Art displayed in the most prominent places in the State Capitol should “tell stories that unify Minnesotans.” That sound recommendation was issued last week by a subcommittee of the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission, which is expected to forward its report to the iconic building’s custodian, the Minnesota Historical Society.
Embrace that principle, as the 15-member art subcommittee did, and it follows that new locations should be found for two divisive paintings long displayed in the governor’s reception room. Both “Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony” and “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” should be “relocated elsewhere in the Capitol with appropriate interpretation,” the subcommittee advised.
We agree. Keeping those paintings in a place of honor is demeaning to Minnesota’s native people and repugnant to all fair-minded Minnesotans. The two paintings belong in the Capitol only if the 19th-century notions about manifest destiny and white ethnocentrism that they reflect can be explained and debunked.
“Father Hennepin” portrays the French cleric Louis Hennepin “christening” the waterfall around which the city of Minneapolis would eventually rise, as if the site had been previously unknown to humans. “Traverse des Sioux” records the moment in 1851 when Dakota leaders signed away 24 million acres at the shameful price of 7.5 cents per acre and were coerced into inking a separate “traders’ paper” that cheated them out of a portion of promised payments. That circumstance led to the bloody U.S.-Dakota War 11 years later.
Subcommittee members offered other worthy recommendations. More depictions of women belong in the Capitol, where only three nonmythical women were portrayed before. Capitol art should do more to tell state government’s own story. A permanent display about Capitol architect Cass Gilbert should be created. Provision should be made for performance art.
Perhaps most important: The art in Minnesota’s “people’s palace” should not be stuck in 1905, the year the Capitol opened. It should reflect the continuing development of a dynamic state. Minnesotans will be all the more eager to visit their beloved Capitol when it reopens next year if they know that its art is not entirely what it was, or where it was, when they visited as schoolchildren and that it will change again well before the next once-in-a-century renovation.