The Governor’s Reception Room is an ornate setting seen by not only visitors but by anyone who watches the governor giving press conferences at the state Capitol.
One of the reasons the room exudes power is the massive, rich paintings, including several that pay tribute to Minnesota’s First Regiment in the Civil War and another that holds the most prominent spot and has ties to this area. The “Treaty of Travese des Sioux” hangs directly behind the podium.
Gov. Mark Dayton set off an unusual debate recently when he raised the question of whether the most public artwork in the Capitol leans too heavily toward the Civil War era. He voiced no disregard for the importance of the acclaimed Minnesota First, but he wondered if the artwork provides the best overall representation of the history of the state.
At a time of financial hardship for many Minnesotans and the state’s other challenges, it’s not the most important issue facing Minnesota. But it is a valuable discussion and the governor should be applauded for raising the issue.
Already several voices have weighed in with media commentaries. Some have attacked the governor as being disrespectful to the Minnesota First’s heroic efforts at Gettysburg. Those critics miss the nuance of the discussion. No one questions the First’s importance in history.
Others point out that it’s not just that high-profile Capitol artwork focuses heavily on the Civil War era, but the fact that some of the artwork portrays values of a past era and not necessarily the views gained by the virtue of time.
The artwork of the 1851 Traverse des Sioux signing is a case in point. The lush, glowing painting shows U.S. soldiers and Dakota Indians in a bucolic setting. The feel of the painting doesn’t, of course, convey the essentially forced taking of land the Dakota long called home, or the horrible aftermath that was to come for Native Americans in southern Minnesota.
Many point out that Capitol artwork is also deeply lacking in depictions of African Americans, Hispanics, women and others important to Minnesota history.
Striving for a richer, more diverse mix of artwork hanging in the Capitol and other public buildings is a worthy goal. It doesn’t mean scenes rich in history — such as the Civil War battles — should be hidden away. Nor does it mean that a tally needs to be kept, such as countering every depiction of European settlement with one of Native American history.
Nor should the effort be one costly to taxpayers. There are plenty of artists and private foundations — as well as the state Historical Society and Arts Board — that could be involved in commissioning and help coordinating a better mix of art displays without diverting other state resources.
Public artwork is important. It provides an appreciation of art itself and in the case of artwork in public buildings such as the Capitol, it helps define the history of the state and the values of its people. A robust debate on the topic is welcome.