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

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.”

Capitol Art Subcommittee Says Goal is to “Tell Minnesota Stories That Engage People”

The Capitol Art Subcommittee met Monday and continued crafting what looks to be an excellent vision statement. It is still a work in progress, but as it stands now, it reads:

The role and purpose of art in the Minnesota capitol is to tell Minnesota stories that engage people to:

  • Reflect on our shared history;
  • Understand our government;
  • Inspire citizen engagement;
  • Appreciate the varied landscapes of our beautiful state.

The subcommittee met for five hours, deliberating on process and how to engage the public in a dialogue about what art we should have in the capitol. It had initial discussions about “the elephant in the room”–the controversial art depicting Dakota and Ojibwe people and its narrow view of early Minnesota history. There are difficult discussions ahead about whether some of that art should be removed or interpreted. The subcommittee took no action. They set up several task forces to look at specific issues, notably one to focus on art in the Governor’s Reception Room. Co-Chair Justice Paul Anderson (ret.) asked Prof. Gwen Westerman, who is Dakota, to lead that task force. (The Reception Room has two with two of the more problematic works of art depicting Dakota people.)

Here are seven other takeaways from the meeting.

1. The state has a new website devoted to capitol art: It has four main tabs. The “communications” tab has meeting agendas, minutes, presentations, budgets and correspondence. The “artwork” tab chronicles the 148 pieces of artwork inside the capitol. It has links to images of the most controversial art. The “In the News” tab has links to media coverage of the art debate. (Note: This debate has received national attention. Governing Magazine just published a piece titled: “Wrestling with Dark History, This Time in Minnesota’s Capitol.” The “About the Art Subcommittee” tab lists subcommittee members.

2. The Subcommittee is planning public hearings soon–and other ways to get public input. The Art Subcommittee plans to hold public hearings in October and/or November. Potential sites for public hearings mentioned were Rochester, Mankato, Bemidji, and Duluth. Co-Chair state Rep. Diane Loffeler requested that since half of the population lives in the metro area that there should be an equal number of metro area public hearings as hearings in Greater Minnesota. No decisions were made. The public already can submit comments about the capitol art by emailing: The Subcommittee also is seeking State Fair venues to get public comments. It may develop a blog or surveys both to solicit ideas from the public and to test potential recommendations.

3. The Subcommittee’s timeline is still vague, but we know a few key dates. Anderson said the Subcommittee would make a preliminary report to the Capitol Preservation Commission in January. It would outline some general concepts and possible tension points. The building will open to the legislature in January 2017, and there will be an official grand opening in mid-2017. Some issues regarding the art will be done and in place by the opening, Anderson said in an interview, others will not.

4. There are statutes on the books that define who supervises “art” in the capitol; they put final decision-making power in the Minnesota Historical Society. The key statutes are 138.67-70. Statute 138.67 defines “Works of art” in the capitol as “paintings, portraits, mural decorations, stained glass, statues and busts, bas-relief, ornaments, furniture, plaques, and any other article or structure of a permanent character intended for decoration or commemoration … ” Statute 138.68 defines the art’s supervision, reading in part:

No monument, memorial or work of art shall be relocated or removed from, or placed in such areas or altered or repaired in any way without the approval of the Minnesota State Historical Society. The Minnesota State Historical Society shall have final authority over the disposition of any monuments, memorials or works of art removed from the State Capitol or the Capitol grounds.”

Minnesota Historical Society staff told subcommittee members that it is in the Society’s DNA to focus on preservation. Brian Pease, the Minnesota State Capitol Historic Site Manager said “we want to keep everything–as much as we can–in its 1905 appearance.” Pressed by Justice Anderson about whether the art of 1905 represents Minnesota today, Pease said: “That is the philosophical question.”

5. There is a considerable amount of new space being considered for new art. One of the more interesting spaces is what some on the subcommittee are calling “The Stone Gallery.” It is about 10,000 square feet in the basement, directly below the G-15 hearing room. This space has many massive stone pillars that are supporting the weight of the dome. It is a space that has not been opened to the public before. Some talked about how the forest of stone pillars could be a challenge for tour guides or families with small children. Way finding will be one challenge. So will lighting for any new art. There is currently no budget for such improvements.

6. Changes to House Chambers art was put on the table. Much has been written about the paintings in the Governor’s Reception Room and the mural of Manifest Destiny in the Senate Chambers, but Co-Chair Loffeler raised a new issue about art in the House Chambers. She described the large tableau above the speakers rostrum, showing a Native man and woman on one side, pioneers on the other side, and a female statue representing Minnesota in the middle. Beneath the sculpture is written: “The Trail of the Pioneer Bore the Footprints of Liberty.” While the statue is beautiful–and while there are instances of Native Americans and pioneers working together–Loffeler said she didn’t think that Native Americans would agree with the statement. “I would like to erase that statement,” she said. Loffeler noted that the art was not part of the original 1905 capitol. It was originally House gallery space, and was filled in to add third floor office space.

7. The Subcommittee’s work does not extend to the statues on the capitol grounds. That means it will not be addressing the issue of the Columbus statue (east of the capitol) that a number of people believe should be removed because of Columbus’ role in Native American genocide.

The next subcommittee meeting is Sept. 14 at 10 a.m., site to be determined.

Capitol Art Update: First Glimpse at the Review Process

Minnesota Public Radio’s segment: “What art should be displayed in the Minnesota Capitol” gave us initial insights and optimism about the upcoming process to review and update capitol art.

The Minnesota State Capitol is in the midst of a $300 million renovation, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to review the art and address some of the more problematic pieces with negative images of Native Americans, distorted narratives of early Minnesota history, and triumphal allegories of Manifest Destiny. Currently, the capitol has approximately 150 pieces of art: nearly 50 murals (painted on canvas and permanently affixed to the walls, 38 Governors portraits, 17 busts, 15 plaques, more than a dozen statues, and additional paintings and portraits

MPR’s Tom Weber interviewed:

  • Steve Elliot, director of the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS). MHS plays a key oversight role in adding new art or removing old art.
  • Paul Anderson, retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice. Anderson co-chairs the Art Subcommittee tasked with reviewing capitol art and making recommendations.
  • Gwen Westerman, an English professor at the University of Minnesota-Mankato. Westerman is Dakota and serves on the Art Subcommittee.

Here are seven take aways from the interview.

1. We are entering new territory when talking about removing offensive art from the capitol. There is no precedent for removing art from the capitol.

2. There are conflicting messages about whether the murals that are glued to the wall can be consider for removal or not. This debate includes the fate of a controversial mural in the Senate chambers titled: “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi.” It shows a Native American man and young woman cornered by a group of settlers, including a priest holding out a cross at them and a man behind the priest holding back snarling dogs.

Justice Anderson said some of the art “just can’t be removed because it is on the wall. … There is some very politically incorrect art that probably won’t be removed.” Speaking specifically about the Senate mural, he said: “Probably that piece is not going to leave,” though it could get better interpretation.

Elliot took a different tone, saying: “The subcommittee is going to be initiating a process this fall of listening to what people think about everything about the art. So I would not say that there are any pre-conclusions at this point about what stays, or if it stays how it is interpreted … That is all up for discussion.”

Elliot also made a strong statement regarding the role art plays in the capitol: “The capitol is not a museum,” he said. “The capitol is an active, living building that represents the people of Minnesota.”

3. Alexander Ramsey, Harold LeVander and Rudy Perpich might move to make way for new art. Renovation plans call for adding new exhibit space. In addition, leaders are talking about moving exiting art to open even more space. One specific example mentioned was moving the governors portraits. These portraits currently hang in prime real estate-high traffic areas in the capitol hallways.

Anderson said: “I don’t think the governor’s portraits will disappear from the capitol. It might be up for grabs as to how they get displayed and where they get displayed. … If the portraits of the governors move into a different style of exhibition, there will be some space available there.”

Anderson offered another nugget of new information. “One of the signature rooms in the new capitol is going to be a library/conference room dedicated to Cass Gilbert,” he said.

4. The St. Paul Interfaith Network/Healing Minnesota Stories (SPIN/HMS) got props for its “Indians In Public Art Traveling Art Exhibit. Anderson made an indirect reference to Rachel Latuff’s art class at North Woods School in Cook. (Latuff is the art teacher who worked with SPIN/HMS to develop the lesson plan around capitol art and first assigned her students to create alternative art. To see examples of their art, click here.)

Anderson said: “We are hearing from all over the state. We heard from a school district up in St. Louis County and they have an art project, and they sent us some things. They have got one picture of James Arness, Prince, … Charles Schultz … this reflects the people of Minnesota. That is the type of rotating art that we should have.” Elliot added his own shout-out to SPIN, calling the student artwork, “very thoughtful and very good.”

5. A few piece of art will get the bulk of the attention, particularly two paintings in the Governor’s Conference Room: Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls at St. Anthony and the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Also in the conversational mix is a lesser known painting of The Battle of Killdeer Mountain.

Westerman said both of the paintings in the Governor’s Conference Room are highly romanticized. The depictions of the Dakota people are not accurate, and the Treaty painting is not historically accurate, she said.

Elliot said The Battle of Killdeer Mountain was done because people wanted to show the Eighth Minnesota Regiment in the capitol. This particular scene depicts an engagement against the Dakota after the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. According to a MinnPost article, historians tend to describe the fight “as less of a battle and more of a slaughter. In all, about 150 Native Americans were killed.” The painting already has been relegated to the shadows, the article said. It used to hang in the House Chambers. Then it was moved to the Rotunda. Now it resides in a third floor conference room.

6. Some people might raise concerns about a visual clash between historic  and contemporary art.

Westerman did not share that concern: “I think that there can be a place here for contemporary art,” she said. “I don’t think it would be incongruous at all. Any time you curate a show about a particular event or a period of time you are going to get a lot of visual interpretations. Based on a theme, they can work together.”

7. The Art Subcommittee’s review process is still coming into focus. It will get clarified at an August meeting, yet to be scheduled. Elliot said after the subcommittee takes testimony and public comment, there would be four key decision points:

  • What do you do with some of the allegories that reflect Manifest Destiny?
  • More specifically, there are several paintings that really place Native Americans “in a light different from how we would reflect them, or tell their stories, today. What do we do with those?”
  • What should be done with the Governors’ portraits?
  • How do we add new art? How do we select it? What is permanent art and what art rotates?