Work Proceeds to Create Counter Narratives to Racist Murals in St. Paul

End-of-Year Deadline Set to Complete Work

A community Task Force created by the Ramsey County Historical Society has begun work to change the art — and the racist  narratives it promotes — in the chambers shared by the St. Paul City Council and Ramsey County Courthouse.

The Task Force held its first meeting more than a month ago and but some basic details still are in the works. For instance, the names of Task Force members have not been released as the list is not yet final.

The Task Force expects to complete its work by November or December, according to an update from Chad Roberts, the Historical Society’s executive director.

One of the four murals.

Problem with the Murals

Four large murals in the chambers depict white supremacy and Manifest Destiny, creating an unwelcoming space for many citizens who come there to speak to their elected officials. The murals were installed in 1931, and discussions about the need for an overhaul go back to the 1970s.

Each mural depicts a scene from St. Paul’s development, from early explorers to an industrialized city. Dominating the top half of each mural is a white man: A voyageur, a surveyor, a river boat captain, and an industrial worker. The bottom of each mural has a series of smaller scenes.

Women are almost absent from the art. When a scene shows a white man with person of color, almost without exception the white man is positioned above them in the position of power.

The Task Force’s purpose is to: “Advise Ramsey County and the City of Saint Paul regarding the installation of additional, new artwork and interpretive panels in the Council Chambers that reflect the people and progress of Saint Paul in an inclusive manner,” according to  Roberts’ email.

Task Force meetings are not open to the public. But the Task Force does plan to hold several community forums to answer public questions and get feedback. Some meetings will be held at the East Side Freedom Library and will be filmed. The Historical Society also has a web page with project updates. It plans to add educational materials regarding controversial or problematic public art, both here in Minnesota and around the world.

The Plan

An inset in one of the murals.

The current plan is to create art to cover two of the four murals at any one time. The covered murals will rotate. (Community advocacy is needed to convince city and county leaders that they should remove all four murals and relocate them somewhere outside a seat of government.)

According to Roberts’ email:

Artists will be encouraged to follow the major themes in the current murals: transportation, industry, and labor. The art needs to show connection to St. Paul/Ramsey County, be inclusive, and show positive community developments.

Roberts added this caveat:

The purpose of the original art, and therefore to some extent these pieces, is the celebration of positive developments in the community. [Muralist John] Norton did not achieve that in a variety of ways. For our purposes, it is reasonable that not everything an artist chooses to portray will be positive, or at least not positive to all audiences, that is ok.

The murals are quite large. To save money, artists will be asked to create original two-dimensional art 18 inches by 60 inches. It will be scanned and enlarged to fill the space. Artists will receive a $2,500 commission.

The art does not have to be contemporary. “Anything from about 1850 to today is fair game,” Roberts wrote. An approach that combines pre- and post-European arrival also will be considered.

Artists do not need to be local to apply, but local artists are strongly preferred. Groups of artists may offer a joint proposal.

Click here for the on-line artist application.

We will update with new information as it becomes available.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s