Capitol Art Subcommittee Bows to Political Pressure, Ducks Tough Questions

Senate mural: "The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi," one of the more disturbing paintings for its image of forced conversion.
Senate mural: “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi,” one of the more disturbing paintings for its image of forced conversion.

The Capitol Art Subcommittee has shown incredible skill in ducking tough questions about the offensive and racist art in the Minnesota State Capitol and whether or not to move it.

In its most recent meeting, May 5, the Subcommittee shifted gears, moving off of the debate about historic art and starting to talk about criteria for adding new art.

We will save that “new art” discussion for the another blog, but here are a few takeaways from last week’s meeting:

  • The Art Subcommittee has accelerated its time table to complete its final report. It will now finish by the end of June instead of the end of the summer, as it announced earlier. (The Subcommittee got pressure from the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Committee finish its work early because the work on the Capitol is moving forward quickly.)
  • Each Subcommittee member will get the opportunity to write a personal note in the report, 500-600 words each, expressing their opinions on the two most controversial paintings in the Governor’s Reception Room, the Father Hennepin painting and the painting of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. (The current recommendation is to move them out of the Governor’s Conference Room to somewhere else in the Capitol.)
  • One of the main “status quo” arguments for leaving the offensive art in the Capitol is that it provides an important history lesson. By providing better historical interpretation, the argument goes, Capitol visitors could get a more complete story of the state’s history. Unfortunately, there still does not appear to be money in the budget to pay for the historical interpretation. So for now it will be the same old story.

Lastly, let’s take one more look at the Art Subcommittee’s ability to speak out of both sides of its mouth. (It’s a topic we have covered before, but it’s one that cannot be emphasized enough.)

On one hand, the Art Subcommittee’s preliminary report talks about this major renovation as being “an unprecedented opportunity to review the conservation, placement and display of art in the Capitol.”  Then, from the other side of the mouth, the Subcommittee abdicates responsibility for making recommendations about offensive art in significant portions of the Capitol.

The latest iteration of the Subcommittee’s “not my job” language emerged at the May 5 meeting with this proposed language:

The Subcommittee recognizes that the Minnesota State Capitol building serves several different functions and while it is a quintessential public building it is also a working building that is the home of many tenants. Certain spaces are both the work spaces for tenants and also spaces open to the public. Three examples of such spaces are the House Chambers, the Senate Chambers, and the Supreme Court Courtroom. All three of these spaces contain artwork. The Subcommittee acknowledges that some Minnesotans have raised concerns regarding some of the artwork currently on display in the House and Senate Chambers. The Subcommittee has heard and considered these concerns and have included them in this report for the benefit of the Preservation Commission. But, the Subcommittee has agreed to defer to these three bodies to decide how to address these concerns. We do so with the understanding that any decisions made by those bodies regarding the art work in their respective chambers shall comply with and adhere to the guidelines and policies of any governing body charged with establishing general and specific guidelines and policies for art work in the Minnesota State Capitol.

That’s a mouthful. Retired Justice Paul Anderson, one of the tri-chairs, pushed this language without asking for a vote. It is elegantly bureaucratic language,  a rhetorical triumph that twists language so that somehow ducking responsibility is reasonable.

Let’s look at the language a little more closely.

First, it says the Capitol is a “quintessential public building.” Then, it turns around and talks about the importance of the building’s tenants, Senators and Representative. Calling the Capitol a “quintessential public building” is paying it lip service. Clearly by its actions, the Subcommittee is saying the tenants’ interests trump the public’s interest.

Second, the language says: “Some Minnesotans have raised concerns” about some of the art. This vague and dismissive language about “some people” gives little weight to the voice of dissent. (If these “some people” were “important people” clearly the Subcommittee would need to respond.)

Third, the language continues: “The Subcommittee has agreed to defer to these three bodies to decide how to address these concerns.” By stating that the Subcommittee has “agreed to defer” it makes it sounds like the group actually did something: they made a decision; they took action — they chose to defer! In fact, they ducked the tough question.

Lastly, the language says that any decisions made by the House, Senate or Supreme Court “regarding the art work in their respective chambers shall comply with and adhere to the guidelines and policies” in place. Well, that sounds pretty reasonable. Yet what it means is that we have reinforced the status quo. Current policies have not challenged the existing racist messages in the art and we have no reason to believe they will in the future.

Anderson tried to make the Subcommittee’s inaction almost impossible to avoid. The Subcommittee faced political pressure, he said. Some politicians threatened to “terminate our mandate” if the Subcommittee pressed for significant changes in art. The draft language he proposed was “pragmatic” and “politically designed” in response to the push back they have received from the House and Senate.

“You have to be aware of the politics,” Anderson said.

It feels like this vague political threat Anderson alludes to is just a pretext for Anderson and others to do what they want to do and leave the art in place. Using this threat as an excuse, they avoid taking responsibility for making a recommendation. It’s sad. The opportunity to make a principled stand is lost.

So racist art apparently stays on the wall.

What a sad commentary for something Anderson once characterized as a “once in a 100 year opportunity.”

2 thoughts on “Capitol Art Subcommittee Bows to Political Pressure, Ducks Tough Questions

  1. The gentlest word that can be voiced is “disappointing.” There are many others.

    It’s hard to believe that after the many many hours of discussion, the many many voices from those most directly affected by the racist images, that this would be the conclusion. The feigned interest in listening by the committee does nothing to help the healing and reconciliation process.

    Apologies to brothers and sisters who hoped for so much more.


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