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Capitol portraits should remain where architect placed them

Monday, December 5, 2016

By Rep. Joe McDonald

Gov. Mark Dayton’s push to relocate several state Capitol portraits is a shortsighted position by a temporary tenant that would gloss over paintings depicting our state’s sometimes torturous history.

The fate of historic art in the Capitol has been an ongoing source of contention amid the three-year, $300 million restoration of the building, which is home to nearly 150 pieces – murals, paintings, statues and busts. Four Civil War paintings in the governor’s reception room and two others in an adjacent anteroom have been central to discussions.

Our glorious Capitol is itself a monument to the Civil War and paintings architect Cass Gilbert commissioned more than a century ago include depictions of Minnesotans making immense sacrifices to help preserve the Union. The works of art feature the Battle of Gettysburg, the Fourth Minnesota Regiment Entering Vicksburg, the Second Minnesota Regiment at Mission Ridge and the Battle of Nashville.

Now, the governor wants to relocate the Civil War images, along with other works featuring the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and Father Hennepin blessing the land that would become Minneapolis.

This appears to be an attempt to sanitize our past in the name of political correctness. To the contrary, we should be sharing the difficult, sometimes painful stories of our statehood so citizens can continue learning from them and better understand how we got where we are today.

Removal of the paintings would be a desecration of this monument to veterans and their sacrifices, not to mention an affront to the artist, whose portraits are each worth far more than the cliché thousand words. The Capitol art tells stories that can serve as learning tools through vivid, impactful imagery. The pieces spur conversation to help keep alive the legacy of our Civil War veterans, helping us to understand how we got where we are today.

Members of the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission conducted meetings throughout the state in recent months to discuss, among other things, whether these works of art should return to their usual Capitol locations once the restoration is complete. The preservation commission received significant public input and has ruled the paintings should not be permanently removed from the Capitol.

The good news is the governor does not have the final say on the art. That responsibility lies with the Minnesota Historical Society, which can be reached at (800) 657-3773.

Whether that arrangement needs to be revisited is a different subject for a different day. For now, let’s urge the MHS to remember these paintings are perhaps the most poignant illustrations in the Capitol of the very reason the building was constructed and they deserve to stand where the architect placed them more than a century ago.

We cannot allow personal preferences to Photoshop some of our state’s most crucial, however painful, stories from our past.


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