By Nancy Nesvet
When Judy Taylor was commissioned to create the History of Maine Labor mural, Governor Balducci was in office. He and the members of the Maine Commission on the Arts were proud of the history of Maine labor, as it is depicted in the murals and proud of union and government input into laws and policies protecting workers. The problem resulted when Paul LePage became Governor. On March 22, 2011, Laura Boyett, an official in Governor LePage’s administration, announced a planned removal of the mural to the Department of Labor staff. Over the weekend of March 26-27, 2011, Taylor’s mural was removed from the Maine Department of Labor building in Augusta, due to an order from the state’s governor, Paul LePage, a Republican closely aligned with business interests and a businessman himself. Governor LePage cited an e-mail he had received that said the mural was antagonistic to business interests, and likened the style to “North Korean propaganda”.3 The writer of the e-mail was not made public. Maine College of Art President Donald Tuski circulated a petition to put the mural back in its original place that garnered over a thousand signatures. On April 1, five Maine residents, John Newton, Don Berry, Joann Braun, Natasha Mayers and Robert Shetterly filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Maine against Governor LePage and other state officials. They claimed that the mural’s removal “was impermissible content and viewpoint based” and thus violated the First Amendment. The District Court, on April 22, 2011 first denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order holding that:
It is not the business of the federal court to decide what messages the elected leaders of the state of Maine should send about the policies of the state, to tell a prior administration that its own artwork is too slanted to continue to hang on state walls, to tell the current administration that it must not remove or replace a prior administration’s artwork, or to tell a future administration which piece of state art, the new or the old, must stay or go. The messages from the state-owned works of art are government speech and Maine’s political leaders, who are ultimately responsible to the electorate, are entitled to select the views they want to express.
Thus, Governor LePage could remove the murals and keep them sequestered, decided Judge Woodcock in U.S. District Court in Bangor, Maine on April 22, in denying a temporary retraining order against Governor LePage and the directors of the Maine Department of Labor and State Museum to reinstall the murals at the Department of Labor. The plaintiffs, represented by their lawyer, Jeffrey Neil Young of the law firm McTeague and Higbee in Brunswick, Maine claimed that LePage’s action violated the first amendment right to free speech by denying free viewing and access to the mural. That is, if one was entitled to speak freely, one is entitled to view freely, and one could not view the murals if they were sequestered in a non-public space. Judge Woodcock, in denying the request wrote: “Maine’s political leaders…are entitled to select the views they want to express.” And furthermore, “The state retains the right to move it or even destroy it4, explaining that the mural is government speech and the administration retains the right to remove art in state buildings. In this case, even thought the Maine Commission on the Arts chose the artists, and Governor Balducci accepted the work, it was not allowed to remain on public view due to Governor LePage’s interpretation of its content and his order to remove it.
On March 23, 2012, The District Court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the first complaint because it found that the removal of the mural did not violate the First Amendment. The plaintiffs then appealed unsuccessfully (Newton v. LePage) 700Fd595 (2012) to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which on November 28, 2012 issued an opinion by Chief Judge Lynch affirming the district court’s rejection of the plaintiffs’ claim of a First Amendment violation finding that:
The government, without violating the First Amendment, may, in this setting, choose to disassociate itself from an endorsement implicit from the setting of the mural, which it reasonably understood as 603*603 interfering with the message of neutrality the administration wishes to portray. This is so whether the mural is anti-labor or pro-labor. It is well established, in a number of contexts, that maintaining the appearance of neutrality is a sufficient government justification.
The outcry to reinstall the murals in Maine’s Department of Labor tested the case in the court of public opinion and ultimately partially prevailed. On Friday, March 25, after notification of the order to de-install the murals from the Department of Labor, a noon press conference organized by Union of Maine Artists President (and plaintiff in Newton v. LePage) Rob Shetterly attracted close to 300 at the Department of Labor and Public Safety in Maine. Maine College of Art President Donald Tuski circulated a letter to the Maine College of Art community demanding the mural be put back in its original place.
On April 8, Mark Bessire, Director of the Portland Museum of Art, staged a symposium at the museum entitled “Whose Art is It?” moderated by Alan Hinsley. Judy Taylor spoke as well as panelists Sharon Corwin, Director of the Colby College Museum of Art; Christina Beckstein, Professor of Public Engagement and Sculpture at Maine College of Art; Chris O’Neill, a government relations consultant to the Portland Community Chamber and Ray Richardson, of WLOB radio in Maine. A packed audience heard an overwhelming outcry for the reinstatement of the murals to the Department of Labor.
This author and curator called artist Judy Taylor in early April, 2011 and asked her consent and cooperation to exhibit her work concerned with labor and laborers and the working drawings for the mural for an exhibition at Metropolitan Center for the Visual Arts (VisArts), a municipal gallery in Washington D.C.’s Maryland suburbs. She assented. Since the murals were still sequestered, this curator approached Andy Graham, then President of Portland Color, in Portland, Maine, a photographic reproduction facility of high regard to reproduce them. He donated life-size reproductions of all eleven panels on gator board. Subsequently, Don Berry, President of the Maine AFL-CIO arranged for Teamsters Local 340 to donate the shipping of the mural reproductions and Ms. Taylor’s other work to VisArts. A later substantial donation from the National AFL-CIO allowed the publication of an extensive catalogue of the show called Celebrate Labor: Where Art and Politics Meet. On August 30, 2011, when a hurricane blew through Maryland and the east coast of the U.S., the opening reception welcomed more than 200 people, and the exhibition resulted in publicity and recognition in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, the Portland Gazette and local papers in Maryland and on the Rachel Madow and Lawrence O’Donnell shows. Subsequently, the reproductions of the mural were exhibited and viewed by the public in the lobby of the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., across the street from the White House, at the Common Cause festival in Maine, at the National Employment Law Project, at the GLAE festival in Maryland, at the Bread and Roses Centennial in Lawrence, Massachusetts and at several public libraries in Maine and other venues, resulting in many more people viewing it than would have at the Maine Department of Labor.
The last appeal of the plaintiffs failed in Federal Appeals Court in Boston. Shortly thereafter, Governor LePage awarded the mural to the Maine State Museum with the cooperation of Bernhard Fischer, Director of the Museum. It commands a prominent place in the foyer of the Museum where it is viewed by numerous Museum visitors and visitors to the Maine State Archives, housed in the same building. Governor LePage stated upon its installation that he intended to put it on public display once the legal proceedings were over.
Although the Governor of Maine acted within his legal right to remove the mural from the Department of Labor, where it hung before he became Governor, Mainers have criticized the lack of due process in taking it down. There was and is no Maine law specifically addressing removing art from a public building. The mural was commissioned for the Maine Department of Labor, with funds provided by the U.S. Department of Labor. The Republican former businessman who became Governor and railed against the unions, and against child labor laws chose to hide the mural from those who visited the Department of Labor. Judy Taylor looked to the past and observed two visions of labor; industrial and public, that cohered with the political and aesthetic vision of some forces but conflicted with that of others. The enemy of an artist’s patron is her artworks’ enemy too, it seems. The removal of the mural testifies to the way that Taylor’s visualization of labor and its protectors and enemies came to aestheticize politics and intervene in its self-imagination – and to the ways that government and politics then intervened in the mural’s fate.
The question we need to answer and the policy we need to construct asks if it is appropriate to remove art in government buildings that has been commissioned by former administrations when it does not serve the purpose of the present administration. This author’s answer is that the removal should not be permitted because in so doing, we are removing a part of the history of a past era, when the art was commissioned. If we erase history, we have no past. Governor LePage removed the mural from the Department of Labor depicting pertinent episodes in Maine’s labor history. The artist was chosen for her artistic ability. Her politics were not scrutinized nor involved in the choice of artist. The content of the mural was dictated by the grant to fund a mural for the Maine Department of Labor depicting the history of labor in Maine. By removing the murals, Governor LePage made a political statement about the murals, that they were ambivalent to business. It was his interpretation, or a trusted supporter’s interpretation of the murals- since he had not seen them- that politicized them.
The removal of the mural in Maine highlighted the importance of art to influence people. If Governor LePage had not determined that art could affect people, upset them, and influence opinion, he would not have ordered it removed. In fact, Judge Woodcock, in his denial of the Temporary Restraining Order to place the mural back on view wrote further “The … result of the suppression of the work has been the generation of considerable public speech about this work of art.” So as we continue the discussion of how to treat public art and develop a policy of choosing artists to produce art for public spaces, paid for with taxpayer funds, we will continue to consider the importance of art to instruct and influence the populace, which Judy Taylor’s Mural was intended to do and will hopefully do again now that it has resumed its position on public display.
For this author, the public has prevailed. In demanding the return of the mural to public display, and in viewing the reproductions of the mural created by The Art, Labor, Education Institute, Inc. in Maine, the public convinced the Governor to put the real mural on public display, attesting to the power of the people to access the art that is theirs.
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.