Minnesota Capitol Art Update: Unfinished Business For the Next Set of Leaders

This is where the painting of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux used to hang in the Minnesota Governor’s Reception Room.

Two offensive paintings that once hung in the Minnesota Governor’s Reception Room have been taken down, leaving bare walls.

The painting of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux used to hang over the fireplace. It was the prominent backdrop to any major media event held in this room.

This is where the painting of Father Hennepin “Discovering” the Falls of St. Anthony used to hang.

At the far end of the Reception Room hung a painting showing Father Hennepin “discovering” the Falls at St. Anthony. It, too, was taken down and moved.

The Art Subcommittee charged with making recommendations about Capitol art yielded to pressure to remove these two problematic paintings from such a prominent space. Sadly, it couldn’t bring itself to move them out of the Capitol altogether into a museum where they belong.

Photo of Cass Gilbert Library space (taken before the problematic paintings from the Governor’s Reception Room paintings were rehung there.)

Both of these works have been moved to a space called the “Cass Gilbert Library,” named for the Capitol’s architect. This is a low traffic area on the Capitol’s third floor, on the far end of the east wing.

The Art Subcommittee recommended keeping the other four large paintings in the Governor’s Reception Room in place; all four are Civil War battle scenes

The Battle of Nashville painting in the Governor’s Reception Room. The new art has to somehow complement this and other Civil War paintings.

involving Minnesota regiments. That decisoin puts the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) in something of an aesthetic  jam.

MHS has to find new art for those two blank walls. They have to be right size, and they have to fit artistically. Further — we hope — they represent something that happened in the state after the 19th Century.

It will be a challenge.

It appears that these spaces will remain empty for some time, according to an email statement from Jessica Kohen, public relations manager for the Minnesota Historical Society.

We have not made any decisions about new art for the Governor’s Reception Room. Our Executive Council (governing board) is working with MNHS staff to put together a plan for this work. This work will take some time.

For those relatively new to this issue, here is a recap.

The debate about art in the Minnesota State Capitol was purely an afterthought as part of a $330 million renovation. The planning for the Capitol renovation started back in 2011 and the Master Plan was approved in 2012.

The project was well underway when, during a 2014 Minnesota Capitol Preservation Commission meeting, Governor Dayton mused about why his Reception Room needed so many battle scenes. (Star Tribune article here.) That created an the opening for some to raise the issue of removing art with offensive and inaccurate images of Native Americans and early Minnesota History.

An Art Subcommittee was put together, but it did not start its work until March, 2015, well after significant work had begun. The Subcommittee had no budget.

What Was Wrong with the Two Painting in the Governor’s Reception Room?

The Signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux painting gives an incredibly one-sided version of history. Under the treaty, the Dakota people ceded 24 million acres of land to the United States—roughly one third of Minnesota plus portions of Iowa and the Dakotas. The painting represents the treaty signing as a fair, calm negotiation between two sides with equal power. It does not square with what we know of the process.

Historian William Lass wrote: “As the treaty’s terms were explained to them, the chiefs and headmen realized they were being presented with an ultimatum. Collectively, they concluded it was better to sign and get something for their land rather than refuse and run the risk of simply having it taken from them.” In the end, the Dakota people were cheated out of a great deal of their settlement money. The U.S. failed to honor the treaty terms, which led to the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862.

The Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony painting is historically inaccurate. It goes without saying that Father Hennepin did not discover the falls anymore than Columbus discovered America.

This painting shows Father Hennepin and his cross towering over the Dakota people, implying he was in charge. He was not. At the time of his visit to the falls, Hennepin was a Dakota prisoner. Note the Native woman at right carrying a heavy pack. She is inaccurately depicted as half naked, the artist’s way of implying her lack of “civilization.”

The Art Subcommittee was silent on recommendations for this mural in the Minnesota State Senate which shows the forced conversion of Native Americans.

Other than presentations by two members on the Art Subcommittee who are Native American — Prof. Gwen Westerman (Dakota) and Prof. Anton Treur (Ojibwe) — the Subcommittee failed to engage in a significant way with the difficult issues of Manifest Destiny and racism in the art.

It was a deeply flawed process that failed to engage the public in a meaningful way, too.

The only person outside of Subcommittee members who was allowed to give direct testimony was Major General Rick Nash, Commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Military Affairs and the Adjutant General. He defended keeping all of the Civil War paintings in the Governor’s Conference Room. (Here is a link to his 27-page testimony.)

By its process, the Art Subcommittee tipped the scales in favor of keeping the Civil War paintings — the one issue that got the art conversation started. (See Strib article here.) Unhappy, Dayton responded in 2017 by trying to strip the Minnesota Historical Society of its role in historic preservation. (Strib article here.)

The Art Subcommittee had some membership changes during its work. Of the 13 members now listed on the website, eight were white men (62 percent); less than one-third were people of color.

The Subcommittee’s membership and its decision to use a consensus process pretty much assured there would be no major changes recommended. Significantly, the Subcommittee failed to make any recommendations about controversial art in the House and Senate chambers, apparently bowing to behind-the-scenes pressure from legislators that the Subcommittee could get disbanded if it crossed that line.

The Art Subcommittee kicked the proverbial can down the road to the next set of leaders.

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