AUGUSTA, Maine — Critics of Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to remove a mural depicting Maine’s labor history from Department of Labor offices — and then conceal its location — continue to raise legal and ethical questions about the administration’s actions.
Michelle Small, a Brunswick resident and member of the Freedom of Information Coalition, filed a Freedom of Access request with the administration to obtain the location of the mural, which was removed over the weekend and is being kept in an undisclosed location.
Also, critics are questioning whether the removal breached the contract between the Department of Labor and artist Judy Taylor, who lives in Tremont and spent a year creating the piece. Officials said it was funded through a $60,000 award using mostly federal money.
A copy of a contract between the department and Taylor obtained by the Bangor Daily News specifies that “the artist and [Maine Arts] Commission will be notified if, for any reason, the work has to be removed or moved to a new location.” The contract then states that the artist and the commission have the right to “advise or consult” with the state regarding the relocation.
In past media reports, Taylor has stated that the administration has not contacted her about the mural’s relocation, adding Monday that she does not know where her artwork is being stored. The Maine Arts Commission has been in contact with the administration.
The final line of the contract states that the agreement “may be amended or modified only if in writing and signed by the parties.”
Portland attorney Jon Beal said he’s been meeting with artists and labor advocates and plans to file a lawsuit this week challenging the mural’s removal. Beal said he has sent emails to the governor’s office and the Maine State Museum stating his objections.
LePage administration officials did not reply to requests for comment on Tuesday. The governor was in Florida on a personal trip and was unavailable for comment.
The 36-foot mural was taken down over the weekend after LePage said it was too biased in favor of organized labor and wasn’t in line with his pro-business agenda. The mural was installed in 2008 and depicts Maine’s long labor history with images of mill workers, labor strikes and child laborers among its scenes.
The incident also has garnered attention from the alma mater of former U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, a key architect of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and part-time Maine resident who is depicted in the mural.
In a letter faxed to LePage’s office, Mount Holyoke College President Lynn Pasquarella said she has “grave concerns” about the decision to remove the mural, which features Perkins, a 1902 Mount Holyoke graduate. The U.S Department of Labor in Washington is housed in the Frances Perkins Building, and Perkins’ family homestead in Newcastle now houses the Frances Perkins Center.
“I was particularly surprised to read that you were influenced by an anonymous fax comparing the 11-panel mural to North Korean political propaganda, because the act of removing images commemorating Maine’s history itself conjures thoughts of rewriting history prevalent in totalitarian regimes,” she wrote.
Labor advocates, artists and others have protested the removal of the mural, calling it an insult to Maine’s workers.
LePage said the mural could be put on display at some other place, but so far nobody has committed to taking it.
The board of directors of the Museum L-A in Lewiston met Tuesday and reiterated its position that the mural should remain at the Department of Labor. The board also said it would be willing to accept the mural on loan, but put off making a final decision until it receives more information from the Department of Labor, said Executive Director Rachel Desgrosseilliers.
The board wants answers to questions such as who would insure the mural, how would it be transported and how long an exhibit would last, Desgrosseilliers said.
There’s also a bit of discomfort with all the controversy surrounding the mural, she said.
“I’m a little worried that the artwork itself and the message of the art is going to get lost in the shuffle,” she said. “It’s a major part of our history in Maine, labor history, and it’s very important to keep the memory of those stories going, both good and bad. You can learn from both.”
A Portland city councilor who had offered City Hall as a possible temporary site for the piece has now changed his mind.
“I think it’s pretty clear people want it to be rehung at the Department of Labor,” said David Marshall, who is an artist and art gallery owner.
Artists, meanwhile, are hoping to ensure that the debate over the mural stays in the public spotlight. Opponents of the mural’s removal plan to convene in the Hall of Flags on Friday afternoon to demand its return to the Department of Labor offices, where it has hung since 2008.