Gov. Mark Dayton and prominent Republicans may be the ones sparring over the rehanging of controversial paintings in the newly remodeled State Capitol.
But under state law, it’s the nonprofit Minnesota Historical Society that will make the final decision about what is displayed and what is mothballed.
On Thursday, the 30-member executive council of the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) is expected to decide the future of six massive and priceless paintings that depict Minnesota soldiers in Civil War battles. The artworks were painted for the Governor’s Reception Room and hung there shortly after the Capitol opened in 1905.
The decision comes as crews wrap up a $310 million renovation, the most dramatic overhaul in the Capitol’s history.
It puts the historical society, which relies on the state for nearly 60 percent of its $60 million annual budget, squarely in the middle of a politically charged situation between those who want to preserve the traditional look of the room and those who believe the Capitol should display a more diverse selection of canvases.
But MHS officials say they won’t allow partisan sniping to influence their deliberations, which will shape one of the state’s most cherished landmarks for the next generation. “We are comfortable having the decision rest with us. We know the statute that gave us the authority over these decisions was made for a really good reason. It’s important that these decisions are made thoughtfully and by an independent body,” said Jessica Kohen, an MHS spokeswoman.
The historical society’s council is made up of bankers, designers, lawyers, businesspeople, academics and even a judge.
It’s led by Phyllis Rawls Goff, retired chief of staff for Hamline University’s president, and Bill Green, an Augsburg College history professor. D. Stephen Elliott, the historical society’s director and CEO, is the council’s secretary.
The council has chosen not to publicly comment until Thursday’s meeting, Kohen said.
A familiar backdrop
Kohen said the MHS council will weigh historical preservation standards, current building uses and public feedback, including reports and recommendations from the State Capitol Preservation Commission and an art subcommittee, Kohen said.
The Governor’s Reception Room often is used for ceremonies and news conferences and its paintings are a familiar backdrop on TV and in photographs.
Dayton has indicated he’d like to see the Civil War paintings there removed and replaced with works of art that “more completely depict our great state’s varied history.”
“I believe that the art in the Governor’s Reception Room should be more welcoming. ... It should better represent the full complexion of our state and a more varied perspective on our history, geography and culture,” Dayton wrote in an Oct. 27 letter to the MHS executive council.
Some Republicans have demanded that the paintings, including those of the Civil War battles and two others depicting American Indians, be returned to their original spots on the wall.
“The bloodstains of history can’t be washed away by removing a picture,” said Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, a retired history teacher. “They are part of the story of Minnesota, the good and the bad, and they deserve to be explained.”
MHS houses the state’s Historic Preservation Office, Kohen said, and preservation is the “biggest overall lens” the council will use in weighing its decisions.
Another factor: The Capitol is on the National Register of Historic Places for its architecture and its art.
“Is that going to affect the historic integrity of the Capitol? Will it affect its listing on the registry?” Kohen said. “The ideal is to avoid any change, but sometimes that’s unrealistic. Change is going to happen. Then how do we mitigate effects of the change?”
Not a museum
Under pressure at the time from veterans’ groups and the historical society, architect Cass Gilbert commissioned artwork for the Capitol that included the six Civil War paintings. When the building was being planned, more than 25,000 Civil War veterans lived in the state and their sacrifices were seared into the state’s collective memory.
“We understand the connection veterans groups have to this art and the pride they have,” Kohen said.
On the other hand, historical preservation is not the sole standard, she said.
The Capitol is a working building with thousands of visitors daily, ranging from politicians to schoolchildren. The MHS council must consider the reception room’s use now and in the future, she said.
“It’s not a museum,” Kohen said. “The reception room and the anterooms are places where people frequently wait for meetings. It’s a place where there is a lot of prominence.”
The MHS council already has made a series of decisions about Capitol artwork. In October, the council voted to:
• Remove and store two paintings, neither original to the building, depicting Indian battles that were hung at various locations around the Capitol: “Attack on New Ulm” by Anton Gag, first hung in 1923, and “Eighth Minnesota at the Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty (Killdeer Mountain)” by Carl L. Boeckmann, installed sometime around 1914.
• Relocate two paintings from the Governor’s Reception Room that show Father Hennepin at St. Anthony Falls amid several Indians, one of them a bare-breasted woman, and a group of Dakota inking a land cession treaty in the 1850s.
Both paintings, originally commissioned for the reception room, will be displayed at another location in the Capitol and accompanied by more “robust interpretation,” Kohen said.
• Maintain a rotating exhibit of some of the governors’ portraits, which now number 38.