Maine's right-of-center Gov. Paul LePage over the weekend had murals depicting milestones in the state's labor history removed from the lobby of his Department of Labor, enraging union leaders and art-lovers.
The murals became the focus of debate in the state last week when it was revealed that the governor wanted them taken down.
Where are the murals now? "In storage," says the governor's press secretary. Is it possible to say where? "Nope."
This latest action seems sure to catapult into an even higher orbit the roiling political-artistic dispute. Not just the governor's treatment of the art but the timing of his action astounded critics.
Earlier last week, 300 union members had staged a protest in Augusta, rallying against "right to work" legislation being advocated by the governor. His following decision to boot the union-friendly artwork struck labor leaders as retaliation. And his choosing Friday the 25th to announce his decision proved a masterpiece of bad timing.
Friday was the 100th anniversary of the most horrific tragedy in U.S. labor history, New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
On March 25, 1911, a tremendous fire broke out on the 8th floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, which employed only women, most of them immigrant teenage girls. When they tried to flee, they found the emergency exit doors locked, closed by managers who had been trying to cut down on thievery. Of the 146 women who died, some burned to death; others suffocated; other jumped, splattered on the pavement below or impaled on the stakes of an iron fence that surrounded the building.
"It's enough to make you weep," says historian Charles Scontras, of the mural's removal. Scontras, professor emeritus of the University of Maine and currently historian to the Bureau of Labor Education, served as consultant to artist Judy Taylor, who produced the now-vanished Department of Labor mural. Its 11 panels depict scenes from shoe-making, ship-building and other Maine's industries. They also depict a famous strike.
"Everything in those murals is historically accurate," says Scontras. "There's no dispute about that." He calls the governor's action an attempt "to erase part of our cultural history."
Though no disaster in Maine ever equaled the tragedy of the Triangle Fire, he views the deaths, privations and indignities suffered by Maine's labor as "the price paid for building the wealth of this state."
Scontras stands personally to be affected by the governor's action. Not only was his image used in one of the panels of the mural (he was the model for a cobbler) but one of the department's meeting rooms is named in his honor. Others bear the names of such famous (and controversial) labor figures as Caesar Chavez. Not only has the governor removed the murals, but he also has proposed re-naming these rooms.
"I'd prefer to see my name removed than see history removed," says Scontras.
LePage's reason for making these changes is philosophic: It's not the business of the Department of Labor, in his view, to advocate for labor or for management. Rather, the department should act as a force to bring the two cooperatively together. He is out of sympathy with art that memorializes conflict and antagonism.
Press accounts reporting LePage's actions have used phrases like "cultural violence" and "the destruction of art." One has compared him to Renaissance art-destroyer Savonarola. Yet LePage has never suggested the murals be destroyed, just relocated.
Progressive attorney Jonathan Beal challenges the governor's right to remove the artwork. Friday he sent a letter to the Maine State Museum reminding them that they hold title to the mural, and, as trustees of the artwork, have sole power to determine its disposition and location.
LaPage has proposed that the mural be relocated to the city hall in Portland, for re-display. Portland's city council, which must approve the overture, is now mulling it over.
The governor meantime has put out a call to artists of all sorts, soliciting them to submit replacement art for the Department of Labor that would depict "the cooperative relationship that exists between Maine's job-creators and the workers who power Maine's economy.
Interested artists can contact the Maine Arts Commission.