Maine labor mural comes down on governor’s orders

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A mural depicting Maine’s labor history was removed from the lobby of the state Department of Labor headquarters and put into storage over the weekend after a directive from the new Republican governor that it come down.

The 36-foot, 11-panel mural will be kept at an undisclosed location until a suitable spot can be found to put it on public display, said Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage.

The artwork was not appropriate for the Department of Labor because it is one-sided in favor of labor interests at the expense of business interests at a time when LePage is pushing a pro-business agenda, Bennett said.

The mural depicts Maine labor history with images that include a paper mill strike in the town of Jay, a strike at a shoe plant in Lewiston, women shipbuilders at Bath Iron Works and child laborers.

The LePage administration last week directed that the mural be taken down and that Department of Labor conference rooms named for labor leaders be renamed for mountains, counties or something else perceived as neutral. The rooms have yet to be renamed.

Plans to take down the mural have attracted state and national media attention at a time when legislatures in several cash-strapped states are considering measures to restrict collective bargaining by public workers.

Because of the scrutiny, the administration felt it was appropriate to remove the mural during the weekend rather than on a weekday, when state offices are open, Bennett said.

“We feel the mural controversy is counterproductive to the work the Department of Labor needs to focus on and our state as a whole needs to focus on,” she said.

The mural, which was bolted to the walls, was created by artist Judy Taylor of Tremont using a $60,000 grant that came from the U.S. Department of Labor, said Maine Department of Labor spokesman Adam Fisher.

Bennett released an anonymous fax received by the governor’s office and signed by “A Secret Admirer” that said the mural was propaganda in line with “communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.”

Robert Shetterly, an artist from Brooksville and president of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, questioned whether something else was going on for LePage to “take this kind of political risk and expend this political capital” on a mural most people had never heard of or seen.

Shetterly called it “an exceptionally cowardly act” to move it over the weekend when no one would notice.

“If he really believed this was the right thing to do, he would ... be there himself, he would explain to Maine people why this was a good idea for Maine’s democratic future and Maine’s economic future.”

The governor last week said an agreement had been reached for the mural to be moved to and displayed at Portland City Hall. But city officials and members of the City Council have yet to sign off on any such deal, said spokeswoman city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

If Portland turns down the offer, the Museum of Art at Bates College and Museum L-A in Lewiston have expressed an interest in exhibiting the work, said Darrell Bulmer, spokesman for the Maine Arts Commission.

While the mural sits in storage, labor groups and artists continued urging the governor to put it back up at the Department of Labor.

“We’ve seen an outpouring of opposition and bewilderment to the governor’s action from business leaders, working people, citizens and his own party,” Maine AFL-CIO President Don Berry said in a statement. “Yet he continues to take a my-way-or-the-highway approach.”

Shetterly said nobody should display the mural because it would make them look “complicit” in the decision to take it down.

“I understand their motives to not have it kept in a closet, but I think the best outcome is for citizens to force it to be put back into the Department of Labor,” he said.

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