The year 2011 was a big one for the Maine arts and entertainment community. A little-known labor mural became the subject of national debate, a Madawaska native snagged a spot on “The Bachelor” and then became “The Bachelorette,” a controversial sculpture stirred the pot over what constitutes “art,” and the closing of a national bookstore chain proved to be a boon for local mom and pops — at least, for a while.

Join us as we take a look back at the top 10 A&E stories in Maine that amused, entertained, enraged or just plain confused people during the past year:

1. LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST: Gov. Paul LePage has his critics, but no one can deny the state’s chief executive knows how to propel obscure art into the national spotlight.

In March, after a “secret admirer” of the governor complained about a mural on display in the Maine Department of Labor’s lobby, LePage ordered the artwork’s removal — without bothering to have a look himself. Created by artist Judy Taylor, the 11-panel mural charts the history of organized labor and was installed in 2008, under the previous administration.

Few in Maine had seen or heard of the work until LePage ordered it taken down. But after the removal, protestors descended on the state capitol, and the story wound its way through the national news and late-night comedy TV circuits.

Since then, LePage and his administration have issued contradictory statements about why the mural was removed. Attorney General William Schneider said the governor removed the mural on free speech grounds. However, during a national forum on education, LePage told NBC’s Brian Williams he removed it because he didn’t like how it was financed.

This has fueled a legal battle over the mural that remains in the pre-trial motions stage. It’s likely that oral arguments will be heard in January, which will determine whether or not the case goes to trial.

To date, no one has uncovered the mural’s secret hiding place, but Schneider claims it’s stored in a secure, climate-controlled environment.

2. REALITY BITES: A young woman from the top of Maine made it to the top of the reality TV world in 2011, and stayed there for much of the year.

Ashley Hebert, a 27-year-old dental student from Madawaska, began her run in January as a contestant on ABC’s “The Bachelor.” She traveled to exotic locations trying to win the heart of the show’s star, bachelor Brad Womack, and got to participate in a Sports Illustrated swimsuit photo shoot. But she didn’t win. She came in third.

But third was good enough to convince producers that she had the charm and on-camera ease to star in ABC’s companion series, “The Bachelorette.”

In the end, she chose J.P. Rosenbaum, a 34-year-old construction manager from New York City. The two got engaged on the show, then later said they were planning on moving in together to attempt a traditional, off-camera romance before making wedding plans. Her last episode was in August, and she’s been mostly out of the public eye since.

Hebert was not the only Mainer on reality TV this year, though she made the biggest splash. Others included: Portland’s Michael Odokara-Okigbo, who, with the singing group the Dartmouth Aires, came in second on “The Sing-Off” on NBC; Benton’s Ashley Underwood, a former University of Maine basketball star who competed on CBS’ “Survivor”; Falmouth’s Adam Royer, who got himself thrown off of MTV’s “The Real World”; and Jessica Cunningham of Portland and Danielle Pease of Winthrop, who were both featured on audition rounds of “American Idol” on Fox but didn’t make it onto the weekly competition.

3. IF THEY BUILD IT, WILL THEY COME? One of Maine’s major concert venues, the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, got a much-needed financial shot in the arm in 2011. Whether the funding will translate into more concerts from Portland is hard to predict.

In November, voters approved funding for a $33 million renovation to the 34-year-old arena. The venue was state-of-the-art when it was built in the 1970s, attracting major rock acts. But over the years, it has become outdated while newer concert venues have sprouted up all over the region. Supporters of the renovation argued that without the improvements, fewer concerts and shows would come to the civic center, depriving the county of revenue.

With funding approved by voters, scheduled improvements will include a new premium seating area, a fan lounge, improved concession space, box office upgrades and a bigger loading dock and backstage area. After the November vote, civic center trustees began work on forming a building committee and hiring an architect. Construction on the seating area could begin as early as this summer.

4. ‘FORE’ PLAY: Portland has had its share of public-art controversies over the years, but no single project has engendered more ill will than “Tracing the Fore,” the unfortunate steel-and-grass installation at Boothby Square along Fore Street. People didn’t just dislike the installation, they loathed it.

After much debate — like, months of it — the city’s Public Art Committee and City Council finally agreed that the sculpture should go. The city removed it and sold the sculpture for $100 to PWM Land in Portland. Look for it to be reinstalled at a location TBA in North Deering.

5. FIRST IN THE FOLD: The Pine Tree State’s chilly weather makes it more likely to spot Mainers covered from head to toe in snowsuits than lounging in the buff.

But Clinton native Mei-Ling Lam, 27, broke this barrier in June when she became the first Mainer to land a centerfold in Playboy magazine. In a pictorial spread titled “Miss June Holds Court,” Lam bared it all while sharing her love of the Boston Celtics.

A graduate of Nokomis High School and Husson College, Lam lives in Atlanta and is engaged to former Atlanta Falcons running back Ken Oxendine. She continues to model.

Following rather quickly in Lam’s footstep is Portland native Ciara Price, who graced the cover of Playboy as Miss November.

Looks like this has the makings of a stripped-down trend.

6. CULINARY COUPS: As Portland’s reputation as a food town grows, so has food TV’s presence in Maine. This year was a particularly prolific one for finding Maine chefs and restaurants on national food shows.

Four Maine chefs taped episodes of the Food Network show “Chopped,” a cooking competition in which chefs use ingredients in “mystery baskets” to create a three-course meal judged by a panel of three experts. In October, Rob Evans, chef/owner of Hugo’s, was the last chef standing and took home the show’s $10,000 prize. Kate Squibb, sous chef at 158 Cafe in South Portland, appeared in an episode later in the fall, but was eliminated after the dessert round.

Still to come: An episode featuring Lee Farrington, chef/owner of Figa in Portland, and one featuring Melissa Corry of Hugo’s.

7. HOPPED-UP PUBLICITY: This was a banner year for the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. In the summer, it assembled an exhibition of Edward Hopper paintings, including 30 of the 32 small oil studies the painter made during four summer visits to Maine from 1916 to 1919.

In total, the Bowdoin-originated exhibition, “Edward Hopper’s Maine,” featured 90 pieces of work — oil paintings, watercolors, drawings and a handful of prints. That sum represented about two-thirds of the work that Hopper completed with Maine as his subject, and perhaps as much as one-seventh of his lifetime output as an artist.

The show drew widespread national attention, and brought the Bowdoin museum an enormous amount of goodwill and recognition in both the art world and among the general public, which will serve it well going forward.

8. BORDERS BOARDED: Borders Books & Music spent many profitable years as destination locations for book worms, audiophiles, coffeehouse fans and countless others in between. Stores in Augusta, Auburn, Brunswick and especially South Portland were seemingly doing a booming business.

That was, until the retail book giant had to read the unthinkable chapter — Chapter 11 — last spring. All Borders stores were liquidated and closed by the end of September, leaving thousands of square feet of prime retail space quite empty.

But the emptiness was short-lived, because Alabama based Books-a-Million came in and made comfortable homes in all locations except for Brunswick. The three Maine Books-a-Million stores have been up and running since November.

Throughout all this, book lovers didn’t have to look far for their literary fix. After Borders closed, locally owned bookstores saw their business increase.

9. CLEARING THE PIPES: In 2012, Portland’s most famous musical instrument, the Kotzschmar Organ, celebrates its 100th anniversary. It’s limping toward its summer birthday celebration, however.

The enormous pipe organ is badly in need of repair, and in the fall, the Portland City Council approved a $1.5 million bond to help pay for much-needed renovations. The Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, a nonprofit group charged with the instrument’s upkeep, will raise money to pay the rest of the cost.

The action ensures the health of the organ going forward, and reinforces the notion that Portland is a place where arts and culture matter.

10. DISHIN’ ON PORTLAND: Anthony Bourdain, still proclaiming his love for the steamers at J’s Oyster, brought his two-man road show to Portland’s Merrill Auditorium in November.

It was the first time the popular host of “No Reservations” had appeared in the city with celebrity chef Eric Ripert for their live show. But it wasn’t the first time Bourdain ventured into Portland — in 2010, he filmed an episode of “No Reservations” in the city, proceeding to ruffle some local restaurateur feathers in the process. His response upon his return visit? “I’m not in the business of giving people the respect they deserve.”

Bourdain fans who haven’t yet had their fill can catch him on his new Travel Channel show, “The Layover,” and cross their fingers that one of his stops is the Portland International Jetport.

Staff Writers Meredith Goad, Avery Yale Kamila, Bob Keyes, Aimsel Ponti and Ray Routhier contributed to this story.


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