Make the Minnesota State Capitol more welcoming: Remove offensive art, add inspiring art
The artwork in the Minnesota State Capitol tells a narrow and incomplete version of our history. It has offensive images of Native Americans and does not reflect our state’s current diverse population. This should not come as a surprise, since much of the art dates from the early 1900s when the capitol was built. However, we now face a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for change. A major capitol renovation is underway. An Art Subcommittee has been created to gather broad public comment on what stories the capitol art should tell about Minnesota, its history, its values, and its people. This is an opportunity to make your voice heard!
We are asking the state to:
1. Remove offensive, traumatizing paintings from the capitol, including: The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi; Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony; The Signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux; and The Battle of Killdeer Mountain. (More details below.)
2. Find a new home for the capitol art that is removed, where it can be remembered and interpreted.
3. Better interpret the capitol’s remaining historic art, preferably with interactive touch screens.
4. Provide more in-depth training for capitol tour guides on the art’s history and meaning.
5. Add new capitol art that reflects and honors Minnesota’s current ethnic and cultural diversity.
The bottom line is that we can do better. Minnesota's population is becoming increasingly diverse. Our capitol art needs to show that all people are welcome and have a place at the capitol's decision-making tables. Further, given what the capitol represents to our civic life, we can find better symbols of Minnesota values. Think of the Minnesota artists, innovators, writers, explorers, entrepreneurs, educators, laborers, healers, public servants, and others who could be honored on our capitol's walls, along with important moments in our state's history that have taken place since the capitol's opening in 1905.
Other states have tried various innovations. For instance, the New Mexico State Capitol has become a showcase for contemporary New Mexican artists. New Mexico's leaders created the New Mexico Capitol Art Foundation in 1991. Its mission is: "to collect, preserve, exhibit, interpret, and promote appreciation of works of art that reflect the rich and diverse history, cultures, and art forms of the people of New Mexico." The collection now represents the work of more than 600 New Mexico artists, and includes paintings, photography, sculpture, mixed media, textiles, ceramic and furniture. The Alaska State Capitol makes a point of featuring student artwork.
With a major capitol renovation underway in Minnesota, this is our chance to think big about our public art.
Background: Here are some of the problems with specific pieces of historic art in the Minnesota State Capitol.
The Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi: Of all the historic capitol art, this Senate chamber mural is most disturbing. It represents the forced conversion of Native Americans and stands in opposition to our deeply held belief in freedom of religion. Note the priest holding out a cross towards the Native Americans in the center of the painting while a man behind the priest restrains two snarling dogs. This is a threat about what will happen to the Native Americans if they do not convert. The angels represent divine intervention on behalf of the explorers and civilizers, a symbol of Manifest Destiny and God’s preference for the Europeans. The young native woman in the center is half naked, a historically inaccurate image of traditional dress and an effort to paint Native Americans as less than civilized.
Father Hennepin Discovering the Falls of St. Anthony: This is one of six major paintings in the Governor’s Reception Room. It goes without saying that Father Hennepin did not discover the falls anymore than Columbus discovered America. Saying Hennepin “discovered” falls and had the right to name the falls implies that the Dakota people who lived there for centuries were somehow less than human – they and their place names did not count. This is a painting about power. It shows Father Hennepin towering over the Dakota people, implying he was in charge. He was not. At the time of his visit to the falls, Hennepin was a Dakota prisoner. Note the Native woman at right carrying a heavy pack. Again, she is half naked; again it is historically inaccurate.
The Signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux: This is another of the six major paintings hanging in the Governor’s Reception Room. It tells an incredibly one-sided version of history. Under the treaty, the Dakota ceded 24 million acres of land to the United States—roughly one third of Minnesota plus portions of Iowa and the Dakotas. The painting represents the treaty signing as a fair, calm negotiation between two sides with equal power. It does not square with what we know of the process. Historian William Lass wrote: “As the treaty’s terms were explained to them, the chiefs and headmen realized they were being presented with an ultimatum. Collectively, they concluded it was better to sign and get something for their land rather than refuse and run the risk of simply having it taken from them.” After the treaty signing, Dakota leaders were led to a second document to which most placed their mark. This paper was neither read nor explained. It allowed traders to get paid directly from treaty money for any debts they claimed individual Dakota people owed them. Of the initial $305,000 treaty cash payment, the Dakota got less than 20 percent, according to “Little War on the Prairie,” an NPR report that aired in 2012.
The Battle of Killdeer Mountain: (Also called The Battle of Ta Ha Kouty.) This painting hangs in a capitol third floor conference room. It represents punishment, greed, and a less-than-glorious moment in Minnesota history. This battle took place July 28-29, 1864 in Dakota Territory, nearly 300 miles from the Minnesota border. According to a North Dakota historical marker, the troops were sent to punish the Dakota following the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862 and to develop safe routes to newly discovered gold field to the west. Minnesota’s Eighth Regiment had vastly superior weapons, and only five soldiers died in the fighting compared to 100 to 150 Indians. Many of the Native people involved had nothing to do with the Dakota U.S. War. After the fighting, troops found a Native infant alive in the abandoned camp and shot it, according to an account by one of the troops.
To reiterate, we believe this history needs to be remembered, but the capitol is the wrong place for this art. It sends the wrong message. This art needs to be moved to a museum where it can be better interpreted.
To follow the public debate, see the website for the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission's Art Subcommittee.
For more background, see MinnPost’s story: The other debate at the state capitol: What do we do with the building’s most controversial art?
For commentary, including information on art in other state capitols, see Healing Minnesota Stories blog on Capitol Art.
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