State Capitol renovation a rare opportunity to update art

The Minnesota State Capitol is undergoing a major renovation — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reassess and change the art. Now is the time to remove several major paintings that do not accurately reflect our state’s history or values and replace them with more inspiring art.

The capitol is not an art museum. Just because art always has been there doesn’t mean it should stay. The art we choose is critically important. Legislators look at this art every day they are in session making laws. Young school children see this art every time they take a capitol tour.

The Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission created an Art Subcommittee to make recommendations about current art and new additions. (The good news is the renovation will double the space available for art—an opportunity for Minnesota artists to breathe new life into this building.)

Much of the art dates from 1905 when the capitol opened, a time when Native Americans were considered “uncivilized” and government policies focused on assimilation and conversion. The art reflects these now-discarded beliefs and tells a very one-sided history.

One major painting shows the Dakota “agreeing” to cede their land in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. (Untold: This was not an even-handed negotiation and the government’s failure to meet treaty terms led to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.) Another painting shows Dakota and Lakota being overwhelmed at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain. (Untold: This was a punitive raid by Minnesota troops 300 miles outside the state line.) Still another painting shows Father Hennepin “discovering” St. Anthony Falls. (Untold: He was a Dakota captive at the time. Also, the half-naked Dakota woman in the painting is historically inaccurate. She would have been covered; this is an attempt to show Dakota as uncivilized.)

Most troubling is the Senate mural titled: “The Discoverers and Civilizers led to the Source of the Mississippi.” An Indian man, young woman and spirit Manitou are surrounded by “discoverers” and “civilizers” who are guided by angelic beings (signifying divine approval). The Indian woman is (again) half naked. The “civilizers” include a priest with a cross. Behind him, a man restrains two dogs threatening the Indians. If only one painting goes, it should be this painting. This symbolizes forced conversion, a blatant contradiction of our cherished value of freedom of religion.

One big debate will be over whether or not to remove some historical art. A group called Healing Minnesota Stories (I am a member) believes some of the most controversial art should be moved to a museum where it can be interpreted. We have a petition: “Make the State Capitol More Welcoming: Remove Offensive Art and Add Inspiring Art,” see: http://tinyurl.com/oz8xdzo.

The Art Subcommittee is holding public input meetings around the state. One will be Thursday, Nov. 12, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Administrative Building, 2117 West River Rd N. Regardless of how you feel about the petition, make your voice heard. For more on other hearings, see the Art Subcommittee website: http://mn.gov/admin/capitol-restoration/about/preservation-commission/art/ 

Scott Russell is a former reporter for The Journals and remembers how passionately the community takes its politics.