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Labor mural unveiled at new home, the Maine State Museum in Augusta

Posted Jan. 14, 2013, at 10:04 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 14, 2013, at 5:42 p.m.

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly two years after Gov. Paul LePage had a mural depicting Maine labor history removed from the lobby of the Department of Labor building, the artwork resurfaced Monday at its new home: the Maine State Museum.

Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette and Maine State Museum Director Bernard Fishman unveiled the Maine Labor History Mural in the atrium of the state Cultural Building in Augusta, which houses the museum, the Maine State Library and the Maine State Archives.

“This is now a famous piece of art, and we are glad that the museum can provide the security, the space, the exhibit and conservation expertise that we at the Department of Labor cannot,” Paquette said during an unveiling event Monday morning. “Our department’s mission in this tough economy is to serve the employers and the workers of Maine. We can now put all of our focus on getting people back to work and helping businesses comply with regulations that ensure a strong workforce for our state.”

LePage ordered the mural removed from the Labor Department lobby in March 2011, saying it presented a one-sided view of history and was not in keeping with the pro-business message of his administration. LePage said he received an anonymous letter from a businessman who compared the mural to North Korean propaganda.

The governor’s decision to remove the artwork — by Tremont artist Judy Taylor — quickly attracted national attention to the newly inaugurated Republican governor during his first months in office. Six plaintiffs, including labor activists and artists, filed a lawsuit in federal court the next month, alleging that LePage had violated Taylor’s free speech rights.

The lawsuit sought to confirm the mural’s location, ensure the mural was adequately preserved and ultimately return the artwork to its original location. The legal effort ultimately failed, but the LePage administration, after keeping the artwork in storage at an undisclosed location, said it would display the mural after litigation ended.

In a statement issued Monday, the plaintiffs called the mural’s unveiling at the Maine State Museum a victory.

“The Maine State Museum, a place where Mainers go to learn about our history, is a fitting place to exhibit this most famous painting,” said lawyer Jeffrey Young. “The State Museum is one of Maine’s treasures, and we hope that the mural will draw people to the museum to learn about how working men and women came to build our great state.”

Taylor, the mural’s artist, didn’t participate in the lawsuit. Paquette said the artist supported placing the mural in the museum atrium. The mural’s 11 panels are now displayed in order on a wall in the large, open space that serves as the entry point for the museum, library and archives facility.

The Department of Labor has loaned the mural to the Maine State Museum for three years. Fishman, the museum’s director, said Monday that museum staff and others would work to find the artwork a permanent home during that period. The mural’s final home might be the museum, he said, but that would require some renovation.

“The murals, when they first came to public attention, were only contemporary art in a functional office,” Fishman said. “And after their removal became a public issue, they became historic in their own right. They recall and commemorate the past, but they also remind us of the power of art to stir thought and to stir feelings.”

More people will see the artwork in its new location, Fishman said. The Maine State Museum attracts about 51,000 visitors annually, he said, and additional people will pass by the mural on their way to the Maine State Library and the state Archives.

The mural has been kept in a temperature-controlled Department of Labor storage room for the past two years, Paquette said.

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