Minnesota Capitol Restoration: The Awe and the Awful

Minnesota State Capitol reopens after renovation, but final touches still being applied.
Minnesota State Capitol reopens after renovation, but final touches are still being applied.

The Minnesota State Capitol reopened for business on Tuesday after being closed for a $300 million renovation. The restoration is ongoing, but the legislature convened and the show must go on.

The Minnesota Historical Society promotion says: “Come visit your shiny new Minnesota State Capitol—refurbished, renovated and restored from top to bottom. Ooh and aah over its gleaming marble, magnificent murals, vibrant paintings and more, all restored to their original 1905 perfection.” Minnesota Public Radio ran a story on the new look Capitol with the headline: The awe is back.

It’s not that simple. There is both new beauty as well as retained historical ugliness. The MPR story included this telling line: “… planners didn’t want to tinker too much with history.”

That’s a shame. There is some history that we should not continue to glorify, such as the denigration and the genocide of Native Americans. Just because the renovation is over, the criticism isn’t. We should not delight in being frozen in 1905. Significantly, some artwork fails to reflect our values, an unacceptable situation in our the state’s most important public building.

Let’s look at the awe and the awful.

The Awe

The Capitol walls are bare, for now.
The Capitol walls are bare, for now.

The Capitol renovation is not complete. In spite of what the Minnesota Historical Society’s pr says, one of the first things you notice walking the Capitol halls is there is no art hanging — no governor’s portraits, nothing. Some art still is being restored and perhaps they don’t want to put it back on the walls piecemeal.

Untitled painting in the Minnesota Attorney General's Office.
Untitled painting in the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.

Given the unadorned nature of the public spaces, it was a nice surprise to turn into the Attorney General’s Office and see this wonderful painting by John Pieron.

I wish I could tell you more about it, but no one I talked to had the background. It doesn’t have title on it. A quick Internet search didn’t reveal much about Mr. Pieron. The Minnesota Historical Society staff that lead the Capitol tours said it was not a historical painting and they did not have its history. They are looking into it.

Governor's historic private dining room (basement) was restored.
Governor’s historic private dining room (basement) was restored.

The next hidden art gem is a 1935 mural of the Pigeon River. It is in the newly restored and historic “Governor’s Private Dining Room” in the Capitol basement. The mural’s painter is an unknown artist who worked for the State Emergency Relief Agency, according to Minnesota Historical Society staff. It has a great 3-D effect.

There is a lot of beauty in the Capitol — the marble is gleaming and the mural colors are much more vibrant. Here is one example, the mural over the Minnesota Supreme Court Chambers.

The colors in the restored murals really pop.
The mural’s colors really pop.

Space for New Art

One of the big — and legitimate — criticisms of art in the Minnesota State Capitol is that it does little if anything to reflect the rich diversity of our state’s peoples. When school children of color take a tour of the Capitol, there is no art that says that African American, Somali, Hispanic, Hmong or Native American people have a seat at the table.

One new space for art: The new stone columns in the expanded basement.
One new space for art: The new stone columns in the expanded basement.

That is supposed to change. The renovation opens up space for new art. One hope that Healing Minnesota Stories has is that some space could be dedicated to a rotating exhibit of student art. (See our website for more details.)

One possible site for new artwork is in the Capitol basement. The renovation opened up new space and beautiful new stone columns and walls (left).

The corridor on the southeast corner of the Capitol's third floor can hold new art, too.
The corridor on the southeast corner of the Capitol’s third floor have space for new art, too. The “Why Treaties Matter” exhibit is now on display there.

A second site for new artwork is in the southeast corner of the third floor, above the Minnesota Supreme Court chambers. The corridors currently display posters from the traveling exhibit: Why Treaties Matter.

The challenge with both the basement site and the third floor site is that they don’t get as much traffic as the Capitol’s main floors. When the Minnesota Historical Society starts rehanging the artwork, it will be interesting to see which pieces get the prime real estate. Will it be the art reflecting Minnesota today with its diverse peoples? Or will it be the governors portraits or other pieces of historic art.

Also, it is not clear there is even a budget to commission new artwork, let alone better interpretive signs. This could take awhile. Stay tuned.

Stay tuned.

The Awful

One significant artistic edit came out of the restoration process. State leaders decided to relocated two controversial paintings out of their prominent position in the Governor’s Reception Room to somewhere else in the Capitol (to be determined). One painting is an image of white European superiority, showing Father Hennepin “discovering” St. Anthony Falls while a half naked Dakota woman carries a 100-pound pack. The other painting shows the signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, which amounted to a swindle of Dakota lands which enriched white traders.

The plan calls for better historic interpretation. The fact that they are remaining at all is disappointing. They do not belong in the Capitol, they bel0ng in a museum.

State leaders left other offensive art in place. Here are examples, in their new vibrant colors.

Awfulest: The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi.
The Worst: The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi.

This Senate Chamber mural (above) reflects Native American genocide. The fact that the Minnesota Historical Society and a majority of lawmakers fail to see the message is dumbfounding.  The Native man and woman are depicted as uncivilized, cornered by the Discoverers and Civilizers. The Native people have two choices, either face the attack dog or accept the cross, a forced conversion and the end of their lifeways. The European travelers have God on their side, with the benefit of the divine intervention of angels.

This is an ugly image and it is allowed to stay in its prominent position in the Senate Chambers. No one has offered any response to the criticism that this painting depicts the very opposite of Freedom of Religion.

Next, the House Chambers has a major sculpture of two pioneers paired with two Native people. A saying inscribed at the bottom (newly regilded) reads: “The Trail of the Pioneer Bore the Footprints of Liberty.”

capitol-footprints

The implicit message is that Europeans brought liberty here, that it did not exist prior to colonization. A poster in the “Why Treaties Matter” exhibit offers a counter narrative (but it is displayed in the much-less-traveled third floor space.)

capitol-7

This is to say that Native peoples were sovereign and free prior to European contact. In fact, the “Trail of the Pioneers” was the beginning of the end for their freedom.

Lastly, there are a series of paintings, called lunettes, in the Capitol rotunda titled: “Civilization of the Northwest.” They depict a young man coming from the east to “civilize” the land that is to become Minnesota. Here is the second lunette in the series:

Rotunda Lunette #2 in the "Civilization of the Northwest.
Rotunda Lunette #2 in the “Civilization of the Northwest.

This is an allegorical painting in which the young man scourges the land of savagery (represented by a bear), cowardice (represented by a cougar), sin (a woman with the head of a fox carrying the deadly nightshade plant), and stupidity (a stooped dark figure holding a sprig of stramonium, another deadly plant.) So the message is, prior to the arrival of Europeans, the land and its inhabitants were savage, cowardly, sinful, and stupid. The painting even offers a flawed theology, suggesting this young man can himself, with his whip, clear the land of sin.

I understand people liking historic things. But are these still the stories we want to tell about ourselves and our state in the 21st Century? Sadly, they seem to be.

Art Subcommittee Failed

These criticisms will be old news to regular readers of this blog, but the critiques bear repeating. Now that the murals have been restored, it will be even harder to get some of them removed.

This blog spent a fair amount of effort in 2016 writing about Capitol art and the work of the Art Subcommittee. The Subcommittees’  mission was to review the art and come up with recommendations. I will not repeat the past criticisms made here about the Subcommittee’s work other than to say the incremental changes it proposed were very disappointing.

The problem seems to be that the arts history seems to trump what it portrays in terms of vision and values. Just a thought. Perhaps the problem is the inordinate control the Minnesota Historical Society has over the State Capitol. Not surprising, it treats the building as a historical site. Maybe its time we start treating the building like what it is, a seat of government in a quickly changing world.

Maybe its time to change the Capitol’s oversight structure so we don’t remain stuck in 1905.

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One thought on “Minnesota Capitol Restoration: The Awe and the Awful

  1. This is an excellent, thought-provoking post. It is very helpful to have specific examples.

    It would be good to know more about the political intent behind such an imposing building. Glorification of the state? Celebration of economic and military success?

    I do not find the building or most of the activities within it to be welcoming, but perhaps that’s a reflection of my own political orientation. If I were a fat-cat lobbyist would I like it better…..?

    Most historical society and historic preservation and even art history people seem very reactionary in their personal and organizational politics, so perhaps they are not well positioned to appreciate the points you have been making.

    Liked by 1 person

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