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Bitter fight over controversial Capitol art finally ends

'The Signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux'

'The Signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux'

After five years of heated conversations about the display of controversial artwork at the Capitol, the Minnesota Historical Society’s Executive Council announced its decisions regarding the fates of multiple paintings, several of which feature Native Americans in stereotypical and historically inaccurate depictions.

While the conclusions reached won’t surprise many, they will certainly disappoint those who hoped for a more authentic, compassionate, and evolved representation of Minnesota’s history in the artwork displayed at the newly restored Capitol, which will reopen on January 3, 2017.

“Building consensus through the sub-committee deliberations was impossible,” commented Ojibwe professor and author Anton Treuer via email last night. As part of the Capitol Preservation Commission’s Art Subcommittee, Treuer participated in numerous discussions about the artwork. “A number of committee members engaged in committee work with an agenda solely to keep everything in the Capitol exactly as it was before the renovations and they never changed that position through the entire process.”

The drawn-out deliberations regarding the art also involved collecting input from the public, Gov. Mark Dayton, and the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board (CAAPB). That the Capitol is both a historic site (on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972) and a public building in active use were also factors in the decisions.

Among the paintings slated for removal are Attack on New Ulm, which depicts a violent clash between Dakota warriors and settlers during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Not all Dakota supported the actions shown in the painting. “This painting should not be the primary portrayal of American Indians who have lived in Minnesota for more than 10,000 years,” MNHS said in a press release regarding the decision.

The Eighth Minnesota at the Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty will also be removed. The battle it portrayed took place in North Dakota. “Neither painting is original to the Capitol design and both are painful reminders of our shared history,” MNHS said.

Two more controversial paintings, Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony and The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, will be removed from the Governor’s Reception Room but will be relocated elsewhere in the building, where they will be “interpreted more robustly,” MNHS said. The move allows MNHS to “share more fully the history of this time period, the significance and historical context of the paintings, and the perspectives of American Indians and others.”

Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony

Six Civil War paintings will return to their previous locations in the Governor’s Reception Room and anteroom. Those paintings, considered a “character-defining” attribute of the Capitol by the National Register of Historic Places, were included in architect Cass Gilbert’s original design. They are currently undergoing conservation off-site, and will return early next year.

Thirty-eight portraits of the state’s governors will be displayed in rotating smaller groups with “added interpretation” rather than exhibited one at a time.

The MNHS’ executive committee held authority over these decisions, though Governor Dayton was actively involved throughout the conversations. Dayton walked out of a heated Capitol Preservation Committee meeting last month after accusing Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, of politicizing the art discussion. Regarding the committee’s unanimous vote to keep the Civil War artwork in place, Dayton said in a statement yesterday, “It’s their decision to make, and I accept their decision.”

“As the ‘People’s House’ our beloved Capitol is an active public building and compelling icon,” said Stephen Elliott, MNHS director and CEO, in a press release. “We respect its historical significance and integrity, and also recognize that what is displayed there today and tomorrow reflects who we are as Minnesotans. MNHS places a high value on ensuring that every Minnesotan visiting the Capitol, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or position in life, should feel welcome and respected in its spaces and, ideally, represented in its art.”

Treuer estimated that tribal leaders got 5 percent of what they wanted from the subcommittee recommendations and about 10 percent of what they wanted from the final determination.

“Although somewhat disappointing, the final determination does represent some forward progress in both the process (which engaged the tribes) and final result (which gave some weight to their views),” he said. “It will take more than that to reconcile relationships between the tribes and the state given the historic and contemporary treatment of Indians in Minnesota, but the silver linings are that the governor is building trust with the tribes in spite of numerous obstacles, and with a great deal of new space in the Capitol for new work and interpretive information, we can look forward to more effective and measurable efforts to reconcile and build relationships with an eye on making the Capitol a truly inclusive space for all Minnesotans.”

The Capitol has a long way to go on that front. The vast majority of the afforementioned paintings were made by white male artists to be gazed upon by white men in power. Why the state’s history must be defined primarily by war is also a question worth asking.

The Capitol, which has received a $310 million dollar facelift over the past three and half years, reopens for public tours and the legislative session on January 3. A grand opening celebration takes place August 11-13.

What would be worth celebrating, and what would truly make the Capitol a more inclusive space, is if the state commissioned an all-new collection of artwork depicting Minnesota, past and present, by artists who better represent the demographics of the state today. While Governor Dayton tried to inject a similar suggestion into the conversation, it fell upon the deaf ears of the old guard.