ST. PAUL, Minn. - Gov. Mark Dayton stormed out of the Capitol Preservation Commission meeting Tuesday before the panel debated the future of six Civil War paintings that hang in the Governor's Reception Room.
Gov. Dayton, who has chaired the preservation commission since its inception in 2011, accused Republican lawmakers of politicizing the meeting, and unfairly framing the decision as pro-veterans or anti-veterans issue.
"We've been working on this for the past five years and it's been a team effort," Dayton explained to reporters later. "It's been nonpartisan, bipartisan through three elections. And today this thing got hijacked!"
The paintings, depicting the pivotal roles Minnesota troops played in key Civil War battles, have been on display since the Capitol was built in 1905. The works were removed for cleaning during the $220 million State Capitol restoration project, and the question before the commission is whether they should all be returned to the Governor's Reception Room.
The governor said he doesn't object to having Civil War battle scenes on the walls, but asserts other parts of Minnesota's history should also be represented. Dayton said he had hoped the meeting would allow a full discussion of those broader issues, but was annoyed to see veterans and Civil War reenactors had packed into the meeting that normally draws only staff and media.
The Minnesota Historical Society will have final say on placement, but has been working in coordination with the Capitol Preservation Commission and the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board to determine placement of art after the restoration is complete and the building reopens to the public.
The Governor lashed out at Rep. Matt Dean, a Dellwood Republican, for writing a memo to lawmakers pointing out that Lt. Gov. Tina Smith had voted against returning the paintings to governor's office, when the planning board took up the issue.
"We've been at this for five years, and you haven't lifted a finger for this project all this time," Dayton said, glaring at Rep. Dean. "And now you come in and want to grandstand and distort the issue!"
Dean's memo pointed out that Capitol was built in memory of Civil War veterans, and that Minnesota's National Guard Adjutant General Richard Nash wanted those pieces returned to their original places. Dead added, "The Capitol should not be designed around the likes and dislikes of any temporary tenant."
After Dayton left the meeting, Dean explained that someone needed to advocate for the Civil War paintings. He said he was surprised the planning board favored permanently removing the battle scenes from the reception room.
"Somebody asked me where the Civil War memorial is on the Capitol Mall, and I said you're looking at it. It's the building," Dean explained. "If we don't stand up for that, who else will?"
House Speaker Kurt Daudt reinforced that point.
"I think the Legislature would probably not appropriate money for this project if they had known we were removing part of the history of the Capitol."
Rep. Dean Urdahl, the Grove City Republican who led the fight for the Capitol restoration project for years, said he hopes the Historical Society keeps the paintings in Dayton's office.
"Those paintings represent Minnesota's most important contribution to our nation's history," Rep. Urdahl told KARE.
"Certainly they're bloody. These paintings don't depict happy events, but that's part of our history."
Several members of the panel say they support keeping the paintings in the Governor's office, but would like to see more context and background information for younger people who are many generations removed from that war.
Other paintings that include controversial depictions of Native Americans are slated to be removed the Governor's Office, but may end up being displayed elsewhere in the State Capitol with graphics that provide more context. Two controversial paintings on the Capitol's third floor are also being debated, and may be removed altogether.
Placement of art is one of few remaining decisions in the renovation project, which should wrap up by the end of 2017. The Historical Society controls the public spaces in the building, while the Planning Board and Minn. Dept. of Administration control the private areas.
News flash: Gov Dayton walks out of Capitol Preservation Comm in protest after accusing Rep Matt Dean of politicizing Capitol art pic.twitter.com/rSluZKHL2L— John Croman (@JohnCroman) November 29, 2016