Capitol Art Update: Adding New Art; Lessons from Maine

Phase II of the Minnesota Capitol art debate is about to get underway. Let’s hope it is more productive than Phase I.

As readers of this blog know, Phase I involved a review of the existing art, including major pieces with offensive images of Native Americans and mythologized views of early Minnesota history. In spite of requests to move offensive art, the Art Subcommittee charged with making recommendations is proposing rearranging a few paintings inside the Capitol, a very disappointing result.

Phase II involves deciding what new art — and new stories — to add to the Minnesota State Capitol and where it should be displayed. That conversation kicks off at the next Art Subcommittee meeting tomorrow, Friday, May 6, 10 a.m.-noon, at the Minnesota Judicial Center, G-6.

There is not much more to say on the topic just yet, so let’s return to our review of art in other state Capitols to see what lessons they might hold. Today, we check out the state of Maine, which offers a couple of important lessons about Capitol art.

The Maine State House doesn't appear to have much art.
The Maine State House doesn’t appear to have much art.

Maine does not have an online self guided tour of its State House, or much in the way of other materials to help assess the art. From what is available, the Maine State House does not appear to have any historical artwork comparable to Minnesota, with our images of Manifest Destiny and stereotypes of naked Natives. At the same time, there were no paintings that would say the area’s original peoples — the Abenaki, the Maliseet, the Passamaquoddy, and the Penobscot — ever existed.

Still, Minnesota can learn a few things from Maine’s experience. It has added new and rotating art that gives expression and opportunities to local artists. The program, managed by the Maine Arts Commission, is called Art in the Capitol. One recent exhibit celebrated Acadia National Park. Currently on display is a photo exhibit of 17 small Maine towns.

The Art Commission’s website says:

The Art in the Capitol program features work throughout the Capitol Complex and offers Maine artists an additional venue for their work. It is designed to expand the audience for Maine artists or artists working in Maine on Maine-based themes.

This is a variation on a theme that we have seen in other state Capitols, and one Minnesota should explore. On one end of the spectrum, Alaska has a program to display student art in its Capitol. At the other end of the spectrum is New Mexico, where the Capitol art collection is overseen by a Capitol Art Foundation. (Note the contrast: in Minnesota historians and the Minnesota Historical Society have a primary say about Capitol art; in Maine and New Mexico, the artists are key decision makers.) According to the New Mexico website: “The Capitol Art Collection … is among the most comprehensive collections of contemporary art in the region, featuring works by artists from Taos to Tucumcari and everywhere in between.”

After some digging, we did find at least one example in the Maine State House where new art does refer to the state’s first peoples. Added in 2001, the granite sculpture is called “Communique.” (No images available online.) A Maine government staff person provided the following description.

The texts are excerpts from French-Abenaki dictionaries compiled by two French Jesuit missionaries, Joseph Aubéry and Sebastian Rasles in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s.

At that time, no Native American languages were written. Since then, following the disruption of the Abenaki Nation, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Tribes developed their own similar but distinct languages.  For this piece, some of the original Abenaki entries have been translated and rewritten in contemporary Passamaquoddy and Penobscot, reflecting the on-going work that is vital to maintaining cultural expression.

A theme of communication was chosen for this piece because of its fundamental role in a diverse representational democracy. It is a phenomenon of dictionaries and translations that the commonalities behind that diversity are made visible.

Important to note, this piece of art is in “The Connector,” an underground tunnel connecting public buildings in Maine’s Capitol complex. This raises a critical question for Minnesota as it decides what new art it will add to the Capitol: Will the new art place of prominence, or will it get stuck in the dingy tunnels connecting the Capitol with the State Office Building?

A final footnote to our review of Maine. The state recently had a major political dust-up over a mural of labor history. The mural wasn’t in the State House, but in the context of the “politics of art” it certainly bears mentioning here.

The labor mural was seen by relatively few people, according to a 2011 article in the Washington Post. It hung in “an obscure Labor Department waiting room on the outskirts of Augusta. Completed in 2008 for a $60,000 commission, the mural seemed safely out of the political fray.” It has numerous panels depicting labor history, such as a scene from the Bath Iron Works and a strike at a paper mill.

In 2011, just a few years after it was installed, Governor Paul LePage ordered it dismantled and stored. According to the Post article:

… in 2010, Republicans swept into power, and organized labor became a preferred target of conservative governors nationwide. …

LePage … has explained his decision to remove the mural by citing an anonymous fax from a “secret admirer” comparing the 36-foot wall painting to something in “communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.”

The controversy gained a lot of media attention. The mural was eventually moved to the Maine State Museum, which is in the Maine State House.

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