An anonymous “Secret Admirer” contacted Maine Gov. Paul LePage to complain that the history of Maine labor mural in the waiting room of the Department of Labor in Augusta made him/her feel as though he/she were in North Korea. In keeping with his penchant for kowtowing to business interests, the governor issued an order to have the offending mural removed on the grounds that it did not balance the interests of employers with those of employees.
Immediately, the red flag of censorship went up in both the art community and the organized labor community. Rob Shetterly, president of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, and Natasha Mayers, one of Maine’s most active political artists, jumped into action rallying artists and union members to a Friday, March 25, noon press conference to express opposition to LePage’s attempt to bowdlerize Maine history.
Close to 300 people jammed the long narrow hallway of what must surely be the most dismal and Kafkaesque public building in Maine, a vast warehouse of office cubicles on the outskirts of town that is home to the Department of Labor and Department of Public Safety. Protestors, many wearing 61% decals identifying them as among the majority of Maine voters who did not vote for Paul LePage, strained to hear as Shetterly and labor historian Charlie Scontras defended the mural.
The focus of all the furor was the future of the 11-panel, 36-foot mural painted in 2008 by artist Judy Taylor of Tremont. The mural fills the windowless Labor Department waiting room wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with scenes from the history of labor in Maine. Judy Taylor is a very traditional painter, not a political artist at all. She simply created panels depicting and commemorating historical facts – child labor, labor strikes, the formation of unions, women in the workforce.
The Department of Labor itself was created at the urging of labor unions. But Gov. LePage thinks the murals should have represented the owners and the bosses as well, so he ordered the mural removed. The controversy that has ensued is a reminder that art still has the power to provoke and disturb. The fact that the mural made a few businessmen uncomfortable is a good thing. We have largely overcome the history of the exploitation of the health and safety of workers for the profit of the few, but we do not want to forget that it happened.
Even as the artists and unionists were expressing their disapproval of the removal order, the governor was announcing that arrangements had been made to send the mural to Portland City Hall. Rep. Ben Chipman (U-Portland) has been instrumental in trying to arrange for the mural to go into Portland exile, but most of the folks opposed to the mural’s removal are therefore opposed to its relocation. Maine Arts Commission director Donna McNeil and Maine State Museum director Joseph R. Phillips, probably fearing the funding wrath of Boss Paul, were both a little too quick for many artists’ tastes to distance their agencies from the mural. McNeil pointed out that it was not a Percent for Art project and that it could easily be removed if need be. Phillips dropped the mural like a hot potato, arguing that the museum does not collect contemporary art.
No Maine museum with a serious investment in contemporary art and artists’ moral rights is apt to aid and abet the governor by taking custody of the mural. Despite having said that the mural would not be removed until a new home was found for it, Gov. LePage had the mural removed to storage over the weekend. Legal challenges are now being mounted to LePage’s authority to order the mural removed in the first place. Another protest is being planned for April Fool’s Day.
For her part, artist Judy Taylor says, “I would like it to stay where it was intended to be. The mural does not belong to me but to the people of the State of Maine. I always hope they will have free and easy access to view it.”
[For more information and updates, visit the Saving Maine’s Labor History Mural website.]