Not Surprisingly, Native Voices Held Little Sway in Capitol Art Debate

Native Americans get in a Catch-22 when they are asked to participate in controversial political debates with outside governments. If they don’t participate, they can be criticized for not taking advantage of the process available to them. If they do participate, the powers-that-be can check the box that says “Talked to the Indians.” That gives the final recommendations a little more credibility because the Native Americans were consulted (even though it didn’t have an impact).

For a case study, let’s look at the debate over Minnesota Capitol art.

On Friday, June 17, the Art Subcommittee met for the last time before presenting its final recommendations to the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission. Let’s recap the critical issues of how Native voices were engaged and whether they affected the outcomes. Continue reading

SPNN Interviews Jim Bear Jacobs on Minnesota’s Capitol Art; A Rant on MinnPost’s Flawed Capitol Art Story

Jim Bear Jacobs on SPNN's news show, Forum.
Jim Bear Jacobs on SPNN’s news show, Forum.

An upcoming segment of “Forum,” a news show produced by Saint Paul Neighborhood News (SPNN), will feature Healing Minnesota Stories Founder Jim Bear Jacobs discussing the racist art in the Minnesota State Capitol.

“I just hope that people understand that buildings hold stories,” Jacobs told SPNN Host Sanni Brown-Adefope. “And we need to have our state building — and all of our public buildings — tell a better story for our children.”

The show will air starting Wednesday, June 22, at 5 p.m. on SPNN Channel 19 (Comcast Cable). It will continue airing at 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. (and more) for about a week. It runs about 25 minutes.

The show’s producers gave us an advanced link to the show so you can start watching it now on YouTube. Continue reading

Reframe Minnesota: Art Beyond a Single Story

Mark your calendars for Friday, June 24, 6-8 p.m. for the new gallery show: Reframe Minnesota: Art Beyond a Single Story. It will be a joint show by neighboring galleries: All My Relations Gallery, 1414 East Franklin Ave.,and Two Rivers Gallery, 1530 East Franklin Ave.

The shows explore the future of public art at the Minnesota State Capitol. It features original works from 12 Minnesotan artists as well as student artwork from schools across the state. According to the announcement:

In light of the ongoing State Capitol renovations and the discussions of its art Reframe Minnesota shares the diverse Minnesota stories that are too often unheard.  Local artists, including painters, printmakers, photographers, and sculptors, respond to the Capitol artwork, its depictions of Native Americans, and its lack of representation for other communities of color.

Senate mural: "The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi," one of the more disturbing paintings for its image of forced conversion.
Senate mural: “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi”. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Healing Minnesota Stories is very grateful to the exhibit organizers for including us in this project. For several years, we have been working to raise public awareness of the racist art in the Minnesota State Capitol, such as “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi” in the Senate Chambers (shown at right). We have been making presentations to religious and civic groups and school classrooms. Continue reading

Capitol Art Subcommittee Bows to Political Pressure, Ducks Tough Questions

Senate mural: "The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi," one of the more disturbing paintings for its image of forced conversion.
Senate mural: “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi,” one of the more disturbing paintings for its image of forced conversion.

The Capitol Art Subcommittee has shown incredible skill in ducking tough questions about the offensive and racist art in the Minnesota State Capitol and whether or not to move it.

In its most recent meeting, May 5, the Subcommittee shifted gears, moving off of the debate about historic art and starting to talk about criteria for adding new art.

We will save that “new art” discussion for the another blog, but here are a few takeaways from last week’s meeting:

  • The Art Subcommittee has accelerated its time table to complete its final report. It will now finish by the end of June instead of the end of the summer, as it announced earlier. (The Subcommittee got pressure from the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Committee finish its work early because the work on the Capitol is moving forward quickly.)
  • Each Subcommittee member will get the opportunity to write a personal note in the report, 500-600 words each, expressing their opinions on the two most controversial paintings in the Governor’s Reception Room, the Father Hennepin painting and the painting of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. (The current recommendation is to move them out of the Governor’s Conference Room to somewhere else in the Capitol.)
  • One of the main “status quo” arguments for leaving the offensive art in the Capitol is that it provides an important history lesson. By providing better historical interpretation, the argument goes, Capitol visitors could get a more complete story of the state’s history. Unfortunately, there still does not appear to be money in the budget to pay for the historical interpretation. So for now it will be the same old story.

Lastly, let’s take one more look at the Art Subcommittee’s ability to speak out of both sides of its mouth. (It’s a topic we have covered before, but it’s one that cannot be emphasized enough.) Continue reading

Capitol Art Update: Adding New Art; Lessons from Maine

Phase II of the Minnesota Capitol art debate is about to get underway. Let’s hope it is more productive than Phase I.

As readers of this blog know, Phase I involved a review of the existing art, including major pieces with offensive images of Native Americans and mythologized views of early Minnesota history. In spite of requests to move offensive art, the Art Subcommittee charged with making recommendations is proposing rearranging a few paintings inside the Capitol, a very disappointing result.

Phase II involves deciding what new art — and new stories — to add to the Minnesota State Capitol and where it should be displayed. That conversation kicks off at the next Art Subcommittee meeting tomorrow, Friday, May 6, 10 a.m.-noon, at the Minnesota Judicial Center, G-6.

There is not much more to say on the topic just yet, so let’s return to our review of art in other state Capitols to see what lessons they might hold. Today, we check out the state of Maine, which offers a couple of important lessons about Capitol art. Continue reading

Tribes Tell State to Remove Racist Capitol Art; Native Art Galleries to Offer Alternative Vision

Shelly Buck, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community, has come out with a strongly worded statement about what should happen with the racist art in the state Capitol. In a March 16 opinion piece in the Star Tribune, the headline says it all: Minnesotans, it’s time to move offensive art out of the people’s house.

The article was written with support from the Lower Sioux Indian Community, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the Upper Sioux Community and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Buck’s letter came in response to the anemic initial recommendations put forward by the Art Subcommittee of the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission. Continue reading

Capitol Art Update: Timid Recommendations Put Forward by Art Subcommittee

A recommendation is now on the table to move two controversial paintings out of the Governor’s Conference Room to some other spot in the Capitol. Chairs of the Art Subcommittee presented that recommendation to the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission Tuesday, Feb. 23.

The recommendation would relocate the paintings of Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls at St. Anthony and the painting of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux to less prestigious Capitol locations. That plan is contained in the Art Subcommittee’s preliminary report. The final report is expected in late summer or early fall.

Art Subcommittee Tri-Chairs Paul Anderson, Rep. Diane Loeffler, and Sen. David Senjem all spoke at the Commission hearing. Anderson opened their remarks by giving the report some gravitas, noting that this is “a once in a 100 year opportunity to do it right.” He asked the members of the media to note “that what we have here is a story of government working for its people.”

Anderson was doing a hard sales job for a very timid set of recommendations — especially timid for something as grand as a once-in-a-century opportunity. Continue reading

Breaking News: Art Subcommittee to Recommend Moving Controversial Paintings Out of Governor’s Reception Room

This painting of Father Hennepin is the most troubling to Minnesota tribes. A key committee is recommending it be moved out of the Governor's Conference Room.
This painting of Father Hennepin could be moved from the Governor’s Reception Room and become part of a centralized Capitol collection of Native American-themed art with better historic interpretation.

The paintings of Father Hennepin Discovering St. Anthony Falls and the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux would both be removed from the Minnesota Governor’s Reception Room and relocated elsewhere in the Capitol, under recommendations approved today by a key committee.

The recommendation fell short of the hopes of many Native leaders, who had hoped to move it out of the Capitol into a museum. Still, Subcommittee member Gwen Westerman, who is Dakota, said she was satisfied with the results. “In my mind, we have been heard,” said Westerman, a professor at the University of Minnesota-Mankato. “That is a major accomplishment.” Continue reading

Art Subcommittee Grants Catholic Church Request to Testify, Will Entertain Other Requests

Key decision makers in the debate over Minnesota Capitol Art are charting a new course in public input, granting a request by the Catholic Church to testify. The Catholic Church will be the first group allowed to give public testimony directly to the Art Subcommittee.

The Art Subcommittee met Monday, Feb. 11, to begin crafting its preliminary report, now expected mid-February. Its biggest challenge: deciding what existing art should stay and what art (if any) should be moved to a new location because of its negative depictions of Native Americans or one-sided view of Minnesota history.

In an interview, Sen. David Senjem, a tri-chair of the Art Subcommittee, said the Subcommittee had been asked — and agreed — to hear testimony from the Minnesota Catholic Conference. The Catholic Church has concerns about efforts to remove the painting: Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony. (A letter from the  Catholic Church to the Subcommittee explaining the Church’s position is reproduced in full at the end of this post.)

To date, the Art Subcommittee offered the two avenues for public engagement: “listening sessions” held around the state and participation in an on-line survey. (In the listening sessions, participants did not speak directly to the Subcommittee. Only one or two Subcommittee members attended each session. People participated in facilitated small group discussions and volunteer note takers summarized comments.) That public input process finished in December.

Speaking for Healing Minnesota Stories (HMS), we would love the opportunity to testify. Continue reading

Option Floated to Move Controversial Capitol Art; This Day in History: Andrew Johnson’s Indian Policy

The controversial art that hangs in the Governor’s Conference Room – the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and Father Hennepin Discovers the Falls at St. Anthony –could both be moved without damaging the art, according to staff at the Minnesota Historical Society. That was a threshold question posed by Paul Anderson, one of the tri-chairs for the Art Subcommittee reviewing Capitol art, and it opens the door for proposals to relocate these pieces.

One out-of-the box proposal that emerged at Monday’s Art Subcommittee meeting came from Architect Ted Lenz. He suggested for the Capitol’s grand opening, the Traverse des Sioux and Father Hennepin paintings be removed from the Governor’s Reception Room. They would be moved to “a very public space” where there could be ongoing public discussion about whether they should remain in their historic space or not. There could be an ongoing, informal discussion about how to improve their interpretation, including the addition of a painting of similar scope responding to these issues from a 21st Century perspective. “It would be a great way to engage a larger audience,” he said.

After five years, the painting would either be returned to the Reception Room or put somewhere else with the correct interpretive response, Lenz said.

The Art Subcommittee members met for more than four hours Monday. They discussed the framework of their initial report, due in January. The Subcommittee will meet twice next month, Jan. 4 and Jan. 11, to make sure the report gets done. It is unclear whether it will be a progress report or whether it will contain initial recommendation. Subcommittee members also discussed the results of recent public input meetings and surveys.

Summary of Public Comments

Mariah Levinson of the Bureau of Mediation Services presented an analysis of the public reactions to the Capitol art, collected at public input meetings and through surveys. An estimated 156 people attended the first seven public input meetings, from a low of 11 at a Willmar event to a high of 30 each at events at Rochester, Mankato and North Minneapolis. Data from four more meetings will be collected. The Subcommittee has received roughly 1,300 survey responses, either in person at the public input meetings or on-line. (If you haven’t filled out a survey, click here.)

The public input meetings and the survey offer differing responses, Levinson said. Some of the strongest themes to emerge from the public input sessions include: “Art should represent more diverse peoples,” “Art should tell more diverse stories,” and “Art should reflect current values (inclusive, sensitive, inspiring.)” When asked what to do with art that was insensitive and inaccurate, far and away the most dominant response was to remove it.

Survey respondents – when asked “what stories might inspire, educate or interest you” in Capitol art – said:

  • Historical events that shaped and influenced Minnesota (69 percent)
  • Geography and landscapes (42 percent)
  • Contributions of our diverse peoples (26 percent)

When asked what should be done with the insensitive art, the three top survey responses were: Keep it (41 percent); Remove it (30 percent); Put it in a separate Capitol gallery (9 percent).

Levinson identified two themes that will need to be reconciled. On one hand, people want art to be inclusive and unifying. On the other hand, people want it to engage in difficult issues. This tension will be used to frame ongoing Subcommittee conversations.

Here are two representatives quote from the survey:

I worry about glossing over the dark parts of our history, because those attitudes and ideas even at their worst did shape how our state was formed. However I don’t think they should be displayed unchallenged. I’d suggest that any piece that contains such content have a new complementary piece commissioned reflecting our attitudes and understanding now that is displayed along side it.

I believe they should be installed in a new museum that is designed to tell the true history of the colonization of Minnesota and the intentional efforts to exterminate those indigenous to this place.

The full analysis of the public input sessions and the survey should be posted on the Art Subcommittee’s website soon.

Other Meeting Takeaways

Tension over Engaging Tribal Communities: Subcommittee member Anton Treuer of Bemidji State University, participating by phone, said not enough had been done to engage tribal voices in this conversation. It was one of the issues that could lead him to write a dissenting opinion to the Subcommittee’s report, he said. There was conflicting information presented as to whether the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council had already taken a position on Capitol art. (The Council includes the leaders of Minnesota’s Dakota and Ojibwe tribes.) Healing Minnesota Stories today called Jim Jones, the Council’s Cultural Resources Director, for clarification. He said that tribal leaders from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux, the Lower Sioux and Upper Sioux communities had met earlier this month with Council staff and expressed their clear support for removing the paintings. Jones said the Council itself had not taken action yet, but he would bring the issue back to the Council. Subcommittee member Gwen Westerman, who also participated by phone, said the Minnesota Historical Society’s Indian Advisory Council also supported removing the two paintings.

The Restoration of the Capitol’s Fine Art has Started. Art restorers are starting with the Zodiac murals, the dome murals and the Supreme Court. Brian Szott, curator for art at the Minnesota Historical Society, said in an interview after that meeting that the restoration of the Senate mural “The Discoverers and Explorers Led to the Source of the Mississippi” has not yet been scheduled and work probably would not start until after the legislative session. This is one of the major pieces of art that Healing Minnesota Stories’ petition has requested for removal and relocation. (Spending money to restore it now could make it more difficult to have a debate about relocating it.)

Lack of Unanimity About What is “Insensitive” Art Becomes a Status Quo Argument: Subcommittee member Rep. Urdahl said he would leave the Governor’s Conference Room paintings where they are as an educational tool. He questioned using the term “insensitive art” as any sort of criteria for deciding what art should stay or go. “How do we determine what is insensitive?” he asked. “Do we remove [the portrait of] Jesse Ventura if it makes people uncomfortable?” Later, he said: “There probably never has been artwork that wasn’t insensitive to someone.”

Historical Society Wants an Official Invitation to do More Interpretation: D. Stephen Elliott, Director and CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, said if the current art stays in the Governor’s Conference Room, he would want an “invitation and commitment” that it will be in place and used.

Ongoing Debate on the Role of Capitol Art: There is a fascinating debate about whether the Capitol is an art museum or not. Tri-chair Diane Loeffler said “the Capitol is not primarily a museum.” She said the Subcommittee needed to wrestle with what the public really wants out of the building. Rep. Urdahl said the Capitol was both a living building and a museum. Someone categorized Capitol visitors as art “surfers,” “snorkelers,” or “divers.” Some wanted just a little information and others want the details. Treuer said some visitors were not surfers or divers, but simply political leaders and participants, including the Native leaders that came to the Capitol. Rep. Loeffler said that the Subcommittee needed to acknowledge that this art debate is not just an intellectual issue for some of our citizens. For many Native Americans, it is a deeply felt, emotionally charged issue.

This Day in History: President Johnson Outlines Indian Policy in State of the Union Address

On this day in history, December 8, 1829, President Andrew Johnson gave his State of the Union Address, both praising the progress made by some Indians towards the “arts of civilization” and at the same time denying them the opportunity to exist as independent peoples within the existing United States. Johnson told Congress:

It has long been the policy of Government to introduce among [Indians] the arts of civilization, in the hope of gradually reclaiming them from a wandering life. This policy has, however, been coupled with another wholly incompatible with its success. Professing a desire to civilize and settle them, we have at the same time lost no opportunity to purchase their lands and thrust them farther into the wilderness. By this means they have not only been kept in a wandering state, but been led to look upon us as unjust and indifferent to their fate. Thus, though lavish in its expenditures upon the subject, Government has constantly defeated its own policy, and the Indians in general, receding farther and farther to the west, have retained their savage habits.

Johnson said some Southern tribes had mingled with the whites and made progress towards civilization, and had recently tried to create an independent government within the limits of Georgia and Alabama. Yet despite this “progress,” Jackson refused to let them set up their own government there. He advised the Indians “to emigrate beyond the Mississippi or submit to the laws of those States.”