At the Minnesota Capitol, a tale of two Perpich portraits

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After years of restoration work, the newly refurbished Minnesota State Capitol will be celebrating its grand reopening this weekend.

Among the changes that visitors will see in the Capitol corridors are biographies of former governors alongside their official portraits. Words that have already become controversial.

The biographies of Jesse Ventura and Tim Pawlenty had to be rewritten and replaced after the former governors complained that the information was inaccurate or politically biased.

But controversy over the display of a governor's portrait in nothing new.

There was a 10-year battle before the current portrait of former Gov. Rudy Perpich was finally hung in the Minnesota Capitol.

The problem? Perpich argued he should have two separate portraits, one for each of his terms in office.

Portrait of Governor Rudy Perpich and First Lady Lola Perpich
Oil on canvas portrait of Governor Rudy Perpich and First Lady Lola Perpich, painted in 2000 by Mark Balma.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

The first, created during his first term — 1976 to 1979 — showed him alone with the open pit mines of the iron range from which he hailed. The second — following his 1983 to 1991 term — showed him and his wife Lola, and was actually a photograph touched up with acrylic paint.

The Minnesota Historical Society and Capitol architecture board rejected the newer submission, both because it wasn't a traditional painting and because it included the first lady.

This greatly frustrated Perpich.

"If Governor Al Quie was allowed to have his horse in his official portrait, yet I'm not allowed to have my wife Lola beside me in my official portrait, I believe that the decision is a disgrace," Perpich said in a 1991 MPR interview.

During the ongoing debate over the picture, Perpich bought a billboard on University Avenue in St. Paul with the portrait in question and a caption that read: "They won't let us in the Capitol, so hi from here."

Friends and relatives kept up the fight after his death in 1995, and were finally able to pass legislation authorizing the portrait in 1998 — though with a stipulation that it must be a painting, rather than a photo.

The family raised money through private donations for a painting of Perpich and Lola in the governor's reception room at the Capitol, which they had both worked to restore during his second term. The portrait was completed and, finally, hung in the year 2000.

It wasn't a total victory, however, as the Capitol still wouldn't allow two portraits at the same time. The first solo portrait hung at the Ironworld Discovery Center in Chisholm, Minn., for a time and is now in storage.

Reporting by former MPR News reporter Amy Radil, 2000.