservation Commission on Feb. 23, and we already offered our initial critique in our Feb. 25. blog. The Art Subcommittee met again Friday March 4, and continued to demonstrate some odd gravitational attraction to the status quo.

1. The Subcommittee is voluntarily limiting its review and recommendations on Capitol art, apparently concerned about controversy and political push back: The Subcommittee’s preliminary recommendations have already stated that:

Certain areas are not subject to consideration: 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.

Leaders, notably Tri-Chair Paul Anderson, appear worried that recommending changes to the House or Senate art would be opposed by House and Senate leaders. On Friday, the Subcommittee reported it had received a letter from Supreme Court Justice Laurie Gildea asking that the Supreme Court be given similar discretion over art decisions in its chambers. [The letter is not yet publicly available.] The Subcommittee didn’t take action but seemed to be leaning towards including the Supreme Court Chambers in the “Hands Off” category.

Comment: This is a sign of timidity. Facing a once-in-a-century decision, the Subcommittee wants to avoid controversy.

2. In a stunning new development, the Subcommittee now wants talk to Tim Pawlenty, Jesse Ventura and other ex-Governors to see what they think of the art. The biggest recommendation to come out of the Subcommittee is a proposal to move two controversial paintings out of the Governor’s Reception Room to some other spot in the Capitol, one of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and the other of Father Hennepin “Discovering” the Falls at St. Anthony. Why did the Subcommittee feel too squeamish to make a recommendation about House and Senate art but feel free to weigh in on the Governor’s Conference Room? Because Governor Dayton asked them to make a recommendation. Now enters Sen. Richard Cohen, a Subcommittee member making his first committee appearance. He notes that any recommended changes will have a long lasting impact and asks the Subcommittee to take into account the thoughts of past governors. The Subcommittee agrees.

Comment: So the solution is to ask old white men for more advice. To be clear, Wendall Anderson, Al Quie, Arne Carlson, Pawlenty and Ventura all had the opportunity to propose changes to the art when they were in office and did not. They also could have participated in the recent public review process. They did not. This latest proposal from Cohen has the appearance of trying to slow down the minimal change that is moving forward.

3. Subcommittee leadership is downplaying Governor Dayton’s request for change: The Subcommittee’s report recommends leaving all four Civil War paintings in the Governor’s Reception Room. Dayton was clear at the Feb. 23 meeting of the State Capitol Preservation Commission that he was not comfortable with that decision, freezing Minnesota history in the 19th Century. At the March 4 Art Subcommittee meeting, Anderson characterized Dayton’s comment as “a mild suggestion, not a mandate.”

Comment: Dayton’s concerns were more than “a mild suggestion.” The entire discussion around Capitol art started at a 2013 Capitol Preservation Commission meeting when Governor Dayton questioned whether they needed to have Civil War art dominate the Reception Room. At the Feb. 23 hearing, Dayton repeated his concerns: “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 follow-up press conference, he went on to say that: “I am very uncomfortable being in there and having that be the presentation.” Anderson’s summary of Dayton’s comments appear to reflect Anderson’s preference for the status quo more than Dayton’s actual opinions.

4. Anderson sees minimal media attention as a good sign, but there are other interpretations: Anderson noted that the media paid little attention to the Subcommittee’s preliminary report to the State Capitol Preservation Commission. His conclusion was it was a sign of “a job well done” and “a balanced report.”

Comment: The other possible explanation is that there was so little significant change in the recommendations that the media didn’t think it merited a story.

5. A key part of the Art Subcommittee recommendations is that the Capitol art get better historic interpretation — but that might be more wish than reality. The preliminary report states:

Robust interpretation of works of art and other public programs in the Capitol will require funding that would be both one-time and ongoing. We recommend that this funding should be provided.

Sen. Cohen, the Senate Finance Chair, told the Art Subcommittee that the budget forecast was “disquieting” and it should not count on additional money for interpretation.

Comment: This means we could have a plan to keep offensive and racist art in the Capitol and justify that decision because it will have better interpretation … and then not fund the interpretation. That is a bad outcome, preserving the status quo.

Next Up:

The Subcommittee will have conversations in April about the implications of the Minnesota State Capitol being listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and other possible regulatory restrictions. (It seems odd that this conversation didn’t happen earlier in the process.)

The Final Report is expected in early September, but any delays could create problem with implementing recommendations. Once the Subcommittee finishes its report, it has to go to the State Capitol Preservation Commission for approval. And then the changes needed to be implemented while the clock is ticking to reopen the Capitol. It will reopen in stages. The main part is supposed to be ready to open in January 2017 for the start of the legislative session.

One thought on “Art Subcommittee’s Slouch Towards the Status Quo

  1. Perhaps noted art critic and all ’round athlete & Governor Ventura would have some light to shed. (NOPE) Nor any of the previous governors. They are out of office, retired, past, over-and-done. We don’t ask them to weigh in on legislation either. And for good reason. They are out of office, etc., etc., etc.

    I agree: it’s being too timid to fix a long-standing grievance. Sad.


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