How to Deal with Controversial Public Art: Lessons from Italy

There was some discussion about removing this inscription in front of the Minnesota House of Representatives. Instead, it got new gold leaf.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that when Italy has a controversial political problem, it turns to its artists.

Hey Minnesota, check this out. Remember when we got all tied in knots over how to address our  controversial Capitol art? Oh that we had known about Bolzano, a city of 100,000 in northernmost Italy. An opinion piece in The Guardian tells the story of how Bolzano officials dealt with a controversial World War II-era public building featuring a massive bas-relief of facist leader Benito Mussolini on horseback. “The sculpture bore the slogan ‘Credere, Obbedire, Combattere’ (‘Believe, Obey, Combat”), the story said. (Yep, that’s, creepy.)

In the polarizing frame of “preserve or destroy” the mural, city leaders chose a third way. According to the story:

A public bid was launched, soliciting ideas over how to “defuse and contextualize” the politically charged frieze. Open to artists, architects, historians, and “anyone involved in the cultural sphere”, the bid explicitly stated that the intention was to “transform the bas-relief into a place of memory … so that it will no longer be visible directly, but accessible thoughtfully, within an appropriately explanatory context”.

Almost 500 proposals were submitted and evaluated by a jury composed of local civil society figures, including a history professor, a museum curator, an architect, an artist and a journalist.

This Senate mural and its image of the forced conversion of Native peoples remains in place and still has no interpretation or acknowledgement of why it is offensive.

Compare that to how we dealt with controversial art in the Minnesota Capitol. The ad hoc Art Subcommittee took no public testimony. Its final report lacked the political courage to name the images of Manifest Destiny or discuss why the Capitol art was controversial. With behind-the-scenes threats of being disbanded if it went too far, the Subcommittee issued a report that offered little in the way of creative solutions, apparently hoping the problem would go away.

This homage to Manifest Destiny got moved out of the Governor’s Conference Room to the third floor.

Yes, two controversial paintings got moved out of the high-profile Governor’s Reception Room and into a low traffic area on the third floor. A couple of other paintings, including one depicting a Dakota/Lakota massacre, got quietly shunted off to a museum. Yet there was no ceremony to acknowledge the move. We are still unable to face our past and talk about it honestly.

Yes, moving the art was a good step by the Minnesota Historical Society, but not a bold one.

As for Bolzano and its Mussolini mural, the article says:

The winning proposal is as powerful as it is simple. Superimposed upon the bas-relief is now an LED-illuminated inscription of a quote by the German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt that reads “Nobody has the right to obey” in the three local languages: Italian, German and Ladin.

Click on the story link for the image.

Debates over public art are — and will continue — playing out across the country, notably around confederate memorials in the south. Here in Minnesota, we still have time to be creative. What should we do with that Columbus statue on the Minnesota Capitol’s front lawn?

Let’s ask our artists.

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