AUGUSTA, Maine — The political fallout over Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to quietly remove a labor-themed mural from a state building over the weekend continued Monday as administration officials worked to find a new home for the artwork after a potential deal with Portland City Hall all but disintegrated amid the controversy.
LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said maintenance crews removed the mural some time over the weekend but declined to release specific details or say where the artwork was being housed.
“It is safely in storage, and we are anticipating its relocation to a more appropriate location,” Demeritt said Monday.
Administration officials had said LePage planned to keep the mural in place in the Department of Labor building until a new home was found for the 36-foot-wide, 11-panel painting that depicts the history of Maine’s labor movement.
On Friday, more than 200 protesters gathered at the Department of Labor building in Augusta to show their opposition to the removal of the 3-year-old mural, created by Tremont artist Judy Taylor. Some in the crowd said they would employ nonviolent tactics of civil disobedience to block the mural’s removal, which appeared to have influenced the decision to hasten the mural’s departure.
“The Department of Labor has an important job to do for workers and employers and we just didn’t have time for distractions,” Demeritt said.
The LePage administration decided to remove the mural after receiving a handful of complaints from citizens and business owners who viewed it as too pro-union and one-sided for a department responsible for working with both employers and employees. The unabashedly pro-business Republican administration released a copy of an anonymous letter — signed only by a “secret admirer” — that likened the artwork to propaganda in communist North Korea.
The painting’s defenders, meanwhile, describe it as a piece of historical art that depicts important events, themes and figures from labor struggles in Maine.
The mural’s features include women shipbuilders during World War II, the 1986 International Paper strike in Jay, child laborers and part-time Maine resident Frances Perkins, who as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor secretary was integral to the creation of a minimum wage, Social Security and other aspects of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Last week, several Portland officials had indicated a willingness to consider housing the mural in City Hall. But that option appeared to have all but dissipated by Monday.
“What was offered to us by the governor’s office as a gift was actually a Trojan horse,” said Portland City Councilor David Marshall, who had talked last week with administration officials and a state lawmaker about the city displaying the mural. “The mural has become a much bigger political symbol.”
Marshall said he since has made clear to the administration that Portland is probably not going to work out as the mural’s next home. There were no plans to discuss the issue at the council’s April 4 meeting.
“I don’t think any councilors are going to want to take up our precious council time to support this issue,” Marshall said.
Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones said City Hall has received several dozen e-mails about the issue from people with the “great majority” opposed to relocating the mural to Portland. With the council about to take up the budget and other hefty matters, it is unlikely the mural issue would make it onto the agenda until late April or early May — and only then if one of the councilors agrees to sponsor an agenda item.
“My feeling is it should stay in Augusta,” Mavodones said.
Likewise, City Councilor Kevin Donoghue wrote in an e-mail that he would oppose placing the mural even temporarily in Portland City Hall unless he received assurances that the artwork’s true home was at the Department of Labor.
“I would prefer that Governor LePage find the humility to reconsider what was clearly an impulsive decision,” Donoghue wrote.
Demeritt said his office is still waiting to hear back from Portland and is exploring other potential homes for the painting. Darrell Bulmer, spokesman for the Maine Arts Commission, told The Associated Press that 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.
“Ultimately, the governor thinks the mural should be displayed, and we are working to make that happen,” Demeritt said.
Meanwhile, the mural’s disappearance and the hush-hush manner of its removal only seemed to further agitate those who had been fighting to keep the painting in place.
“I am outraged by the total disregard of this governor for any sort of consideration of democratic process,” said Robert Shetterly, a Brooksville artist who helped organize last Friday’s rally and protest at the Labor Department building.
Shetterly had been among those pledging to attempt to use peaceful means to block any effort to remove the mural. Now that the painting is gone, Shetterly said he and others are discussing how to proceed but said, “There will be a response.”
“It is about more than just the art community,” Shetterly said. “It’s about [LePage] attacking our own history because it is inconvenient with his ideals.”
David Clough, Maine director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said he has not heard from many business owners on the issue, and those who did contact him had mixed feelings on the mural. Clough said he hopes the state soon can move beyond the controversy.
“With 52,000 people unemployed, I think business and labor need to work together to focus on ways to create jobs,” Clough said.