Attack on Historical Murals Spreads to St. Paul City Council

The St. Paul City Council is expected to commission several new murals to temporarily replace the current artwork hanging in its chambers that some believe is “very white and very male.”

The Star Tribune reported Wednesday that the City Council will likely hold a vote in the coming weeks to initiate the process of covering four murals currently adorning the council chambers. The murals, painted by Chicago artist John Norton in the 1930s, depict the “founding and growth of St. Paul,” according to the city’s website.

“The south wall has scenes of the voyageurs and their relations with the Native Americans, and a steamboat captain from the days before railroads came to Ramsey County. The murals show the beginning of the railroad era, featuring a surveyor; and modern industry and progress, with the major figure celebrating labor,” the city elaborates on its website.

But City Council President Amy Brendmoen argued that Norton’s murals “seem to reflect a specific time in the history of St. Paul, and a specific perspective that is really very white and very male,” she told The Star Tribune.

“There is something that’s sort of contradictory about the feeling we want people to have when they’re in the chamber, and what the murals portray,” she added.

The site of the murals is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so any changes would first need approval from the state. But with a budget of $34,570, Ramsey Council Historical Society President Chad Roberts expects the changes to be completed in just a year.

“That artwork really reflects the values and how our community looked and the priorities of 1930s St. Paul, [a] white male dominated community, and certainly people of color represented in servant-type roles,” Ramsey County Board Chair Jim McDonough told MPR News, noting that the county is co-owner of the building.

While Brendmoen had initially hoped to have the murals completely removed, limitations imposed by the building’s listing on the historical registry forced her to settle for a compromise. As of now, the plan is to temporarily cover some of the murals while leaving the others displayed so that the historical artwork can be viewed alongside contemporary pieces.

“I mean as long as I have been on the council I have felt there has been a real conflict between the City Council chamber being a place where people came looking for second chances, looking for solutions to problems that they were encountering, asking for help, and then the pictures on the wall of these large, looming kind of overbearing features, standing on top of everybody else, basically,” Brendmoen suggested.

A similar conversation was recently started by Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan at the Minnesota Capitol, which displays artwork with “insensitive” and “historically inaccurate” depictions of Native Americans, opponents say.

As The Minnesota Sun reported, Flanagan said she will “likely cover” the paintings currently hanging in the transition offices of the Minnesota Capitol Building.

“Yeah, that is the plan, because when my daughter is in that space, or other indigenous people, especially young people, I don’t want them to, you know, sort of see those images without being able to really have a lengthy, thoughtful conversation about them,” she said.

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Anthony Gockowski is managing editor of Battleground State News and The Minnesota Sun. Follow Anthony on Twitter. Email tips to anthony.gockowski@gmail.com
Photo “Amy Brendmoen” by Amy Brendmoen. 

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