ST. PAUL — Besides being the seat of state government, the Minnesota Capitol is practically an art gallery, filled with murals of historic scenes and allegorical images of virtues the building's designers hoped to see in their leaders: wisdom, courage, integrity.
But almost 110 years after the Statehouse opened, a massive renovation project has provoked a mild but deeply felt debate about the artwork, with some lawmakers hoping to update a calcified collection and others committed to leaving it unchanged.
An impromptu remark by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton helped spark the discussion when he wondered during a renovation-related meeting whether his reception room really needed six paintings of Civil War scenes.
"People should be proud of what Minnesotans did in the Civil War," said state Rep. Diane Loeffler, a Minneapolis Democrat on a committee overseeing the renovation. "But maybe a lot of us would like to see the story of some contributions since then."
The governor later clarified that he only meant to start a dialogue about the art, and he got it. Rep. Dean Urdahl, a Republican from Litchfield, was among those taking the conservative view.
"The Civil War paintings should stay where they are," Urdahl said. "Things that today could be interpreted as bad or violent, that's our state's history too."
When the Capitol opened in 1905, almost all of Minnesota's political and business leaders were men who had served in the Union Army.
"The war was the paramount event of their lives, and of most of the nation's at that point, which is why it's so heavily depicted," Urdahl said.
Today, Loeffler said, Minnesota "is a story of leaders of both genders, all different kinds of ethnicities and races.
The Capitol's most prominent artwork is "The Battle of Nashville" by Howard Pyle, a popular children's book illustrator of the time, showing the Union attack on a Confederate position outside that Tennessee city.