After more than an hour of intense debate, the St. Paul City Council voted Wednesday to install more inclusive artwork in its historic chambers despite objections from Dakota artists who said they were left out of the process.
Four new works completed by a diverse group of artists will be unveiled at a public event next week. The new art will cover the chambers’ decades-old murals of larger-than-life white men towering over laborers and Native Americans.
The Ramsey County Board, which owns the City Hall/County Courthouse building along with the city in downtown St. Paul, had also voted Tuesday to move ahead with the art installation after having a similar discussion.
“We are getting rid of the current murals, which are derogatory and wrong. That is the most important thing we do here today,” said Council Member Chris Tolbert.
The council voted 5-1 for the new artwork, with Council Member Jane Prince voting no and Council Member Dai Thao abstaining. Prince and Thao said the Dakota community deserved to be heard before the new art was displayed.
“The Dakota were here first and they need to be in our council chamber,” Prince said.
Council Member Nelsie Yang, joined by Prince and Thao, unsuccessfully sought to delay approval of the art installation for a week to speak with Dakota community members and artists about their concerns.
In December 2018, city and county leaders agreed to commission more diverse artwork to cover some of the four original murals. But members of the Dakota community disagreed with early plans to display new art alongside some of the original murals and decided not to participate in the process.
Crystal Norcross, who chairs the board of Oyate Hotanin, a St. Paul-based Indigenous arts and social justice nonprofit organization, said Dakota artists didn’t want their work to be a “Band-aid” displayed next to what they considered racist depictions.
“It wasn’t inclusive. They didn’t want to tell our stories,” said Norcross, who lives in St. Paul and belongs to the Sisseton Wapheton Oyate, part of the Dakota tribe.
The decision to leave some of the murals uncovered appeased “historical purists” but offended others, Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough said earlier this week.
After a process of nearly two years run by the Ramsey County Historical Society that included community meetings and extensive interviews, a citizen task force selected four artists: the Latinx Mural Apprenticeship Project organized by Latino nonprofit CLUES, Emily Donovan of St. Paul, Leah Yellowbird of Grand Rapids, and Adam Swanson, who lives in Cloquet on the Fond du Lac Reservation.
When George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May, city and county leaders agreed to cover all four of the original murals with new art. But Norcross said the Dakota were not notified of the change or invited back into the process. With St. Paul and Ramsey County being the Dakota’s ancestral homeland, the community feels strongly they should be represented in the new artwork, she said.
All council members said they were committed to a process in which works by a diverse group of artists would be rotated in and out of the chambers. Ramsey County commissioners made a similar commitment Tuesday.
Before Wednesday’s vote, several council members discussed the discomfort and outrage they and others felt about the 1930s-era paintings by Chicago artist John Norton, which for decades have loomed over City Council and County Board meetings.
“I don’t think it could be happening at a more important time right now, when so many people are so rightfully asking those questions about belonging and about inclusion and about how we portray that,” Council Member Rebecca Noecker said.
City Council President Amy Brendmoen said the council knew bringing in diverse artists would be “messier” and more complicated than replacing the murals with benign images of trees or abstract color motifs.
“We are choosing these challenges,” Brendmoen said. “I admire the group for making this choice. I think it makes it much more interesting and something I am much more excited about, but it’s definitely going to be more challenging to navigate.”