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

The massive Capitol restoration project has initiated a long-delayed discussion about including art that would add different perspectives of Minnesota history. 

"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.

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“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.

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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.”

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"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.”