In battle of art at the Capitol, a question of what history should prevail

It was dueling walkouts at a meeting of the Capitol Preservation Committee today when Republicans and DFLers fought the battle of the Governor’s Reception Room paintings.

This one has been brewing ever since the renovation of the Capitol started, which gave authorities a chance to take another look at the artwork on the walls.

In particular, the governor’s reception room contained several paintings now considered offensive.

Like this one, for example. Father Hennepin blessing the land which would become Minneapolis.

Or this one: “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.” That “treaty” transferred ownership of southern and western Minnesota to the government. The Dakota believed if they didn’t sell the land, the government would merely take it. Another treaty signed at the same time fraudulently routed some of the money to fur traders instead.

Those are, as they say, history. The Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board voted to return those to the Minnesota Historical Society.

But there are several other Civil War photographs for which Republicans have vowed to make a stand. When the Board voted to remove those — possibly to another location in the Capitol — they became a political football.

Howard Pyle could not possibly have dreamed when painting “The Battle of Nashville” (where 87 Minnesotans died) in 1907 that almost 110 years later, it would pit political brother against political brother.


At a contentious hearing today, Gov. Mark Dayton walked out of a meeting of the Capitol Preservation Commission over a letter from Rep. Matt Dean.

“The paintings were commissioned by the Capitol’s architect, Cass Gilbert, for that room, and specifically the Civil War paintings memorialized the contributions of the soldiers and also the people of Minnesota at that time who built the building in their memory. We need to honor that and keep that part of our history with the restoration,” Dean said in his letter.

The paintings could be moved somewhere else in the Capitol, but those are fighting words to Civil War historians and some legislators.

As the meeting continued today, House Speaker Kurt Daudt walked out too, after declaring it would be a “tragedy” to remove the paintings.

Later, the commission voted to keep the Civil War paintings where they are.

All of this brings up the question: What exactly is our history, anyway?

If we don’t show portraits of Native Americans giving away their territory, or brave Minnesotans fighting at Gettysburg, what’s the alternative? What other of this state’s history is worth displaying in such a public room? If Cass Gilbert, who designed the Capitol, dictated the artwork, are we forever bound by it? If not, are we still preserving the building?

Related: Minnesota State Capitol: Overview of the Fine Art (Minnesota Historical Society)

  • Kassie

    You ask what history should be depicted, but I wonder why art at the capitol has to depict any history. Why not just display good art? Some of it may depict history, some may be abstract, or nature, or a hobbit. If I were governor, I’d want an original Lillian Colton somewhere nearby.

    • Sam M

      What is your definiteion of “good” art? What if the “good” art is deemed offensive in 20 years?

      • Kassie

        Trade it out for other good art. Let the governor decide in his offices and the majority party in the other areas. This doesn’t have to be hard.

        • Sam M

          You know they will make it hard. I personally think the idea could be fun actually but past and current performance indicates they would make it hard.

    • Rob

      Right? Georgia O’Keefe and some Salvador Dali would be good.

  • Gary F

    I guess the Gov has got MN Sure all figured out.

    • Not unless the legislature agrees to a special session, and that seems unlikely now. Why do anything with MNSure when Congress is going to roll back Obamacare?

      • Robert Moffitt

        What makes anyone think they are going to stop at Obamacare? Any health service with a government connection may be on the block. Medicaid for sure. Medicare? They just might be crazy enough to try.

        • theoacme

          Or, for that matter, anyone without insurance that goes to the emergency room will either (a) be left to die, or (b) given a choice to accept Republican-assisted suicide or a Klan lynching?

    • Angry Jonny

      Go talk to the carriers, then, if you’ve got some pull. Because that’s where the robbery is happening.

    • Noelle

      How does this post have *anything* to do with MN Sure?

    • Rob


  • MrE85

    I think Kassie is on to something. Perhaps the MIA, Walker and other museums across the state, as well as private collectors, could lend the Capitol works of art on a rotating basis. Instead of collecting dust (and controversy), the Capitol could expose thousands of people to art they may never have seen otherwise.

    • Mike Worcester

      I believe the Civil War paintings were specifically commissioned for the State Capitol.

      I agree with others that the artwork at the Capitol should represent all of the state, not just what the state was at one time. Of course, the question becomes how to do that fairly without excluding one group or another. Or is that even possible to do?

      (And I’d need to check on this but I was under the impression that much of the art in the capitol was the property of the state historical society?)

      • Robert Moffitt

        I have been in the Governor’s Reception Room, and I think the paintings there (they are huge) match the room and the Gilded Age when the room was designed. But elsewhere? Let free the gentle muse of Art and let the people rejoice.

  • Paul
    • Jeff

      We need better less offensive history.

    • crystals

      I love Parks & Rec with my whole heart.

      • KariBemidji

        During this whole election season, I kept going back to Parks and Rec. Unfortunately, in real life, Bobby Newport won.

    • Noelle

      Parks and Rec forever. Edited to add that the Pawnee murals were all I could think about while reading this.

      • Paul

        Same. And laughed.

  • Angry Jonny

    I know this is partisan and petty, but screw Matt Dean. That guy is a toad.

  • Rob

    The only “tragedy” with this whole thing is the extent of to which all the politicians are getting worked up about it. The Father Hennepin painting ain’t anywhere close to history, so we can get rid of it with no qualms. And why the Republicans are so obsessed about the Civil War paintings is beyond me. I vote for totally freshening up those spaces.

  • Anna

    Haven’t we had enough discord from the recent election? Is where artwork hangs in the renovated Capitol building really what we should be concerning ourselves with?

    I think we have much bigger fish to fry as in fixing MNSure, getting our decaying infrastructure into a safer condition and getting thousands of workers across Minnesota the living wage they deserve just to mention a few.

    Decades ago the Communists in the former Soviet Union boasted they would not need to fire a shot to take over the United States. The behavior on all sides over the last 18 months has come dangerously close to making that prediction all too real.

    It remains to be seen if we can survive our near miss with outright civil war.

    Can’t Minnesotans be “the better man” and rise above it all instead of sinking to even more abysmal levels of pettiness and self aggrandizing?

  • Gary F

    How about Minnesota artists like Les Kouba?

    • Jerry

      Nothing but Adam Turman prints and Michael Birawer paintings.

      • It’s like inside MY home.

        /Many Turman prints, a few pieces from other artists, and a few of my own…

        • Jerry

          I believe having a Turman on your wall is required by Minneapolis city code. And I’m pretty sure having a mural is a requirement for opening a taproom.

  • Dan

    I will ponder these questions next time I’m walking around Lake Calhoun.

  • MikeB

    This is a preview of upcoming attractions. Every decision or announcement is a proxy war for our politics.

  • Will

    Dayton needs to deal with all issues like an adult.