An upcoming segment of “Forum,” a news show produced by Saint Paul Neighborhood News (SPNN), will feature Healing Minnesota Stories Founder Jim Bear Jacobs discussing the racist art in the Minnesota State Capitol.
“I just hope that people understand that buildings hold stories,” Jacobs told SPNN Host Sanni Brown-Adefope. “And we need to have our state building — and all of our public buildings — tell a better story for our children.”
The show will air starting Wednesday, June 22, at 5 p.m. on SPNN Channel 19 (Comcast Cable). It will continue airing at 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. (and more) for about a week. It runs about 25 minutes.
The show’s producers gave us an advanced link to the show so you can start watching it now on YouTube.
Thanks to SPNN for giving Healing Minnesota Stories a broader audience to tell this important story.
Jacobs, who is Mohican, has been making similar presentations to civic groups, school classrooms, and adult education forums in congregations, for the better part of two years. He helps to analyze the images of Manifest Destiny and domination of Native Americans that are easy just to glaze over when walking through the Capitol. He asks the critical question of whether these early 20th Century images are still those we want in our state’s most important public building.
MinnPost Writes a Dud on Capitol Art
The Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission created an Art Subcommittee to make recommendations on Capitol art. The Subcommittee is scheduled to hold its last meeting this Friday and approve recommendations.
This week, MinnPost ran a story summing up the Subcommittee’s work titled: The art of deciding what the hell to do with the state Capitol’s art collection.
I have written for MinnPost. I am a regular reader and financial supporter of MinnPost. I found the story on Capitol art flawed in several ways.
The story quotes only traditional white decision makers such as Art Subcommittee tri-chairs Paul Anderson and Rep. Diane Loeffler, Subcommittee member and Commissioner of Administration Matt Massman, and David Kelliher, director of public policy for the Minnesota Historical Society. It quotes no people of color, notably neither of the two Art Subcommittee members who are Native American: Gwen Westerman or Anton Treur.
The story has the basic facts right but the language used to describe the art is muted, failing to give voice to the level of conflict that exists. (Perhaps that it because the only direct quotes in the piece are from white people.) The strongest term the article uses to describe the art is “controversial.” The art is not described as “offensive” or “racist” as many people — including white people — believe.
“Racist” is a strong term to use, so let me be clear about why I choose to use it. The two elements of racism are 1) prejudice based on race; and 2) the power to inflict harm based on that prejudice. Look at the painting “Discoverers and Civilizers Discover the Source of the Mississippi” in the Minnesota Senate Chambers. It shows a priest (one of the civilizers) confronting a Native man and woman with a cross. Behind the priest are two snarling dogs, restrained but threatening. The Native man and woman are inaccurately portrayed with little clothing to depict them as savage and in need of civilization and salvation. The woman is bared chested. On the top of the picture are two angels, classic symbols of Manifest Destiny. This painting shows a forced conversion, the depictions a clear example of prejudice plus power.
(Ask yourself: If this mural had images of another minority group, say a Jewish rabbi and a young Jewish girl instead the two Native Americans, would this painting still be in the Capitol?)
Here’s how MinnPost article glosses over the issues raised by this mural:
The giant mural on the north wall of the Senate chambers, for example, also know as the “Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi,” shows a Native American man and women at the headwaters of the river, along with their “civilizers”: a group of white people.
“That’s the challenge, trying to find that balance between a historic building that has fantastic art that was created in a different day and age,” said David Kelliher, director of public policy with the Minnesota Historical Society, manages the tours and preservation of art in the building. “It’s about preserving what we have and also opening up some new opportunities.”
The first paragraph offers a factual description with no criticism. The second paragraph seems to justify preserving the art in place. It is unclear here whether Kelliher’s comment is specific to the Senate mural, or a more generic comment about Capitol art. Because of the juxtaposition, the article leaves the impression that the “Discoverers and Civilizers” piece is “fantastic art.” There needed to be a stronger critique of this work, preferably from a Native perspective.
In the second paragraph, Kelliher says we need to find a “balance” and “preserve what we have” while opening new opportunities for art. But because the article does not raise the issue of racism, Kelliher is not asked this important question: “Can racist art be ‘balanced?'”
Clearly, some people might disagree that the art is racist. (I have no idea what Kelliher’s opinion is.) But that discussion never happened and no one was required to make that argument.
The story also failed to connect the dots and state clearly that political threats were used to squelch debate. The article notes the following two facts. First, that the art subcommittee “was established to look at big picture questions — primarily, how the Capitol should look when it reopens to the public next fall.” Second, elsewhere in the story, the article notes that the Subcommittee is taking a hands off approach to the art in the House and Senate chambers (and also the Supreme Court).
These two facts needed to be tied together more clearly. The article could have said: The Art Subcommittee failed to meet its mandate to look at the big picture. It bowed to political pressure. Its final recommendations will ignore a significant chunk of Capitol art.”
Now look at how the article describes the political pressure brought to bear on the Art Subcommittee. It offers the following unattributed statement:
There was even a suggestion to create a new Capitol art curator position, an idea that prompted a meeting with legislative leaders in March, who quickly nixed it, though not before there were discussions of suspending the art subcommittee entirely. The new role, legislators feared, had the potential to dramatically alter the look of the historic Capitol, including the House and Senate chambers.
You don’t get the sense of hard ball political pressure. Something like this would have been clearer: “Legislators exerted their power, threatening to disband the Art Subcommittee if it refused to take the proposal off the table. The Art Subcommittee bowed to the pressure.”
The last sentence in the paragraph seems to justify the legislator’s heavy handed approach. It says that “legislators feared” that an art curator could dramatically alter the look of the “historic Capitol.” That argument might sound reasonable to a lot of readers. We all like history.
Yet consider this parallel. These unidentified Minnesota power brokers defended their desire to leave the current art in place in the same way that some South Carolina legislators defended leaving the Confederate Battle Flag in place: They appealed to history and heritage.
Again, because the issue of racism is not part of the discussion, some key questions don’t get asked. To the extent you see this art as racist, the emptiness of the argument becomes apparent. The status quo argument boils down to saying that history (keeping things the same) is more important than addressing racism.
The MinnPost article states two of the paintings in the Governor’s conference room “are considered controversial by the Native American community.” That minimizes the level of public concern. Many, many white people and other people of color consider these paintings controversial and offensive.
Lastly, the article refers to the Art Subcommittee’s public engagement process. The Subcommittee held public forums across the state and had an on-line survey with 3,000-plus responses.
However, the article failed to mention the results.
According to the Subcommittee’s preliminary report, one of the most common themes to emerge from the public forums was: “Remove from the Capitol the art that some people feel is insensitive or inaccurate.” (page 33)
Some 523 people of the more than 3,000 survey responses specifically said the offensive art should be removed.
There are clearly a significant number of people who want changes in the Capitol art, specifically the removal of offensive and racist art. Whether or not it is a majority shouldn’t be the litmus test. The Capitol is the people’s house, and we need to do more to make sure that all of Minnesota’s people feel welcome there.
Two tribes wrote directly to the Subcommittee. Here is the Shakopee letter and a Leech Lake Letter. Here is an Op/Ed piece in the Star Tribune by Shelly Buck, president of the Prairie Island community, headlined: Minnesotans, it’s time to move offensive art out of the people’s house. It concludes:
We respect tradition and the need to recognize historical context, but sometimes that approach is insufficient and unjust. For this space to truly live up to its reputation as the “people’s house,” all Minnesotans must be welcomed — including the state’s first Native people.
The MinnPost article does not ask Subcommittee members: Based on your own public input process and other public comments, why are you content to leave so many people feeling disenfranchised by the art?