New art pieces will temporarily cover murals in Ramsey County Courthouse to reflect modern values
© Provided by Twin Cities Pioneer Press Ken Ford, a former St. Paul city planner,
Four new art pieces for the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul could be unveiled as early as next week.
The artwork will cover the existing Depression-era art by John Norton, which some feel no longer represents present-day values. It will be displayed in the courthouse chambers where the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners and the St. Paul City Council hold meetings. The county is hoping for a public unveiling next Wednesday.
Created by four area artists chosen by a community-led task force, the new artwork will be scanned, printed on a fabric material and put on temporary frames in the alcoves of the Norton panels so as not to damage the building or the original murals, said Mollie Spillman, a curator with the Ramsey County Historical Society. The Historical Society partnered with the task force to help facilitate the new art.
The oversized murals in the council chambers “always seemed a bit amiss to me,” said Amy Brendmoen, president of the St. Paul City Council, who praised the task force’s completion of the process that began in earnest last September. “With a backdrop of four murals with 20-foot-tall white men standing really on the top of small figures of folks, men laboring — African-American men, Indigenous men — and the utter and complete absence of women, is not welcoming for most people in Ramsey County and change was needed to align with our values.”
The St. Paul City Council will vote Wednesday on exhibiting the art all at once, as opposed to former plans to rotate half the art with half the Norton pieces. Artists statements in English, Spanish, Somali and Hmong will be displayed alongside the artwork.
Not everyone was happy with the outcome.
Oyate Hotanin, an activist group representing the Dakota people, said they felt left out of the process.
“The Dakota community feels there has been inadequate communication on this,” the group said in a statement. “In using a pan Indian approach, Dakota people feel once again not heard in the process and further made invisible in this important retelling of the story of St. Paul.”
The group’s president, Crystal Norcross, said Oyate Hotanin had been involved with the project in its earliest stages, but was disappointed to learn the county had no plans to completely remove the Norton art. Her group pulled out and refused to participate.
“When I first saw the murals, I was blown away. I didn’t even know what to say,” she said. “Colonization is not taken lightly in our community. I didn’t feel welcome there. It always messed with my emotions. It always made me angry.”
As for the American Indian artist the task force chose, she was disappointed that a Dakota artist was not a priority.
“I am all for American Indian art, but from the get-go, it was to highlight the Dakota people,” she said.
The county responded by approving three resolutions presented by the task force: to install all four of the new murals together; to link information from its website to a newly created Ramsey County Historical Society website, which goes live Aug. 17, and to include historical context panels whenever the Norton murals are displayed; and to invest in future similar art installations at Ramsey County sites.
“Four pieces of artwork in no way reflect the diversity of our community,” said county Commissioner Jim McDonough. “I’m confident that we’re at a spot now that we will continue to engage with all of the community.”
The artists are:
- CLUES Latinx Mural Apprenticeship Project, a St. Paul-based multi-ethnic team of artists.
- Emily Donovan, a St. Paul resident.
- Adam Swanson of Cloquet, Minn.
- Leah Yellowbird of Grand Rapids, Minn.
The artists received $3,000 per panel for labor and materials, fees and transportation.
The artwork was originally planned to be installed in May, but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.