The Ramsey County Historical Society has issued a call for artists to update and expand the art displayed in the council chambers at the historic City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse in downtown St. Paul.
Artists have until Sept. 23 to submit a portfolio of their work and their ideas for original artwork to be displayed next to the Depression-era murals already in place.
The overall theme proposed for the new murals: “People of our community and progress in our community.”
“We are hoping to get applicants that are quite diverse. That is the goal here,” said Chad Roberts, president of the Historical Society. “We would like artists to bring different perspectives of what progress means for St. Paul today.”
Last December, city and county leaders directed the Historical Society to commission new art that reflects the modern, diverse cultural fabric of St. Paul and Ramsey County.
The impressive third-floor chamber, where both the City Council and County Board meet, is paneled in English brown oak and features four murals painted by Chicago artist John Norton in the 1930s.
Council members and residents visiting the council chambers have voiced concerns for years that the Norton murals were outdated and not representative of today’s city.
The Norton murals, 22 feet tall and 5 feet wide, prominently depict four white men: a voyageur, steamboat captain, railroad surveyor and laborer. The four tower over groups of people that include white laborers, black men loading cargo onto a river boat and two American Indians looking on as a white priest holds a cross. There are few women in the murals.
“Showing people of color in subservient roles, subjugated by the majority culture, in this chamber of all places is simply wrong,” Council Member Jane Prince said in December.
A task force of up to 11 citizens selected by the Historical Society will review applications and select finalists for interviews, Roberts said. Four artists will be commissioned to create a work of art that can be enlarged to mural size and completed by next April. Each will be paid $3,000.
The task force will be looking for modern interpretations of the original mural themes: early transportation, immigrants and their relationship with indigenous people, modern transportation, and modern industry and progress.
In the end, the City Council and County Board will decide whether to install the new art in the council chambers.
The tentative plan is to display two of the new murals on top of two of the existing Norton murals, the other two of which would remain on display so that at any given time visitors would see two historic murals and two modern ones.
The new and old art would be rotated and include interpretive text.
Roberts said they’re also working on online resources that will explore broader perspectives on the historic works of art; their portrayal of people of color, women and other marginalized groups; and how communities address such thorny questions today.
“It’s important to recognize there is no one answer that will satisfy how everyone thinks about this issue,” Roberts said. “We have a race issue in this country. This project is not going to solve racism … The conversations people will have about this project is where this is going to make the biggest difference.”