Whose History? Statehouse Art Collection Draws Scrutiny For Lack Of Diversity
Some Vermont lawmakers have begun to take a closer look at the art that hangs on the walls of the Statehouse. What they’ve noticed, they said, is a troubling theme: Virtually all of the building’s framed portraits are of old white men.
The Vermont Statehouse is where lawmakers conduct the people’s business, but it’s also one of the most visited museums in Vermont.
Addison County Sen. Ruth Hardy said the art there ought to reflect the diversity of the state.
“We call it the ‘People’s House,’ but when you walk in here, it looks like the old white guys’ house,” Hardy said. “So I really want to make sure that we create a Statehouse where people of all ages, all races and genders, feel welcome, and see themselves, literally see themselves or people who look like them, on the walls.”
Hardy said she’s especially worried about the thousands of students who visit the Statehouse every year.
“There’s a saying, you know, ‘You can’t be it unless you see it,’ or something like that,” Hardy says. “And I think that when those fourth-grade girls come here, and they don’t see women on the walls, they think, ‘Oh, this is not an option for me.’”
The Statehouse’s permanent art collection includes scores of framed portraits that hang on its walls, legislative chambers and committee rooms. Most feature the faces of former governors and historic military figures. And only three are of women: Former Gov. Madeline Kunin, former Rep. Edna Beard, the first woman elected to the Legislature, and first female speaker of the House, Consuelo Bailey.
There isn’t a single portrait of a person of color.
Hardy has introduced legislation that would create a taskforce to diversify Statehouse portraiture by adding paintings of women and people of color who have “significantly contributed to Vermont’s unique history.”
Statehouse Curator David Schutz said he appreciates the sentiment.
“We need to tell the stories that make sense in the context of this building, and we need to do a better job of it, there’s no question about that,” Schutz said. “That is very much at the heart of our work right now — to try to make sure that all Vermonters feel that this is their building.”
Schutz, who’s been the Statehouse curator for more than 30 years, said the portraiture demographics wasn’t intentional.
“So, it’s not as though anybody had a plan to fill the building with white men,” Schutz said. “It just happens to be that the past 200 years, there have principally white men as governors of Vermont.”
But while Schutz said he appreciates the need to diversify Statehouse art generally, he said Vermont needs to be careful about who it chooses to feature in Statehouse portraits.
“So if we go beyond governors, we begin to get into slippery slopes of all kinds,” Schutz said. “I am trying to be as pragmatic and open about this as possible. But real museums are not the ones who simply put people on the walls. They are the ones who are telling stories.”
And Schutz said for him at least, looking at the portraiture isn’t the defining experience here:
“It’s part of the wallpaper, frankly. And I don’t find little kids wondering about the wallpaper.”
Sarah Laursen, assistant professor in the History of Art and Architecture Department at Middlebury College, said, “It’s easy to say that people ignore the wallpaper when your own experience of that wallpaper is that it’s inclusive of you.”
Laursen, to be clear, said she’s a fan of Schutz’s.
“I don’t envy him, the position he’s in — it’s a difficult one,” she said.
But she added the images the Statehouse places on its walls communicate the values of the institution. And when virtually all those images are of older white men, Laursen said kids take notice.
“That creates this feedback loop where, as adults, they may not see themselves in the Statehouse," she said. "They might not choose political careers."
Nicole Martins, an associate professor in the Media School at Indiana University, has spent more than a decade studying the social and psychological impact of media on young people.
She said there’s scientific evidence for the idea that girls or children of color may feel alienated or disillusioned when they don’t see themselves represented in media, including art.
“When you are consistently putting the same kind of message, which in this case is a message about white people and white men and their stories, the implicit message is, those are the only stories worth telling,” Martins said.
Sen. Ruth Hardy recently stood in a first-floor hallway in the Statehouse and looked up at one of the three portraits that does feature a woman. It’s a brightly colored painting of Madeline Kunin, Vermont’s first and only woman governor.
“She’s amazing. She’s one of my political mentors and role models,” Hardy said. “I often will stop at her portrait and just look at her or, you know, get good vibes from her if I’m having a bad day.”
Paintings in some of the other rooms in the Statehouse evoke a much different feeling for Hardy. Like a legislative conference room on the first floor, where large paintings of stern-faced white men hang on all four walls.
“And it feels almost oppressive, like they’re staring at me, saying, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you making this decision? You don’t really belong,’” Hardy said.
She said it doesn’t help that one of those men — former Gov. Percival Clements — vetoed a bill that would have granted women the right to vote in Vermont.
“It’s just a reminder that he thought I shouldn’t be here, and that we shouldn’t get to vote, and that’s hard to be reminded of every day,” Hardy said.
Hartford Rep. Kevin Christie, a lawmaker of color who’s worked with Schutz, the curator, on issues of representation in Statehouse art, said the Statehouse’s art may accurately reflect the people who controlled the building in the past.
“But it doesn’t depict Vermont today,” Christie added.
Christie said it also doesn’t reflect the people who played an important role in Vermont’s political history, but who didn’t have an opportunity to serve in its highest elected office.
“Vermont has a very positive history of Afro-American involvement in the state at multitudes of levels, and yet it’s not depicted here,” Christie said.
Hardy isn’t calling for the removal of any portraits. But she said those former governors aren’t the only relevant figures in Vermont’s political history.
“I think reconceiving what our concept of history is, that it’s not just the white man who’s sitting in the governor’s chair, but that it is the citizens of the state who are coming to this building to try to enact change and to try to be part of the legislative process,” Hardy said.
Schutz inaugurated a new exhibit recently, called Women in Vermont Statehouse. Last year, the Statehouse added a permanent exhibit that explores Vermont's indigenous people, the Abenaki, in both the past and present.
“We can now point to … exhibitions such as the Abenaki and the women that are going to engage the kids in a much more important way than looking at pictures,” Schutz said.
Hardy, however, said her bill is about more than a single spot in the Statehouse where women get their due.
What Hardy wants, she said, is “true integration.”
Correction 9:45 a.m.: This story was updated to accurately reflect the title of former Rep. Edna Beard, the first woman elected to Vermont's Legislature.