Every year, for at least five months or more, professional lobbyists like me wear out a few pairs of shoes working the granite halls of Jefferson City’s Missouri State Capitol. Having passed more than 10,000 logged hours there just over the last decade alone, it is easy to overlook many of its arts and cultural attractions that give advocates a working office that is also one of America’s greatest living museums.
However, during the summer months when the State Legislature is not in session, the walls of Missouri’s social history told by our finest genre artists seem to speak with a greater voice. Maybe it is because my mind is not as bound on multi-tasking from debating legislation, moving from committee hearing to floor action, or hosting the next Saint Louis or Kansas City in-bound client. It could also simply be from the relative absence of humanity that energizes the Missouri General Assembly. Without 163 members running in and out of their offices, to appropriations meetings, to press conferences or public policy meetings, it is as if the building’s presence shifts from hotel concierge to more of a wandering tourist.
Perhaps, as an oil painter myself, it is my recognition for how hot the House Gallery must have been for Thomas Hart Benton. More than 80 years ago, it is easier to imagine why more than a few State Senators or State Representatives might have scoffed at the nature of his art work. However, a deal was a deal – Benton could paint anything he desired within his two year deadline, provided that it had relevance to Missouri’s social history. There have many days where visiting trade groups or business associations were caucusing about their Capitol Day in this very gallery, only to be interrupted by many others passing through. Imagine the curious smell of Benton’s 35 dozen eggs that he used to make his mural in the heated months of June, July, and August. Imagine listening to the comments from his fellow State Senators who wondered why painting a baby’s diaper at a political town hall would have been more justified than discussions of the old Confederacy. The scaffolding mess that Benton eventually concluded must have seemed a lot like the first public reactions to the Eiffel Tower.
Thankfully for all Missourians and our tourists, these unique works have survived the test of time despite early criticisms. If you are not one of our frequent guests returning to speak, lobby, visit, or vote within our State Museum, then I can recommend to you this book worth exploring by Priddy and Hall. This book is an excellent coffee table display of how Jefferson City lobbied for and secured one of America’s greatest public art collections of our day.