BY DENNIS HOEY
Portland Press Herald
The controversial labor mural that once hung in the waiting room of the Maine Department of Labor — and became the subject of a lawsuit when Gov. Paul LePage order it removed — has found a new home in Augusta.
The mural will reside for at least the next three years in the atrium of the Maine State Museum.
Officials from the Maine Department of Labor and the Maine State Museum made the announcement in a joint news release issued Sunday night.
LePage has no objections to the 11-panel, 7-foot-tall mural being moved to the museum, his spokeswoman said.
The mural, which was installed in the museum this weekend, will be on public display Monday from 9 a.m. until noon.
Though the mural is still owned by the labor department, the museum and state have agreed to a three-year display deal that can be renewed.
“It’s in a great space. It will be well cared for and it will have security keeping an eye on it. The number of people who go to the museum will be far greater than our labor offices,” Julie Rabinowitz, the labor department’s spokeswoman, said Sunday night.
The mural — depicting World War II’s “Rosie the Riveter,” a 1937 shoe strike in Maine, New Deal-era U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins and other events in labor history — was commissioned by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. The $60,000 art project was funded with a federal grant, Rabinowitz said.
The long battle over the now-famous mural began in 2011, soon after LePage was inaugurated. The governor criticized the mural as a one-sided view sympathetic to unions. He compared it at one point to communist propaganda in North Korea.
LePage’s administration quietly took the mural down over a weekend and stored it in an undisclosed location.
But five Mainers, including three artists, later filed a lawsuit claiming the removal violated the First Amendment rights of the mural’s artist, Judy Taylor of Blue Hill.
The case made its way through federal court in Maine, where U.S. District Judge John Woodcock Jr. sided with LePage. The case was then sent to the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which affirmed the lower court’s view.
The appeals court ruled that the mural represented government speech, a special category of statement that was the government’s to make or withdraw at its discretion.
After the ruling was made, no one knew where the mural might end up, but Rabinowitz said the Department of Labor could not identify a suitable location, especially one that would be accessible to the public.
“It gained in historical significance,” Rabinowitz explained, referring to the notoriety the mural earned as a result of the dispute. “At the point it was taken down, it was a piece of contemporary art hanging in a lobby. It has since taken on a meaning beyond what it used to have.
“When it was hanging in the Department of Labor, very few people knew that it existed. Now it is being called the most famous piece of art in Maine,” Rabinowitz said.
At least one other museum approached the state about displaying the mural, but the Maine State Museum won out.
The museum wants to make the piece a permanent part of its collection, but won’t be able to until the state can buy the painting back somehow, becauseit was paid for with a federal grant.
The artist, Taylor, could not be reached for comment Sunday night, but Rabinowitz said Taylor has told the state that she has no objection to the mural being displayed at the museum.
Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, said the governor thinks the museum is a suitable location.
“He is supportive of this. The governor has always said it needs to be in a more accessible location. Just think of all the schoolchildren who go to the museum,” Bennett said. “It’s in a place where it is going to be viewed by a lot of people on a regular basis.”
Bernard Fishman, a director of the Maine State Museum, has agreed to display the mural in the museum’s atrium, a two-story hall with granite walls and a lot of natural light.
“We are delighted to exhibit the mural and make it available to the people of Maine,” Fishman said in a prepared statement.
“We are thrilled to make the mural available, as Gov. LePage always promised, to the people of Maine, now that the litigation has ended,” said Jeanne Paquette, Maine’s labor commissioner. “Our goal has always been to find a space that can fit the 33-foot-long work and also provide security it now needs as a famous piece of art.”