Gag painting future hangs in the balance

Anton Gag’s “Attack on New Ulm”

MINNEAPOLIS — The future of Anton Gag’s “Attack on New Ulm” is being weighed after the closing of an exhibit to elicit public feedback.

The Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) closed an exhibit at the James J. Hill House Sunday, Jan. 14, aimed at collecting feedback on what to do with the controversial painting.

“The next step is, we have a Capitol art team — historians on staff, curators, exhibit developers — and they are going to work on a plan for what to do over the next eight to 10 months,” Public Relations Specialist Lauren Peck said.

The painting depicts a group of half-naked Dakota armed with rifles attacking a fenced collection of buildings that represent New Ulm.

A controversy around the painting kicked up during renovations of the Capitol building, where it was on display.

Now the MNHS is sifting through public feedback. Peck said loaning out the painting is not off the table.

The Brown County Historical Society (BCHS) would throw its hat in the ring, Executive Director Kathleen Backer said.

“It is a significant piece of art, it tells a story and it is reflective of society’s opinions at the time. It has relevance locally to Brown County’s history, and we would appreciate the opportunity to have it on display,” Backer said.

She said the BCHS had three potential ideas. The painting could be put with the permanent third-floor display that discusses the U.S.- Dakota War of 1862. It could also become part of a larger display about Anton Gag, or it could be hung by itself in the museum.

Critics of the painting contend that it portrays the Dakota in a stereotypical light as uncivilized and savage, according to a video MNHS hosted on its website as part of the exhibit.

“I think we, as Dakota people, have been over-romanticized and stereotyped,” Syd Beane, a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, said in the video. “We are the cowboys and Indians in this state, and so the Dakota people must be understood beyond the cowboys and Indians narrative.”

Supporters of keeping the painting in the Capitol building argue for its importance and contend that claims of inaccuracy are overstated.

“The Dakota War of 1862, I believe, was the most significant event in Minnesota history, and there needs to be something in the Capitol discussing that war,” John LaBatte, who traces his ancestry to both the Dakota and the white settlers involved, said.

Local settler descendant George Glotzbach also argued for keeping the painting in the Capitol. While the painting was finished in 1904, Glotzbach argues it is still one of the most accurate single representations of the conflict.

“I do not know that there are any other paintings of the Dakota war that are as timely and as representative and as important as that one,” Glotzbach said.

In the MNHS video, critics argued that the painting did not capture the whole of events leading up to and surrounding the war, and that it reflects white supremacist views of the time.

“This is still from an artist’s point of view, created at a particular moment in the early 20th century when attitudes about Native American savagery and assumptions about whites as civilizers were really, really dominant, and that’s what’s really a part of this painting,” Erika Doss, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, said in the video.

LaBatte and Glotzbach both said that Gag had spent time interviewing Dakota and white settlers to gather as accurate a representation as possible.

LaBatte argues that critics have interpreted the painting incorrectly. He specifically called out the argument that the dress of the Dakota was inaccurate.

On his blog, dakotawar1862.wordpress.com, he lists over two dozen citations of first-person accounts that describe the Dakota as half or totally naked during or leading up to the attacks.

“Two of my Dakota grandfathers were among the Indians who attacked New Ulm,” LaBatte said. “That painting does not offend me as a Dakota descendant.”

Ultimately, both Glotzbach and LaBatte would like to see the painting remain at the Capitol, but if that is not possible, a display in New Ulm within an interpretive context would also be acceptable.

“What I do not want to happen is that this thing gets rolled up and put down in the basement of the Minnesota Historical Society, never to be seen again,” Glotzbach said.

That greater interpretive context is something that MNHS, LaBatte and Glotzbach all seem to agree on.

“We really just want, wherever it goes, to have more interpretation around it,” Peck said. “We are still not sure where it can be, but wherever it goes, if it is displayed, there will be more interpretation, putting it in the context of today.”

Connor Cummiskey can be emailed at ccummiskey@nujournal.com.

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