By Nancy Nesvet
When people think about Maine, they often remember Winslow Homer’s paintings of roiling seas and drenched fishermen standing against the wind, John Marin’s beautiful Maine vistas, Fairfield Porter’s scenes of clapboard houses standing strong and lonely, and other artists’ work too numerous to mention. Maine has been a mecca for visual artists for many decades, attracting artists and people eager to view their work. Former Maine governors Angus King (now a Maine Senator) and John Balducci supported that work. A recent episode, now resolved, affected the arts in Maine has threatened to spoil that reputation, shamed Mainers, proved instrumental in keeping supporters of the arts and artists from practicing and viewing art in the state and instigated an ongoing debate about the responsibility of the government to make government-supported public art available for viewing by the public.
When Paul LePage, a self-made businessman of French-Canadian heritage was elected with 39% of the vote in a three-way race, he began, not to take care of the less fortunate people in his state, but to protect the interests of businessmen and attract new business to the state. He sought to close the port of Portland, the most economically viable in the state, to punish Portlanders for not supporting him in the gubernatorial race, and to severely dilute laws against child labor, allowing young children to work in dangerous circumstances for long hours. Mark Bessire, Director of the Portland Art Museum, noted that a state once proud of its artists, attracting visitors to the state to view that art, was losing revenue from those tourists who no longer came to view art. All of these unfortunate circumstances resulted from one act by Governor LePage, propelled by an e-mail sent from his office from a member of his administration.
That e-mail likening Judy Taylor’s Maine Labor History mural to North Korean propaganda painting was cited as the reason for the removal of the mural from the anteroom of the Department of Labor in Maine. Governor LePage added that its contents were alienating to businessmen in Maine, and that art in government buildings should be for all his constituents, businessmen included. Three lawsuits ensued to restore the Mural to the Maine Department of Labor. All were unsuccessful, due to rules in Maine regarding the Governor’s purview of all government buildings, his ability to allow what he desired in those buildings and the court’s view that government speech, (not free speech and viewing) by the people, as protected in the first amendment to the U.S. constitution, applied to the mural.
The journey of the Maine History of Labor Mural is important to the issue of public art in this country and the ability of the public to influence the restoration of a mural to public display by using means other than the courts to achieve that end. Ultimately, in this case, efforts to publicize the plight of the mural and the lack of process in removing it from the Department of Labor and sequestering it for almost two years were successful in having it displayed prominently in the lobby of the Maine State Museum in Bangor.
An artist inherently expresses an opinion in her artwork, even if that is by choosing which historical episodes to depict, as Judy Taylor has done in the History of Maine Labor mural. Does an administration have the right to deny access or to de-accession a work of art if it differs with the agenda or the constituents’ opinions? Or does the administration have a responsibility to maintain access to a mural that portrays historical events even if they are detrimental to the goals of the administration? Does government have a responsibility to acknowledge and exhibit history, or can it hide that history if it is detrimental to forging the government it wants and the people elected it to provide. Coercive philanthropy has for generations dictated social mores depicted in art. Does a democratic government get to dictate those mores, or by choosing the artist, does the government surrender responsibility to the artist and allow the work to be put on and remain on public view?
(To be continued)
1 DeRocco, Emily Stover, Training and Employment Guidance Letter No 18-01, Subject:Reed Act Distribution, Washington, D.C.,Employment and Training Administration Advisory System, U.S. Department of Labor, April 22, 2002
2 Maine Department of Labor, Pamphlet commemorating opening for History of Maine Labor Mural, Augusta, Maine, August 22, 2008
3 Trotter,Bill and Tuttle, Jeff, Muralʼs planned removal heats up labor dispute -Maine Politics-Bangor Daily News. New.bangordailynews.com. 3/23/11, Retrieved 2011-8-15
4 U.S. District Court for the State of Maine, Newton et al vs. LePage, et al, Order on Motion for Temporary Restraining Order, 44.