Maine governor taken to task after labor department mural removed

PORTLAND, Maine — The president of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts sent a scathing letter Tuesday to Maine Gov. Paul LePage for removing a labor-themed mural from the Department of Labor headquarters as the status of the disputed artwork remains in limbo and its location remains a secret.

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.

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 includes a depiction of 1902 Mount Holyoke graduate and former U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. The U.S Department of Labor in Washington is housed in the Frances Perkins Building, she said.

“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.

LePage was in Florida on Tuesday and unavailable for comment, spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said.

Labor advocates, artists and others have protested the removal of the mural, calling it an insult to Maine’s workers. It’s now in storage, but administration officials won’t say where.

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.

Critics are also questioning whether the removal was legal under state law and if it 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.

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. He’s also asked where the mural is now located, who removed it and how much it cost to take it down, but he hasn’t heard back.

“It’s a little disheartening,” he said.

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