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.

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Growing Scrutiny of Public Art, Next Up: Edward Cornwallis

The sun is setting on the Edward Cornwallis statue.

Public art is getting long overdue scrutiny, from Confederate statues in Louisiana to historical paintings in the Minnesota State Capitol to the Scaffold sculpture controversy at the Walker Art Center. This is more than a few isolated incidents, it feels more like a movement.

This fact hit me square on while visiting Nova Scotia earlier this month. I wasn’t expecting any public art controversies, but there it was. I picked up a copy of the Globe and Mail and one of the first headlines I read said: Halifax mayor speaks out against protesters’ plan to remove Cornwallis statue. It was a familiar story:

Tensions over how Halifax honours its contentious founder are growing as a plan to topple the statue of Edward Cornwallis from a downtown park circulates on social media.

A Facebook event called “Removing Cornwallis” invites people to a protest Saturday to “peacefully remove” the large bronze statue from atop a large stone pedestal.

This is not a far-away story. This is our story, too. It’s one more facet of the Doctrine of Discovery and the European mindset towards indigenous peoples that spans our continent.

Cornwallis is controversial for the same reason that Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota’s first Governor, is controversial. Both men were agents of empire, forcing indigenous peoples from their lands. Both used brutal tactics. Cornwallis issued a proclamation promising a bounty for the scalp of every Mi’kmaq (also called Mi’kmaw, the First Nations people of Nova Scotia). Similarly, Ramsey put a bounty on Dakota scalps after the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862.

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Reflections on “Scaffold”: Artistic Freedom, the Son of Sam, and Repentance

“Scaffold” sculpture was removed from the Walker Sculpture Garden.

The Walker Art Center made the right decision when it agreed to remove Scaffold from its new Sculpture Garden, yet for some thorny questions of artistic freedom remain.

We get stuck in this debate when we see the decision to remove Scaffold as a referendum on artistic freedom. That polarizes people. Yes, we deeply value artistic freedom, yet we hold other deep values, too, like fairness and inclusion. When values don’t line up on a particular decision, we have a difficult choice to make.

So here’s the question: In the case of Scaffold, how would those of us who agree with removing the sculpture describe our deeper values, those that in this case override our value for artistic freedom?

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Will Walker Embrace Institutional Changes in the Wake of “Scaffold” Controversy?

Olga Viso, Executive Director of the Walker Art Center at the Wednesday news conference.

The Walker Art Center will look for ways to bring more diversity and perspective to its board and staff following the recent controversy over the Scaffold Sculpture, said Olga Viso, Walker’s executive director.

She made her comments at a Wednesday news conference announcing an agreement to remove the sculpture, part of a mediation between Dakota elders, the Walker, and the sculpture’s artist, Sam Durant. In her formal remarks, Viso said:

“We pledge to host forums for continued listening and learning. We will reach out to Native communities including Upper Sioux, Lower Sioux, Shakopee and Prairie Island nations who have asked for dialogue and continued dialogue …

We will help bridge gaps of understanding among staff, among our board, among our audiences. We will examine our institutional structures and work to make structural change, which will take time.

Later in the Q&A, she was asked to elaborate on what institutional changes she envisioned to bring more voices to the table. She gave a brief answer: “So talking about representation on the board, more representation on the staff,” she said, and creating forums and other opportunities “to forge more deep connections for consultations so this doesn’t happen again.” Continue reading

Historical Society Wins Battle Over Capitol Art, but Loses War with Governor; Trump Budget Hurts Indian Country

Minnesota Historical Society set to lose its preservation authority, according to a story in the Star Tribune.

A painting of The Battle of Nashville hangs in the Governor’s Reception room, one of four Civil War paintings. Did a dust-up over art cost the Minnesota Historical Society its preservation role?

Under an omnibus bill Dayton is expected to sign today, the State Historic Preservation Office would be moved from the Minnesota Historical Society to the Minnesota Department of Administration.

Dayton proposed this move just a few months after the historical society and he disagreed over renovations to the Governor’s Conference Room, the story said.

The Governor’s Conference Room had six major paintings, including four Civil War scenes. The other two paintings concerned early events between Native Americans and explorers and settlers. One shows Father Hennepin “discovering” St. Anthony Falls; the other depicts the signing of the Treaty of Traverse Des Sioux, a coerced deal in which the Dakota ceded most of their lands. Native Americans and their allies wanted these two pieces removed.

Dayton didn’t see the need to fill the room with so much historic Civil War art. (See this Pioneer Press story or this Star Tribune story for more details.)

I sat through many hearings of the Art Subcommittee that debated art decisions for the newly renovated Capitol.The result of the lengthy process was that not much changed. The Father Hennepin and Treaty paintings will get moved out of the Governor’s Conference Room and the Civil War painting stay.

The Historical Society participated in this process. It’s my opinion that for the most part, staff had a deaf ear to proposals for major changes, particularly addressing issues of art that had offensive depictions of Native Americans. Further, the Art Subcommittee’s public participation process was deeply flawed. The only outside interests allowed to testify before the Subcommittee were people who supported keeping the Civil War art in the Governor’s Reception Room. It felt like the deck was stacked. Healing Minnesota Stories request to testify was denied. (We wanted to speak about offensive art in other parts of the Capitol, art that is still in place.)

The downside of moving the State Historic Preservation Office to the Department of Administration that it could make historic preservation issues more political, as the governor (from whatever party) will oversee the department.

Dayton’s staff said the disagreement over art did not play a role in the decision to transfer historic preservation powers. Jessica Kohen, historical society spokeswoman, expressed disappointment over the move in the StarTribune story. She said the historical society didn’t get a clear answer about problems with its preservation work.

Looming Trump budget cuts deepen distress on Pine Ridge, according to a recent CNN headline.

Pine Ridge’s poverty and unemployment rates are very high and life expectancy there is the shortest in the country, according to a recent study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, the story said.

The future at Pine Ridge could soon grow bleaker. The budget that President Donald Trump unveiled on Tuesday makes deep cuts to a slew of areas that life at the reservation depends on. The spending reductions touch every part of life from access to clean drinking water to block grants that fund programs to feed the elderly to much-needed after-school programs. In one of the nation’s most deeply impoverished communities, residents and tribal leaders say the cuts could be devastating.


Student Art in the Minnesota Capitol? Idea Moving Forward, Thanks to Saint Paul Public Schools and MNHS

Thanks to Saint Paul Public School’s (SPPS), initial conversations are happening with the Minnesota Historical Society to get student art in the Capitol, according to Sherry Kempf, who works in the district’s Multicultural Resource Center (MRC). The MRC staff has been a wonderful partner in promoting the Healing Minnesota Stories Capitol Art project, which teaches students about the historic art in the Minnesota Capitol and challenges them to create their own contemporary Capitol art.

Several SPPS schools have participated in the project. The MRC now displays some 70+ pieces of student art, and more classrooms are in process. (Check out the MRC’s gallery, located in the Washington Technology Magnet School.)

Here is a short video the district created about the project, with footage from an art opening.

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Wisconsin Once Had Ho Chunk Capitol Tour Guide Focused on Native Cultures, What Happened?

Poster of Oliver La Mere in Wisconsin Capitol rotunda.

In 1928, Oliver La Mere (Ho Chunk) was appointed as a special tour guide for the Wisconsin State Capitol. According to a poster in the rotunda: “he created a small museum containing traditional Ho Chunk cloths, jewelry and ceremonial objects. He taught visiting school groups, Boy and Girl Scout troops, and other visitors about American Indian culture.”

Unfortunately, the idea died when La Mere died two years later. Like many great ideas, it was tied to the person, not so much the institution. After his death in 1930, state officials packed up his collection (three trunk loads) and sent it to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

This continues to be not only a great idea for Wisconsin, but Minnesota, too.

I learned about La Mere during a recent visit to Madison, Wisc., where I toured the Capitol. The state is celebrating the Capitol’s centennial, and there were several large posters in the rotunda marking key dates, events and people in the Capitol’s history, including La Mere.

Now that the debate over Minnesota State Capitol art is done (for now), I have been writing less about art in other state Capitols. But when I find myself in a state capitol town, it’s a fun to take a tour and see how state history in general, and Native Americans in particular, are reflected in the art.

So here is a quick tour of the Wisconsin State Capitol. Continue reading