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The art of deciding what to do with the state Capitol’s art collection

The only thing everyone involved in the process seems to agree on is that it’s a big opportunity — that nobody wants to waste.

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

Back in 2015, Paul Anderson came up with a line that summed up the challenge of figuring out what do with with all the artwork inside Minnesota’s state Capitol building: “The past, the present and the future went into a bar. It was tense.” 

After more than a year of cataloging and indexing that art, of meetings and debates and public forums, Anderson, a former associate Supreme Court justice, couldn’t have been more right about that tension. He got the line printed on a T-shirt. 

Anderson is one of three chairs of the Capitol Preservation Commission’s subcommittee on art, a group of 15 people from all walks of life selected to make recommendations on what to do with the nearly 150 pieces of art inside the building. Over the course of the last year, the group has discussed everything from diversity, religion and the Civil War to what to do with the 38 gubernatorial portraits that previously hung on the Capitol walls.  

In doing so, the subcommittee has also found itself in the middle of a contentious and emotional debate, caught between those who want to preserve the Capitol as it was when it was built in 1905, and those who think the building’s art — particularly the way it portrays Native Americans — needs to be updated for the 21st century. In fact, the whole process nearly unraveled earlier this year when legislators expressed concern that the group’s recommendations might create a new entity to make future decisions about Capitol art.  

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“Nobody should be surprised that there is tension,” said Anderson. “Power just creates tension. Conflicting visions creates tension.” 

By the end of this month, the group must finalize its recommendations to the Capitol Preservation Commission on what to do with all of the art. And the only thing everyone seems to agree on is that it’s a big opportunity — that nobody wants to waste. 

As committee member Peter Hilger reminded the group at recent meeting: “When was the last time an art subcommittee got together? It was 100 years ago.” 

Preservation versus interpretation

The Capitol art debate came out of the massive restoration of the 111-year-old Capitol, which is currently under construction and closed off to the public.  

The art that decorates the walls and shelves of that building runs the gamut, from busts and portraits of prominent Minnesotans to giant murals depicting “historical” scenes. Most of the pieces were commissioned 100 years ago by the building’s architect, Cass Gilbert, who enlisted some of the most prominent artists of his day to produce the pieces. 

The art subcommittee was established to look at big picture questions — primarily, how the Capitol should look when it reopens to the public next fall. And central to that question is a tension, one that revolves around the point of view of the art — almost all of which was created by white men. 

Take the governor’s reception room, which might be considered ground zero for the debate. It’s one of the most prominent spaces inside the Capitol, and it includes six large paintings, including several depicting prominent Civil War battles. 

Two of the room’s six paintings are considered controversial by the Native American community, including the “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux,” a warm and happy portrayal of the 1851 signing of a treaty that secured some 22 million acres that would make up much of the future state of Minnesota. In reality, nearly all of the Dakota land was at stake in the treaty, and the tribe was pressured by Territorial Gov. Alexander Ramsey to sign it quickly. The other controversial painting, “Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony,” shows an explorer and priest sitting with five members of a Dakota tribe, including a bare-chested woman. The painting has been criticized as a naive and skewed portrayal of Native American dress during that time period. 

Some want the two pieces removed entirely from the Capitol and put on display in a museum that could offer more extensive interpretation of what’s depicted. Others believe the paintings should be left where they are, as the Capitol creators intended. Then there’s the Catholic church, which wants the Father Hennepin painting to stay.  

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"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

Other Capitol art presents different sets of problems, like the paintings that can’t just be picked up and moved, even if everyone involved agreed they should (which, of course, they don’t). The giant mural on the north wall of the Senate chambers, for example, also know as the “Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi,” shows a Native American man and women at the headwaters of the river, along with their “civilizers”: a group of white people. 

“That’s the challenge, trying to find that balance between a historic building that has fantastic art that was created in a different day and age,” said David Kelliher, director of public policy with the Minnesota Historical Society, manages the tours and preservation of art in the building. “It’s about preserving what we have and also opening up some new opportunities.” 

Some on the art subcommittee want to commission new pieces of art for the Capitol, which will have new public spaces on one level of the building and a room dedicated to Cass Gilbert on the third floor. The idea is to have the Capitol’s art cover all of the state’s history to date, including the history of women and people of color in Minnesota.  

There was even a suggestion to create a new Capitol art curator position, an idea that prompted a meeting with legislative leaders in March, who quickly nixed it, though not before there were discussions of suspending the art subcommittee entirely. The new role, legislators feared, had the potential to dramatically alter the look of the historic Capitol, including the House and Senate chambers.  

“The Capitol should not become an art institute or an art museum,” Department of Administration Commissioner Matt Massman said at a recent subcommittee meeting. “The Capitol is not intended to be the Walker or the Mia but the state Capitol.”

Who’s in charge?

The controversy over the curator position forced the committee to step back and re-focus its mission, which is to collect information and present recommendations to the full Capitol Preservation Commission. The committee released preliminary recommendations in February, and those proposals are now nearly finalized. Among them:  

  • Leave all the art inside the Capitol, but move controversial pieces — like the “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux,” and “Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony” — into new locations in the building.
  • Include more interpretive plaques and presentations alongside the more controversial pieces of art.
  • Keep portraits of Minnesota’s governors hung inside the Capitol, but the committee would like to display the portraits on a “wall of governors” and organize the pieces by time period or in some other way that would be more informative for visitors to the building.
  • Leave any changes to art in the House and Senate chambers up to each legislative body, but require senators and representatives to draft an official proposal if they want to change anything.

After the recommendations are finalized by the subcommittee, they will head to the full Capitol Preservation Commission for review, but that’s likely not the last step in the process. The state law governing the preservation and care of the Capitol includes several players, including the Department of Administration, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Capitol Area Architectural Planning board. That’s led to even more debate — about who has the final say when it comes to Capitol art.

"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

“In statute, the historical society, with a sort of vaguely defined role, has authority for art in the Capitol,” said Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis. “It was really more, I think, about maintaining it. I think we will have a discussion about should we have a broader group discuss new art and the themes in new art.” 

For now, the historical society has played a role in the art committee debate, but it’s not a voting member of the group. “I think we’ve been kind of a half step removed,” Kelliher said. “We’ve attended and been advisers and jumped in when we’ve been asked to jump in. We have a different role in the process that will come later.”

Huge public interest

While at times frustrating, for most members of the art committee the process has been a worthwhile experience. 

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Among other things, the group made a complete catalog and listing of all the art in the Capitol, something that had never been done before, Anderson said. The committee also brought the public into the discussion, hosting public forums across the state. The Department of Administration created an online survey for people to weigh in on the Capitol art debate. More than 3,000 people replied.

The recommendations from the committee will also call for new funding to both preserve the Capitol’s current art as well as to commission new pieces that will be more representative of the state’s diverse population. That will have to head before lawmakers for a vote, but everyone involved in the committee says they’re on board with advocating for it. 

“We have helped surface even more clearly how much Minnesotans love this building. They see it as a focal point of our state and something to be proud of,” Anderson said. “It’s a public building and it’s a working space, but it’s not an office building. It’s more than that. It’s a gathering place.”