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Maine Labor Art's Removal Strikes Sensitive Nerve in Politics, Academia and the Art World
In this March 25, 2011 file photo, Jessica Graham, right, of Waterville, Maine, leads a gathering in front of a mural honoring labor, in the Department of Labor building's lobby in Augusta, Maine. The group gathered to honor the 100th anniversary of the New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed 146 garment workers. Gov. Paul LePage ordered the mural taken down in late March. A Republican committe in northern Maine hopes to raise enough money for the state to buy the disputed mural from the federal government. AP Photo/Kennebec Journal, Joe Phelan.

By: Glenn Adams, Associated Press

AUGUSTA, ME (AP).- It's big in its own right, a 36-foot-wide, 11-panel mural representing Maine's labor history. Even bigger is the nerve its removal has struck in politics, academia and the art world during the national debate over public workers' collective bargaining rights.

The state's new pro-business governor ordered it removed from the Maine Department of Labor's lobby in late March, saying it didn't mesh with his policy goals. Since then, the maelstrom of reaction has only escalated, resonating all the way to Washington.

"I think there's a widespread feeling among people that they're being made scapegoats for state budget problems not of their making," said Jonathan Beal, who filed a lawsuit in federal court in Maine challenging the mural's removal.

Gov. Paul LePage's directive was "an insult to people who create the wealth," he said.

The mural, by Maine artist Judy Taylor, was commissioned in 2007 by the administration of previous Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, and mounted in the state building the next year. Among the scenes it depicts are a 1986 paper mill strike; the fictional World War II icon Rosie the Riveter at work in a shipyard; and New Deal-era U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet member, whose parents were from Maine.

LePage believed it was too pro-union in a state he wants to make more business-friendly. His office declined to comment on the continuing reaction, other than to say it is assessing what its next action will be with the art.

"We're focusing on policy right now," spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Thursday.

The directive comes as states including Wisconsin and Ohio pass laws or seek to restrict public employees' rights to bargain collectively. In Maine, LePage is proposing pension changes unpopular with public employees, and the mural's removal combined with its timing has brought expressions of outrage from many corners.

Beal's lawsuit, filed on behalf of him and five other plaintiffs, says that denying the public access to the art is an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech. The lawsuit seeks the mural's return to the labor building lobby; it has been in an undisclosed location, which the governor insists is safe, since March 26.

There's more at play than artistic freedom and speech issues, though, said Michele Bogart, a professor of American visual culture studies at Stony Brook University in New York.

"If a politician comes along and says, 'I don't like it,' even though he has no expertise in art, he is abusing his power," Bogart said. "People don't like politicians taking on the role of art critic."

Lynn Pasquerella, the president of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, took particular exception to the mural's removal because Perkins was a 1902 graduate from her school. She called it "a rewriting of history."

The Portland Museum of Art and several other museums joined the chorus of those demanding the mural be returned. Artists and labor activists held a State House rally to reiterate that call Monday — the same day the U.S. Labor Department said LePage violated terms of federal laws governing money used to pay most of the mural's $60,000 cost.

U.S. Rep Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, issued a statement suggesting that the mural be returned so the state wouldn't have to repay the federal government — an unusual foray because the congressional delegation rarely gets involved in state-level policy matters.

The Labor Department hasn't indicated whether it would make Maine repay the money.

As much as Republicans in the Maine Legislature wish the issue away, it keeps coming back — sometimes pushed to the forefront by their confederates.

Eight Republican senators collaborated on a newspaper column asking the governor to tone it down in the wake of the mural storm so their party wouldn't be distracted from more important business.

That created a sideshow of its own, as a tea party activist dubbed them the "gang of eight" and called for their ouster.

Days later, the Aroostook County Republican Committee in northern Maine set up a website,, to raise $60,000 so the state can take ownership and free LePage of "mural-type distractions."

The state Republican Party chairman says the art that hangs in state offices is the least of Mainers' worries.

"They care that they don't have a job or don't make enough to feed their family or put gas in their car," said chairman Charles Webster, also an oil burner repairman. "They simply don't understand why we're discussing these things."

The art's removal from a government building is not the first stemming from labor-related content.

Ralph Fasanella's paintings of New England mill towns, including one depicting a strike in Lawrence, Mass., in 1912, hung for years in hearing room of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Labor and Education. But following the 1994 elections, the new Republican majority in Congress evicted it, according to Pamela Marcil, spokeswoman for the Detroit Institute of Arts, where celebrated muralist Diego Rivera's famous "Detroit Industry" frescoes hang.

G.C. Myers, a painter from Corning, N.Y., who has been following the Maine episode closely, said he's among the artists who feel queasy about art being used as a pawn in a larger political issue.

Writing on his blog, Myers said the Maine episode is "a classic example, and symbol, of the hubris being displayed around this country by political leaders who mistakenly interpreted the results of recent elections as some sort of vindication for their personal agendas."

"I think they may have thought that the general public was asleep or just didn't care enough to respond," he said. "Glad to see we're waking up a bit."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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