Color him indifferent: Dayton brushes off talk of official portrait

Gov. Mark Dayton delivers his final annual State of the State Address
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton delivers his final annual State of the State Address.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

Mark Dayton is already tired of being painted into a corner with questions about his legacy and demands for self-appraisal as he prepares to leave the governor's office and retire from politics.

Don't even get him started on one lasting mark he'll leave at the state Capitol: the official portrait that will hang with 38 others throughout the building.

"Some of these issues that deal with the terms of my departure I have not focused on," Dayton told MPR News toward the tail end of an interview last week. "I'm not going to pay for it. I'm not going to ask the people of Minnesota to pay for it."

Dayton, an heir to a department store fortune who comes from a family of noted art collectors, was asked if he had started the process of picking an artist to do the painting. He made clear he hadn't and hinted he might not.

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"If somebody in the future decides they want to do a portrait of me I will send them a Polaroid snapshot and they can do so," Dayton said.

A spokesperson for the Minnesota Historical Society, which oversees the governor's portraits, said in modern times the agency hasn't encountered a situation where a governor declined to pick an artist so it doesn't have a process for dealing with that outcome.

As he went on, Dayton acknowledged that a portrait is a foregone conclusion, with or without his participation.

"I don't oppose it. But I would hate to look at myself in larger, living color," he said. "But I recognize that I'm part of a continuum of 40 governors and there will be others to follow me and I want to be respectful of that."

If somebody in the future decides they want to do a portrait of me I will send them a Polaroid snapshot and they can do so.

One governor, DFLer Rudy Perpich, served non-consecutive terms but has only one portrait, which carried its own controversy.

Dayton is a Democrat in the last year of a second and final term of a Minnesota political career that stretches back to the early 1980s.

He has time to decide. Portraits of former governors tend to go up the year after they've left. But some of the work begins sooner.

Republican Tim Pawlenty, who preceded Dayton and could try to succeed him as well, picked an artist during his last year in office. He went with the Bulgarian-born Ross. R. Rossin, who had previously done other U.S. governors.

That work cost $25,000 and the money came from the governor's office budget. A portrait of former Gov. Jesse Ventura, which costs about $20,000, hangs down the hall. It's notable for the many symbols sprinkled throughout the canvass.

It's unclear whether Dayton's office budget would cover the expense. No state money has been designated for it in the budget for the Minnesota Department of Administration. Dayton said he has no plans "to go out and raise money to have a portrait of myself."

He stressed he won't spend much time on it either with two months left in his last legislative session and about nine months before he exits.

"My priority is other people of Minnesota and what benefits them," he said. "This is trivial in comparison."

It was easy to take the hint and avoid asking what he wants to see on the biographical plaque next to the portrait.