Two historic but controversial paintings whose depictions of American Indians have been criticized as inaccurate and offensive appear unlikely to return to the Governor’s Reception Room in the State Capitol.
The paintings — “Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony” and “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” — would be relocated and “more robustly interpreted elsewhere in the Capitol” under recommendations adopted on Tuesday by the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board. The board was acting on recommendations approved on Oct. 27 by the executive council of the Minnesota Historical Society.
Representatives of both the planning board and the historical society, however, emphasized that no final decisions have been made in what likely will be a long process of determining with a number of partners whether those two paintings and several other controversial ones return to the Capitol or are relocated within it. The one certainty appears to be that none of the paintings in the Governor’s Reception Room and anteroom, which have been sent out for restoration, will be in place when the Capitol reopens in January after a $310 million, three-year-plus restoration and renovation project.
“It’s not possible to be specific yet on what we’re definitely going to do or what we might do other than to say pretty much everything is on the table,” said Jessica Kohen, the Minnesota Historical Society’s public relations manager. “Nothing is ruled out at this point and no final decisions have been made.”
In other recommendations, the planning board and the historical society executive council both called for the removal of two other paintings also criticized by tribal leaders and others — “Attack on New Ulm” and “Eighth Minnesota at the Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty” — from exhibit at the Capitol.
Six Civil War paintings would not return to the Governor’s Reception Room and anteroom under a planning board recommendation. Paul Mandell, the board’s executive secretary, said Gov. Mark Dayton had requested the change in the hope of bringing in more diverse artwork while others want the Civil War paintings to stay as a reminder of that divisive time. The historical society council considered but did not adopt motions to return some or all of the Civil War artwork.
The paintings have been removed for restoration, which is nearly complete. Mandell viewed them on Wednesday and said the results are striking, although “that doesn’t take away the offensive nature” of the two paintings that the planning board and historical society have voted to move from the Governor’s Reception Room.
“It makes you want to cry they’re so beautiful,” Mandell said. “The colors are so vibrant and they are so much more impressive than when they left because the old varnish has all been cleaned off. The colors are completely restored. You can see things that you never saw before. You can see colors and objects that you couldn’t see before because they had aged so badly with the old varnish.”
The question of what will become of the paintings is likely to be discussed further at the Nov. 29 meeting of the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission. Recommendations of an art subcommittee of the Capitol Preservation Commission submitted in August included moving “Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony” and “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” from the Governor’s Reception Room. The commission is acting in an advisory capacity, however, while the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board and the Minnesota History Society have statutory authority over the matter, Kohen said.
“These different groups are working on what they’d like to see for the art in terms of recommendations almost without restrictions from cost and physical limitations,” Kohen said. “Once those ideal plans are agreed on, then the next phase of the challenge really starts: How do we get this implemented? There’s a lot more than needs to happen before the artwork is returned. Months’ worth.”
If paintings are to be removed, the historical society is “the final arbiter of that decision,” Mandell said, citing a statement by Commissioner of Administration Matt Massman, and that artwork would be under the historical society’s jurisdiction. If artwork were to be relocated within the Capitol, planning board and the historical society would work jointly to decide where it would go. Removing art from the Capitol would generate additional costs for storage or crating and mothballing “That’s money that does not exist right now or at least is not allocated,” Mandell said. “It would be more expensive than putting them back.”
In a statement, the historical society’s executive council said of the Capitol: “What is displayed there reflects our values as Minnesotans. 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. We have weight this important value as we considered whether to maintain some decisions reflecting a different time and sensitivities.”
In an additional recommendation both the historical society and the planning board called for grouping and rotating governors’ portraits, with added interpretation, rather than exhibiting all of their portraits at one time. That would require amending a policy stating that a painted portrait of each former governor should be placed sequentially in the Capitol’s public corridors.