PORTLAND — What was billed as a Portland Museum of Art discussion of the place of public art in society quickly and predictably turned into a renewal of the debate about the governor’s decision to remove a mural from the state Department of Labor offices.

About 200 people attended the “Whose Art is it?” noon forum on Friday, and mural artist Judy Taylor spoke publicly for the first time about the dispute about the state-commissioned piece depicting key moments in Maine’s labor history.

Taylor received a prolonged standing ovation when she was introduced.

However, much of the debate was directed to forum participant Ray Richardson, conservative co-host of a talk show on WLOB radio, who said he found the mural to be pro-labor and “offensive” because it was seen mostly by a “captive audience” of labor department employees.

“I think it’s inappropriate in a public building because it’s one-sided,” he said.

Gov. Paul LePage had the 36-foot-long mural removed from the state Department of Labor’s headquarters last month and put it in storage. He said some business owners complained that it is hostile to employers.

The mural, which was installed in 2008, depicts scenes or people such as a paper mill strike in Jay, female shipbuilders at Bath Iron Works and former U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, whose parents were from Maine.

Federal officials said earlier this week that because federal money paid for 63 percent of the cost of the artwork, Maine must either reimburse the federal Department of Labor about $40,000 or reinstall the art.

Richardson said he is behind an effort to raise that money to reimburse the federal Department of Labor so that Gov. Paul LePage would have more latitude in what do with the mural.

Also on Friday, lawyers asked a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order that would force LePage to re-install the art. The lawyers are claiming that Mainers’ First Amendment rights are being violated because they are unable to see the mural.

The request is pending and U.S. District Court Justice John Woodcock has scheduled a telephone conference on the request for Monday afternoon.

At the museum forum, Taylor said she never considered the piece political and noted that Department of Labor officials didn’t interfere with or attempt to influence her art.

“I had free rein,” she said. “Nobody interfered with my process. It was a wonderful commission.”

She said she worked with a labor historian to come up with key moments in Maine’s Labor history, including strikes, the state’s first Labor Day and child labor laws.

While Taylor may not have seen her piece as political, other participants in the forum said art inherently has a point of view.

“To a certain extent all art is political,” said Mark Bessire, the director of the Portland Museum of Art. “And once you enter the public realm, you enter the political realm.”

Richardson, however, said he thinks Taylor’s piece went over the line and indicated he agrees with LePage that the art could lead people representing businesses at the Labor offices to be pro-worker.

“It looks like a bunch of oppressed people,” he said of the figures in the art.

After several speakers noted that there’s a process to be followed in removing public art — several mentioned the lengthy route Portland followed recently to remove the “Tracing the Fore” landscape sculpture in Boothby Square from its collection — Richardson agreed that LePage did not follow the normal procedure when he ordered the mural taken down.

“He could have done this better. He knows it,” Richardson said, but added that he’s sure LePage would have ended up ordering the mural removed.

“If he had done it (followed a process), we’d still be here arguing about it,” Richardson said.

 

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