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Labor Mural Removed by Governor Back on Display in Capitol
01/14/2013  
Labor Mural Panel Wide Shot

A Maine labor history mural that sparked protests, generated national headlines and was the subject of a federal lawsuit has found a new home at the Maine State Museum. It's been nearly two years since the eleven-panel installation was hastily removed from a reception area at the Maine Department of Labor by order of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who cited concerns that it was unfriendly to business. But the same mural is now being called a "famous" and "historic" work of art.

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Commissioned by the Maine Department of Labor under Democratic Governor John Baldacci, the labor history mural became a national symbol in the ongoing struggle between labor unions and business. Gov. LePage, who never actually viewed the mural before he ordered it removed, said he'd received an anonymous complaint that its scenes of factory workers, child laborers and a pair of labor strikes were so one-sided it was "reminiscent of communist North Korea." But now the LePage administration has re-installed the mural in a larger venue.

"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," said Jeanne Paquette Maine's labor commissioner.

Paquette said it was always the Administration's intent to publicly display the mural once litigation had played itself out. Several weeks ago, a federal appeals court rejected a group of artists and labor activists' argument that taking down the mural violated their First Amendment rights to receive information and ideas. Paquette said Gov. LePage supported the plan to re-install it in the foyer of the Maine State Museum. So does artist Judy Taylor. Even Jonathan Beal, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, is pleased with the new home.

"I think this is an excellent place for it," Beal said. "As I told Commissioner Paquette just now, privately, I very much appreciate their having taken steps to immediately display it as they assured the First Circuit they would."

Still, Beal said it's unfortunate that it took so long to resolve the matter. Back in March, 2010 when Gov. LePage first signaled that the mural might be inappropriate for the Department of Labor, Beal suggested that LePage hold a public conversation to get suggestions about where to put it. Instead, the governor privately ordered the mural to be removed over the course of a weekend. No public input was taken. The panels were packed away in what has been described as a "climate controlled storage closet" in the Maine Department of Labor building. And a backlash of editorials, demonstrations and court battles began.

"You know, I think the governor, or folks around the governor, clearly have recognized that he made a mistake and that this issue is not one to them," said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO.

"It was so clearly an issue where he was on the wrong side of Maine people, even people who aren't necessarily alligned with labor or workers' issues I think felt that this was going way too far," he said.

Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette acknowledges that, even in the closet, the labor mural has been a distraction for her department. Under the new arrangement the eleven panels will be loaned to the State Museum for just under three years. After that, Museum Director Bernard Fishman said a permanent home will have to be found.

"The loan is renewable," said Fishman. "It's possible that it may come into the museum but that would take a special effort to renovate spaces there and we don't have a space available at the moment to do that."

Meanwhile, Fishman said the mural is in a prominent location where it is likely to be seen by more people than it would have if it had remained at the Department of Labor. More importantly, Fishman said the mural has been elevated from being "contemporary art in a functional office" to "historic" in its own right. And, with such a designation, attorney Jonathan Beal said the mural can be preserved as an historic artifact under Maine statute. That's a protection it did not have before.

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