Lawmakers want governors’ portraits back in Capitol

Mary Pawlenty gave a thumbs up after a portrait of her husband, former Governor Tim Pawlenty, was unveiled at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Monday, Oct. 10, 2011. Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

There’s renewed controversy over art displays at the state Capitol.

Some high-ranking state lawmakers are balking at a decision to potentially display only some of the portraits of former governors. A Minnesota Historical Society governing board decided last fall to rotate the portraits over time. An agency spokeswoman said Friday that a final plan hasn’t been worked out.

But Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, introduced legislation last week to require every portrait to be up at all times. The Senate’s majority and minority leaders are co-sponsors.

“All of the portraits should find a place to be hung in the Capitol just as they have been in the past,” Rest said. “It is really just speaking to the history of the state and recognizing our past governors.”

Stephen Elliott, director and chief executive officer of the Minnesota Historical Society, explained the altered policy at the agency’s executive council in December.

“One of the things we’ve heard a lot over the last couple of years in these discussions is the need for context and more interpretation around them. This will provide that opportunity,” he said.

Governors portraits have been displayed in the public hallways of the Capitol since 1944 and now number 38. Before being removed for an extensive building restoration project, the paintings were hung in sequential order on the first and ground floors.

Rest is unswayed by arguments that historical context is constrained by having them all up.

“Balderdash,” she said.

Jessica Kohen, public relations manager for the Historical Society, said Friday that one idea has been to initially display portraits for the first six to eight governors and the most-recent six to eight.

“Our goal is just better, broader education,” she said. “What that looks like is still to be determined.”

Kohen said the policy of rotating the portraits by theme adopted last year doesn’t preclude display of all portraits. Space remains a concern.

“I think what we’re saying we couldn’t do is put them all back up as they were because that limits our ability to group them,” Kohen said.

She said the first batch of portraits should return in time for a grand re-opening celebration in August.

Meanwhile, a series Civil War-themed paintings that also stoked debate are set to be rehung this month.