Two Rochester lawmakers are vowing to fight a state board's decision to remove all Civil War art from the Governor's Reception Room in the Minnesota Capitol.
Republican Sens. Dave Senjem and Carla Nelson say they are dismayed members of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board voted to remove all the Civil War-related art from the high-profile room. The board did not specify whether that art should be placed elsewhere in the Capitol or removed altogether.
"Unquestionable, the Civil War art needs to stay where it is. That is foundational art, recognizing the contributions of Minnesota toward saving the union during the Civil War," Senjem said. "To remove that history from the state Capitol is an unquestionable error."
But supporters of the move, including DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, argue it is time to put new art in the Governor's Reception Room that better reflects the state's long and diverse history. On Oct. 27, Dayton wrote a letter to the Minnesota Historical Society's Executive Council urging them to move the Civil War paintings out of the ornate room.
"I believe that the art in the Governor's Reception Room should be more welcoming and also more broadly representative of our state's history. It should better represent the full complexion of our state and a more varied perspective on our history, geography and culture," Dayton wrote.
Should they stay or go?
The debate comes as the $300 million-plus restoration of the Minnesota Capitol approaches completion. At issue are six paintings in the Governor's Reception Room that were commissioned by Minnesota Capitol architect Cass Gilbert. The paintings were incorporated into the 1905 building's design and are attached to the walls via molding in the reception room. Two of those portraits — "Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony" and "The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux" — have generated intense debate because of their depiction of Native Americans. Critics say they are historically inaccurate and offensive.
Two key state panels agree those paintings should be removed from the Governor's Reception Room and placed elsewhere in the Capitol as part of a display that provides historical information about what is portrayed. But disagreement remains over what to do with the four other portraits — "The Battle of Nashville," "The Fourth Minnesota Entering Vicksburg," The Second Minnesota Regiment at Missionary Ridge" and "The Battle of Gettysburg."
Those paintings have been removed from the Governor's Reception Room so they could be restored. At issue is whether they should return at all. The Minnesota Historical Society's Executive Council voted last month on resolutions to return all or some of the artwork back to the reception room. Those motions failed to pass.
Minnesota Historical Society spokeswoman Jessica Cohen said the board wanted to get input from the CAAP Board and the State Capitol Preservation Commission before making a decision on what to do with the art. Under state law, the historical society ultimately is responsible for works of art in the Capitol.
"Our hope, our intent, is to have a decision in early December," Cohen said.
On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith made a motion at the CAAP Board not to return the paintings to the reception area. It passed on a 5-3 vote. Nelson serves on that board but was unable to attend the meeting because she was out of town. She said she strongly disagrees with the board's decision.
"Minnesotans played an integral part in the Civil War. It is an integral part of our state's history. I just think it's a travesty," she said.
Architect Ted Lentz serves on the CAAP Board and voted in favor of removing the Civil War paintings from the reception area. Lenz, who is president of the Cass Gilbert Society, said he came to the conclusion that displaying these portraits in the Governor's Reception Room is not the best way to tell the story of the war. Instead, he would like to see them displayed elsewhere in the Capitol with accompanying historical information. He added that the Governor's Reception Room is Minnesota's living room, and it should reflect the state's entire history.
"Part of the litmus test for me is can you walk into that room a seventh-grader, a fifth-grader, a college student and let them look at that and have them say, 'Yeah, this helps tell my story. This is the Minnesota I love,'" Lentz said.
There will be an added cost to taxpayers if those paintings are not returned to the reception room, according to Paul Mandell, the CAAP Board's executive secretary. The state has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars restoring the paintings. They would need to be framed and glazed if they are not put up in the reception room. That would cost an estimated $25,000 per portrait. Nelson predicts the GOP-controlled Legislature is unlikely to approve funding for new art in the Governor's Reception Room.
The preservation commission will weigh in next on the decision during a meeting at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 29 on the fifth floor of the Veterans Service Building in St. Paul. Senjem serves on that commission and said he will fight against removing the Civil War paintings. This is personal for Senjem. His great-grandfather, Olaus Olson, fought in the Union Army and served at the Battle of Nashville.
Senjem added, "As far as I am concerned, I will do everything I can to stop (the removal) from happening."