AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday that the public outcry over his decision to remove a mural from the Maine Department of Labor headquarters is an unwelcome distraction as he tries to work with the Legislature to implement his agenda.
In his first interview since workers took down the mural last weekend, LePage said he was right to have it removed but should have waited until after the legislative session.
“The timing was bad,” he said in a brief interview as he left a meeting with the Senate Republican caucus. “It should have been done later on, not when we are trying to get a budget passed.”
LePage said he wants the public to focus on his political agenda, such as streamlining regulations and providing tax relief for Mainers.
But people angry over the mural’s removal continued to press LePage on the issue.
On Thursday, the Portland Museum of Art weighed in, issuing a statement that said LePage’s decision has tarnished the state’s reputation as a haven for artists.
“The historical role of Maine as muse and refuge for generations of Americans is called into question by this single action,” said Mark Bessire, the museum’s director.
The Maine Curators’ Forum, a consortium of curators and directors from museums, colleges and universities, art centers and galleries throughout the state, issued a statement Thursday that called LePage’s action a “direct affront to our values as arts professionals.”
Now it appears that a legal battle could keep the issue in the news for months. Jonathan Beal, a labor attorney in Portland, said Thursday that he and another labor attorney, Jeffrey Young of Topsham, plan to file a lawsuit Monday seeking to force LePage to return the mural to the Department of Labor.
Meanwhile, a protest rally scheduled for today in the State House Hall of Flags was postponed because of an expected snowstorm. Organizers say they will hold the rally Monday.
Erected in 2008, the 36-foot-long mural depicts moments in Maine labor history, such as the 1937 shoe mill strike in Lewiston-Auburn and Rosie the Riveter at Bath Iron Works.
LePage has said the 11-panel mural presents a one-sided view of labor history, and that he acted because some businesses had complained the mural is hostile to employers.
Beal said LePage lacks the authority to order the mural’s removal. “We do not feel this is a legitimate basis to remove an important piece of art,” he said. “We hope to demonstrate that, in addition to being wrong, it’s also illegal.”
Beal declined to give any details about the lawsuit, including where it will be filed, but said one issue is whether there has been a breach of the contract between the Department of Labor and the mural’s artist, Judy Taylor of Tremont.
Three parts of the contract signed in 2007 apply to moving or altering the mural.
One says the contracting agency — the Department of Labor — agrees that the artist and the Maine Arts Commission will be notified if, for any reason, “the work has to be removed or moved to a new location.”
The contract also says that the artist and the commission have the right to advise or consult with the contracting agency, and that the “work will be placed in the location for which it was selected.”
In an email Thursday, Taylor said, “I was not, and have not had any communication with the governor’s office.”
Donna McNeil, director of the Maine Arts Commission, said the commission was not notified that the mural was to be removed, and was never consulted by the Department of Labor.
“We heard of it along with everyone else,” McNeil said in an email, in response to a question about whether she had prior knowledge of the order to remove the mural.
LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the administration’s attorneys examined the issue and determined there was not a breach of contract in the mural’s removal.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at: