Police as Nazis, Klan? Taxpayer-funded painting ignites debate

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A taxpayer-funded painting that portrays police as Nazis backed up by Ku Klux Klan members has ignited a debate about censorship in Minnesota.

The painting, by Anishinaabe artist Jim Denomie, depicts the 2016 protests over the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota. Protesters were concerned about the impact on the Missouri River and the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Denomie’s work shows Native American protesters on one side of a fiery river holding peaceful signs. On the far bank are police with military vehicles, attack dogs and a water cannon. One of the vehicles features a swastika, while Klan members stand behind the police. Nearby, a caricature of President Donald Trump is seen groping a woman.

In 2018, Denomie received a $10,000 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to fund the work. It’s on display through April 6 at the Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis after a run at Mankato State University.

State Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, said the painting was “repulsive” and said the Arts Board should not fund projects like this.

“People create all kinds of things all the time that are highly controversial, but when it comes to taxpayer money, that’s a different question,” Heintzeman said in an interview. “The taxpayer, should they be on the hook for this?”

Sue Gens, executive director for the Arts Board, was among those who said the state plays an important role in promoting a wide range of views through art.

“Our goal really is to try to provide broad opportunities for funding, so that maybe every Minnesotan can find something that speaks to them,” Gens said.

The $10,000 grant came from two sources: $5,625 from the National Endowment for the Arts and $4,375 from the state’s general fund, Gens said. The project did not receive any funding from state sales tax under Minnesota’s legacy amendment that voters approved in 2008, she said.

Every year, the Arts Board gets about 4,500 applications for grants and funds an average of 2,200, she said. Volunteers score applications based on a number of criteria, such as how an audience will engage with the art and whether the project and timeline is feasible.

“We’re really proud of the fact that we’re asking Minnesotans how they would like their arts dollars to be invested,” Gens said.

On his application, Denomie sought $10,000 – the maximum amount available under the state’s Artist Initiative grant.

In an interview conducted via email this week, Denomie said he saw the Standing Rock protests as “history in the making.” He compared the incident to the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, during which U.S. soldiers killed as many as 300 Native Americans in South Dakota, and explained his decision to include a swastika and Klansmen. 

“I used these symbols to bring to mind incidents when police have used racial profiling or deadly force against unarmed people of color. It felt to me that maybe some of this behavior was present during events at Standing Rock,” Denomie said.

Heintzeman said the sheriff of Crow Wing County, where he lives, thought the artwork was offensive to police.

But when Heintzeman posted about his concerns on Facebook and said the painting shouldn’t have been funded “on my dime,” he faced pushback from a fellow Republican lawmaker.

State Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, wrote that she was “tired of this attitude.” She said the Denomie project had “met all specifications” from the Arts Board.

Heintzeman said he was not calling for the state to censor art, but preferred to see more positive work be funded instead.

“There’s lots of opportunities for these dollars to be used. We’re turning away lots of projects,” he said. “I’m guessing there was probably a pretty good direction we could’ve gone with this particular $10,000 appropriation.”

Gens said the Arts Board does not ask grant applicants about their political ideology.

“When you think about all the different viewpoints and all the different perspectives there are in Minnesota, for a state agency to pick some of those viewpoints and say, it’s all right to have art that reflects these viewpoints but not these, I think would really create a problem,” she said.

Denomie said the state should continue funding art that criticizes the government because it’s part of the democratic process.

“I invent creative ways to express this information in hopes that people will stop and think about that history and those events,” he said.