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

Reenacting an Indian Hanging and the Need for Dialogue; Another Pipeline Action Follows Standing Rock’s Model

It is not surprising that a historical reenactment of a Native man’s public hanging would spark outrage, what is surprising is that those organizing the event wouldn’t see it coming and ask for a dialogue with Native peoples before moving ahead.

This incident comes from Pennsylvania, but it raises larger questions of who gets to say what is offensive and what is not.

In this case, where white people might see a benign history lesson, Native people can see and experience trauma. The reenactment sent a message that Native people are “less than” and gave permission to yell racial slurs.

This incident echoes the debate we have had here in Minnesota about whether or not to remove offensive art in the Capitol. In both cases, the challenge is the same: How do those people in the majority put down their defenses, open their hearts, and listen to and honor the pain suffered by those with little power or voice?

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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. Continue reading