How to Deal with Controversial Public Art: Lessons from Italy

There was some discussion about removing this inscription in front of the Minnesota House of Representatives. Instead, it got new gold leaf.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that when Italy has a controversial political problem, it turns to its artists.

Hey Minnesota, check this out. Remember when we got all tied in knots over how to address our  controversial Capitol art? Oh that we had known about Bolzano, a city of 100,000 in northernmost Italy. An opinion piece in The Guardian tells the story of how Bolzano officials dealt with a controversial World War II-era public building featuring a massive bas-relief of facist leader Benito Mussolini on horseback. “The sculpture bore the slogan ‘Credere, Obbedire, Combattere’ (‘Believe, Obey, Combat”), the story said. (Yep, that’s, creepy.)

In the polarizing frame of “preserve or destroy” the mural, city leaders chose a third way. According to the story:

A public bid was launched, soliciting ideas over how to “defuse and contextualize” the politically charged frieze. Open to artists, architects, historians, and “anyone involved in the cultural sphere”, the bid explicitly stated that the intention was to “transform the bas-relief into a place of memory … so that it will no longer be visible directly, but accessible thoughtfully, within an appropriately explanatory context”.

Almost 500 proposals were submitted and evaluated by a jury composed of local civil society figures, including a history professor, a museum curator, an architect, an artist and a journalist.

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Historical Society Capitol Art Tour a Good Start, Concerns Remain

Joe Horse Capture led a discussion on Capitol Art in the Cass Gilbert Library, on the Capitol’s third floor.

I attended the second of two Capitol Art Tours launched by the Minnesota Historical Society Friday. It was led by Joe Horse Capture, the Society’s Director of Native American Initiatives. A couple of dozen people attended. I learned some new things. I appreciated the dialogue Horsecapture led. I also left with some concerns about the tour — including whether it would continue.

The hour-long discussion focused on two controversial paintings that once hung in the Governor’s Conference Room, one showing Father Hennepin “discovering” the Falls at St. Anthony, the other a painting of the signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851.

I appreciated Horse Capture’s effort to engage people in a conversation around these paintings and whether the paintings should remain in the Capitol. These paintings are offensive to many, notably Dakota people who are inaccurately and offensively portrayed. When these paintings hung in the Governor’s Conference Room, those who found them offensive had no choice but to look at them if they were doing business in the room. Moving the paintings to a low-traffic area allows people to engage them — or not — as they choose.

Senate mural: “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi.”

One problem with the “tour” was that it left out the controversial art that remains in place in the Capitol. For instance, it did not include images or discussion of the Senate Chamber’s mural “The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi”. This painting shows the forced conversion of a Native man and young Native woman, who are surrounded by a priest with a cross, snarling dogs, and the angels of civilization and discovery. This is an affront to our deeply held belief in Freedom of Religion.

Nor did the tour include the House Chambers, which includes the inscription: “The Trail of the Pioneer Bore the Footprints of Liberty.” For Native people, they had a lot more freedom before the pioneers arrived.

Here are a few other learnings and concerns. Continue reading