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The other debate at the state Capitol: What to do with the building’s most controversial art?

"Attack on New Ulm"
ArtServe employees removing the 82 x 106 inch painting of the “Attack on New Ulm” by Anton Gag in May of 2014.

To get an idea of a debate that’s been quietly brewing at the Minnesota state Capitol, it helps to have a sense of one of the building’s most prominent spaces​:​ the governor’s reception room. 

Before a massive restoration of the 109-year-old building began, the room was blanketed by six giant paintings meant to illustrate the state’s most important historic events. One of the most famous works, “The Battle of Nashville,” depicts the Civil War engagement that claimed the lives of more Minnesota soldiers than any other in the war. Painted by Howard Pyle, one of the most prominent illustrators of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the work was painstakingly researched, with Pyle traveling to the original battlefield and conducting interviews with Minnesota soldiers who were there to nail down every detail, from their position on the field to the style of uniform they were wearing that day.

But another painting in the same room, prominently displayed behind a podium the governor often uses to make announcements, depicts a far less accurate portrayal of history, according to some historians. The painting, “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux,” shows the 1851 signing of a treaty that secured a huge swath of land — some 22 million acres — that would make up much of the future state of Minnesota. The colors are warm and soft, with figures depicted as happy participants in a fair exchange. The treaty itself — lying on the table near the center of the painting — almost looks as though it’s glowing.

In reality, nearly all of the Dakota land was at stake in the treaty, and Native American leaders signed it on the quick after then-Territorial Gov. Alexander Ramsey refused to give them more time to consider their options.

“Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” is by no means the only controversial piece of art in the Capitol, though. And that’s the problem. The massive $270 million restoration of the building has opened a discussion that has been tactfully tiptoed around by historians and community members for decades: What, if anything, should be done about the many pieces of Capitol art that are inaccurate, or worse?

A billion dollars of art?

The Capitol building is home to nearly 150 pieces of art, everything from busts to portraits to the giant murals affixed to the walls in the Rotunda and House and Senate chambers. Many were commissioned by the building’s renowned architect, Cass Gilbert, who enlisted some of the most prominent artists of the early 20th century to fill the building’s corridors.

The value of those works have generated some eye-popping, if disputed, numbers. Ted Lentz, head of the Cass Gilbert Society, estimates the value of just 17 pieces of Capitol art at $987 million. To put that number into perspective, that’s about half of the $1.9 billion budget surplus lawmakers are debating how to spend this session. 

Not everybody agrees on that figure, though: “It’s not an accurate number at all,” said Brian Pease, historic site director at the state Capitol for the Minnesota Historical Society. “The value of that art is what it is because it is in the Capitol. All of those are works specifically designed and created for a space in the Capitol. It really is hard to put any value on them outside of this place. They’re priceless.”

"Discoverers and Civilizers Let to the Source of the Mississippi"
Minnesota Senate/David J. Oakes
“Discoverers and Civilizers Let to the Source of the Mississippi” in the Capitol Rotunda

What almost everyone can agree upon is that some works have withstood the last 110 years better than others. Paintings inside the rotunda and dome, above the east and west grand staircases and in the Supreme Court and legislative chambers have been damaged. The group charged with overseeing the Capitol’s art, the Capitol Preservation Commission Subcommittee on Art, says the best time to repair and restore the damaged art is now — while scaffolding is set up for the rest of the Capitol restoration.

The group is asking legislators to spend $3.25 million this year to pay for the work. “This is a conservative principle: You have assets and you preserve them,” said former state Supreme Court justice Paul Anderson, a member of the art committee.

A conversation, 100 years in the making

At the time Gilbert commissioned much of the Capitol’s art, those assets tended to be created with a very particular point of view: that of the people who designed and built the Capitol, almost all of whom were male and white.

“Nobody sees the world as it is, we all see it as we are. From a Native perspective, there are 10,000 years of documented history in Minnesota before white guys showed up,” said Anton Treuer, executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University who’s also a member of the Capitol Preservation Commission’s art sucommittee. “The absence of real substantive acknowledgment of that is screaming out to me. It doesn’t happen very often that we have a chance to have this kind of conversation. They are going to remodel the Capitol every 100 years or so, and I think it’s an important opportunity to think about what we have, and what’s missing.”

"The Battle of Nashville" by Howard Pyle
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
“The Battle of Nashville” by Howard Pyle

Those conversations have just begun, and what’s clear is that nobody is quite sure what to do with the Capitol’s most controversial pieces, like the painting of the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, which depicts an incident that historians tend to describe as less of a battle and more of a slaughter. In all, about 150 Native Americans were killed, their village and possessions destroyed.

A few years ago, the painting was moved from a prominent placing in the House Chambers to the Rotunda, and eventually into a small conference room tucked away on the third floor of the building.

Some works don’t lend themselves to such options, though. Take the giant mural on the north wall of the Senate chambers, the “Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi,” which shows a Native American man and women at the headwaters of the river, along with their “civilizers” — a group of white people. 

For now, Pease and others giving tours of the Capitol building give visitors the full story behind the painting. “One argument is, ‘Is this an appropriate theme that we want to have in our Capitol?’” he said. “The other argument is, ‘This is a Capitol building that was built in that period, and you can’t take the paintings out of context of why they are there.’”

"The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux" by Francis Davis Millet
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
“The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” by Francis Davis Millet

Opinions on the matter range from leaving the offensive art out of the Capitol after the restoration to changing nothing at all. Some have suggested putting explanatory plaques or interactive displays near some of the more controversial paintings to give them more context.

For Bemidji State’s Treuer, such solutions don’t go far enough. “I don’t believe in destroying art, but I do think we can make more calculated decisions about what belongs where and how that sends a message,” he said. “I think this is something that not everyone on that committee will agree with me on. Some people just want to put an updated interpreted plaque up and leave [the art] where it is.” 

Commissioning new Capitol art

What seems more likely than moving the art is the creation of new works that detail Minnesota’s history since the Capitol was built in 1905. Members also want to see more diversity reflected in new paintings at the Capitol, which could occupy all-new public libraries and gathering spaces being created during the restoration. 

“What will be really exciting to talk about what are the stories that art could tell about our past since the Civil War and where would be place those,” Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, a member of the art committee, said. “You don’t see women and you don’t see people of color, other than some misrepresentations of Native American people. Shouldn’t the Capitol be a place where, with all these school groups coming through, everyone can see someone they can identify with?”

"Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony" by Douglas Volk
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
“Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony” by Douglas Volk

If Gov. Mark Dayton has his way, some of that art could also be placed in areas now occupied by the 38 portraits of governors hanging in the Capitol halls. The practice of hanging the portraits in public spaces didn’t start until 1944, Pease said. Before that, governors commissioned their own paintings — which were much smaller than the official portraits done today — and hung them in their own offices.

A favorite portrait for visitors is that of former Independence Party Governor and pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura, with its over-the-top setting — lightning bolts and dark clouds hovering over the Twin Cities — right down to his American Flag tie and his arm leaning on “The Thinker.” (Dayton joked he’d rather have a photograph snapped with his two German shepards than sit for an official portrait).

One option would be to reserve a smaller space for gubernatorial portraits that would display different leaders in the Capitol on a rotating basis. “There’s not enough space, if you look 200 years down the road, to put all the governor’s portraits in the halls,” Loeffler noted. “There will be a discussion about is that still the highest value for that space, or do you do a rotation or do you go back to smaller format — more recent portraits are much larger.”

"Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty (Killdeer Mountain)" by Carl Ludwig Boeckmann
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
“Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty (Killdeer Mountain)” by Carl Ludwig Boeckmann

Controversy aside, most are excited at the possibilities the restoration project has opened up, particularly changing what visitors, lawmakers and students see every day when they visit the building.

“From the other perspective, it makes sense: History starts with the arrival of the first white males,” Treuer said. “But in 2030, Scandinavian white people are going to be a minority in Minnesota. We have an opportunity now to reimagine our collective history and look at where we are going, and the big question is, is art in the Capitol going to reflect the diversity of our state.”

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Rodgers Adams on 04/06/2015 - 11:15 am.

    Early history?

    After noting Native American concerns, the article seems to accept the idea that Minnesota history started in the early 1800’s, and the only updates needed are those dealing with the time since the capitol was built. Why is there no discussion about at least one piece of major art dealing with earlier Native American history? Is it the author’s oversight, or the commission’s?

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 04/06/2015 - 11:19 am.

    Initial thoughts

    The State Capital is toured annually by thousands of school children, too many of whom already receive a distorted image of our past.

    Where a work of art is plainly inaccurate or highly controversial (e.g., Attack on New Ulm, The Treaty) let’s transfer them to the Minnesota History Center, where they can become part of a larger discussion of our history, the good and the bad. The building should be a place where all Minnesotans can visit and be welcome. Where it’s integral to the building itself, at least provide some context and space for different perspectives on the work.

    As for governors, frankly, who cares? If they’re works by artists of some renown, sell them. If not, give them to the History Center, if it wants them, and leave the hallway walls empty.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/06/2015 - 11:49 am.

    Art as history

    Nicely done, Ms. Bierschbach.

    We can’t escape the times in which we live, and that’s almost always reflected in the things we call “art,” as well as what those things look like and… well… what they *are,* whether that be painting, sculpture or some other type of historical artifact.

    I’m on board with Anton Treuer, for one thing. Thousands of years of native history took place before Europeans arrived, but even more than that, at least a couple centuries’ worth of history has taken place *since* the Europeans arrived, upending the culture and way of life of the original inhabitants. The native perspective on that history has been, to put it charitably, ignored. The Capitol restoration is a made-to-order opportunity to correct that error of presentation.

    We’re getting an opportunity to correct the historical record that’s presented to both the public and the government officials, from major to minor, who populate the building on a daily basis. In that context, I’d personally love to see some attention paid to the manner in which many of the works are displayed. Some are made for particular spaces, and probably can’t be moved without diminishing or altering what they’re presenting, but new work – and there ought to be quite a bit of new work to reflect the changes in both society and sensibilities since the building was originally constructed – ought to be created that fills historical gaps and/or presents the viewer with a different interpretation of an event or attitude than what’s already baked into an existing work.

    And, while I’m pontificating, let me add that, while I’m very much a fan of contemporary art, these kinds of works (and responses to them from contemporary artists) do not lend themselves to the abstract and non-representational. A native interpretation of the treaty-signing, for example, ought to have “portraiture” characteristics similar to the one we already have. It would just show the scene differently, and from the native viewpoint. If there’s significant portraiture done about the Great Depression in Minnesota, I’ve not heard of it, and if it doesn’t exist, that’s a gap in the record that should also be corrected, with minorities included. There are other opportunities, as well…

    And, while we’re at it, existing works that have been damaged by exposure to UV, sunlight, humidity, leaks, or whatever should be restored to their full glory. The business that goes on in the building may be political and “the people’s,” but there’s no reason why the capitol cannot also be treated in some ways as a significant repository of art and history, perhaps different in scope than the MIA or even the Walker, but nonetheless a place where images and objects of the state’s history are both displayed and preserved. Indeed, as an old, broken-down teacher of history, and keeping in mind all those kids on field trips, we should, in good conscience, do no less.

  4. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/06/2015 - 12:39 pm.

    Nothing wrong with selling some of it

    I’d support selling pieces that display history in an inaccurate light. But, for those pieces, such as the one in the Rotunda depicting “civilizers”, sometimes it’s better to retain them and protect them, even if they’re controversial. Maybe even BECAUSE they are. Like it or not, part of our history in MN and in many other locations in the US, relates to the mistaken belief that whites were superior to other races. We should not sweep that under the rug. We should remember it for the same reason there are memorials to those killed in the Holocaust in Germany. We need to remember the bad deeds as well as the good, to see where we’ve come from and how we’ve improved (or not).

  5. Submitted by elliot rothenberg on 04/06/2015 - 12:50 pm.

    a modest proposal

    What better time than now for an agonizing reappraisal of all the art in the Capitol, and including for good measure all the art in the new 90 jillion dollar state office building and all the offices and watering holes frequented by politicians and lobbyists. I propose the appointment of an ad hoc committee – made up of the usual suspects – to evaluate every last work of art in these locations under strict standards of political correctitude duly adopted by the esteemed Members. The committee shall have the power to order the removal and disposal forthwith of any and all works deemed not to meet the Members’ new test of what is and is not appropriate for public display.

  6. Submitted by Teri Power on 04/06/2015 - 01:19 pm.

    what to do

    We do have a wonderful history center that could handle the problem of revisionist history….I would be in favor of commissioning historical pieces from the native american community and other new works. Our capitol should be a place that represents the best of us and should be growing and evolving.

  7. Submitted by Melinda Ludwiczak on 04/06/2015 - 01:25 pm.

    Capitol Art Curator

    I recommend Minnesota model the New Mexico Capitol exhibition program and hire a curator to review existing works and design an exhibition program that preserves and displays current important, commissions new work by Minnesota artists and creates a new rotating exhibition program. MHS and State Arts Board Legacy dollars could be designated for this program.

  8. Submitted by Jeanne Poquette-Lévy on 04/06/2015 - 01:26 pm.

    Don’t Disturb the Old Artwork

    The unique Minnesotan identity is important, it sets Minnesotans apart from other Midwestern states and regions; keeping the Minnesota mindset from becoming too ‘Red-state’

    Let’s not forget the Francophone origins

  9. Submitted by Jim Million on 04/06/2015 - 01:45 pm.

    Institutionalize Them

    So, let’s send the pieces too upsetting to fragile sensibilities to the Art Institute, where they will be viewed as art, not 19th Century political perversion.

    Let us replace them in our Capitol with Eastman’s best now hanging in the “private” sections of our U.S. Capitol Building. Yes, they are well beyond public view.

    Perhaps Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken would add this mission to their Minnesota agenda.

    It’s a solution that should serve all of us.

  10. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 04/06/2015 - 04:29 pm.

    History Lies Heavy, And Lies Well

    Putting 21st Century Art in a 1905 building built as a monument to the Civil War is likely to be jarring and boring. Worse, it is White Washing. Keeping — preserving — the art pieces that were conceived as part of the original building tells us more about the blemishes of our state and its origins than removing them. What is needed is interpretation, context, background. I wrote the following piece about the painting of the “battle” at Kildeer Mountain — part of Minnesota’s utterly racist punitive campaign against the Dakota — after Vernon Bellecourt died in 2007. Although Vernon was instrumental in getting the painting removed from the Capitol Rotunda to an out-of-the-way meeting room, it wasn’t censorship he was after. It was understanding. Replacing these problematic pieces — rather than attempting to understand them — is not progress. It is denial.

  11. Submitted by Doug Gray on 04/07/2015 - 04:38 pm.

    Killdeer Mountain (ND)

    Killdeer Mountain wasn’t as much of a one-sided affair as hinted at here; the Indians, fighting a rear-guard action with bows and shotguns, successfully delayed the better-armed US soldiers, allowing their families to escape what would have been a larger massacre. They then harassed and wore down the pursuing soldiers during a harrowing, weeks-long passage of the badlands. From my one visit there, the topography in the painting as well as the depiction of the action appears to be accurate.

    However, since Killdeer Mountain was in the Dakota Territory at the time, what is the painting doing in the Minnesota State Capitol in the first place?

  12. Submitted by Bill Ferguson on 04/15/2015 - 11:53 pm.

    All is fair

    I agree with Treuer. History of Indian tribes has not been properly detailed in the artwork. We should start with his own tribe by painting monumental pieces so that we may fully enjoy all of our histories.

    I think a good topic to start with would be the Ojibwe’s obliteration of the Iroquois tribes in Michigan and southern Ontario during the late 1600’s which led to the Nanfan Treaty. Another great piece would be the decimation and forced removal of the Dakota by the Ojibwe from northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Manitoba, and northern North Dakota during the 1700’s.

    More great pieces could be painted about the Black Hawk War. It would be an epic painting depicting the peace and friendship of the Dakota and U.S. troops as they battled hand in hand to defeat the Sauk Indian tribe in 1832. The Sauk tribe were so few afterwards many joined with the Ojibwe. The sound defeat of the Sauk tribe by the Dakota/U.S. forces only encouraged the continuation and enforcement of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In this sense the Dakota helped hurry the removal of all Indians to locations west of the Mississippi and Minnesota.

    Another great piece could be called “3 centuries of continuous war and beyond” depicting the continual, bloody, and ferocious battles between the Dakota and Ojibwe during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It is important to remember Indians did not believe land could be owned by individuals or transferred by a piece of paper but by blood.

    I never want it to be said again that the the historical artwork at the Capitol grounds has been whitewashed.


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