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

Recommendations Advanced to Restore the Name Bde Maka Ska to Lake Calhoun; Fort Snelling Community Conversations

Bde Maka Ska
Bde Maka Ska

The lake we now call Lake Calhoun would return to its original Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake) under recommendations forwarded by a key citizens committee to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Those recommendations also propose creating an interpretative area on the south shore of Bde Maka Ska to commemorate Cloudman’s Village, the Dakota settlement that existed prior to the arrival of European settlers.

If the Park Board approves the name restoration, it would still need approval by the Hennepin County Board and go through a process involving the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Healing Minnesota Stories and the Saint Paul Interfaith Network (SPIN) have gone on record in support of the name restoration.

Continue reading

Creating Criteria for New Art in the Minnesota State Capitol

A piece of local art in the New Mexico State Capitol. How creative will Minnesota be?
A painting of the ristra, a symbol of New Mexico, is one of many pieces by local artists hanging in the New Mexico State Capitol. How creative will Minnesota be?

The debate over art in the Minnesota State Capitol is shifting from a review of the old art to a discussion of what new art and new stories should be added. An important part of that discussion will be how to better include images of women and people of color amid the current art collection that has a near-exclusive emphasis on white men.

Other states have led the way in adding new Capitol art. For instance, the Alaska, Georgia and other states have dedicated Capitol space for student art. In New Mexico, they created an Art Foundation to select a wide array of new artwork done by New Mexican artists to display in their Capitol.

At the Minnesota Art Subcommittee’s May 5 meeting, Tri-Chair Rep. Diane Loeffler presented some initial guidelines to consider for adding new art. Also, the Subcommittee discussed the challenges and capacity to add rotating art exhibits.

These issues and others will be hashed out in the Art Subcommittee’s final two meetings — tentatively Friday June 3 and Friday June 17 — before it issues its final report in late June.

Everyone now faces a big time crunch. Much of the Capitol is scheduled to reopen for business in early 2017 for the start of the next full legislative session. That is a mere eight months away. The Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission asked the Art Subcommittee to move up the deadline on its final report so recommendations can be implemented in time for the reopening. (The formal grand reopening won’t happen until the project is done in the fall of 2017.)

At the March 5 Art Subcommittee meeting, members were discussing the minutia of the size and location of basement wall sconces and how they would fit with new art. They still didn’t have a sense of how many spaces existed for new art in the main Capitol corridors. Once those questions get sorted out, it will take time to evaluate and select new art.

There is a chance (probably a really good chance) that much of the area designated for new art could be bare come January. Further, the hoped-for improvements in the historical interpretation of existing art may  not be in place due to lack of funds.

Continue reading

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: capitol.art@state.mn.us. 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.