Monday, March 28, 2011

Open letter re legal challenge by Maine Peoples Voting Coalition

Ed Schlick
Acting Executive Director
Maine Peoples Voting Coalition


Since the start of the ongoing dispute over the attempt of Maine Governor Paul LePage to remove the labor mural in the Maine Department of Labor Building and possibly relocate it in the Portland City Hall many MPVC members and others have e-mailed me asking if MPVC would take any legal action to stop the relocation of the mural. Below is a clarification of what MPVC is currently working on to help define the legal ownership and control over the location of the mural.


The labor mural in the current controversy was paid for with a $60,000 federal grant and the artist was selected by the Maine Arts Commission. We assume that the Maine Labor Department building built in 2007 was probably paid for largely, if not entirely, by federal funds. So as a practical matter we may have a federal mural in a federal building.

In looking at the question of art control and ownership in Maine public buildings the title to certain historical works of art or artifacts (such as the Maine Civil War flags) clearly rests with the Maine Museum Commission. However nothing is said in the applicable Maine law about where, when or how such art and artifacts can or should be displayed. The Maine law covers only the title to the ownership of the art.

In reference to the current dispute over location of the labor mural the State Museum director has apparently recently stated that the museum does not have control of “contemporary works of art” implying at least that the Museum Commission has no control over the labor mural now on display at the Maine Labor Department Building.


We have done a very limited amount of research (via Google) on federal ownership and control of works of art. Several studies make it clear that the art work done and paid for under the various federal programs of the Great Depression in the 1930s is the property of the federal government and is controlled by the federal government not the various states in which the art was created and displayed. However, we were not able to find current law concerning such art created say in the last thirty or more years with federal funds/grants.

However, it would seem impossible that the federal agency that provided the $60,000 grant to create the labor mural just mailed the Maine Arts Commission a check for $60,000 with no paper work describing the conditions of the grant or that such issues were not made clear in the grant application. It seems equally impossible that the spending of such a significant amount of money would not fall under some general provisions of federal law as to ownership, display, removal, altering etc. of the art work being funded.


The first question about removal of the labor mural is, what, if any, conditions were imposed on the use of the $60,000 grant money and the creation, mounting, ownership and display of the final piece of art?

The second question – are there general provisions of federal law that cover all such grant monies and art work.

For instance in the Bath post office there is a large mural river scene of historic Bath on the wall above the post office boxes. The post office is a federal building with art paid for by the federal government. What prevents the post master (or Governor LePage) from objecting to the art work and deciding to take it down or move it to another location? If the Maine Labor Department building was built with federal funds is it a federal building or (perhaps in some limited sense) a Maine building?

We think these questions (which we are currently unable to answer) should be immediately addressed and some answers obtained – certainly prior to the April 4 meeting of the Portland City Council – which is certain to be a contentious meeting. Why burden the council with such a difficult decision if investigation shows that control of the federally funded labor mural in a (perhaps) federal building rests firmly with the federal government and not with Governor LePage?


Since MPVC lacks funds to retain an attorney to research this matter we would suggest that in the coming week Maine First District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and/or Second District Congressman Mike Michaud be contacted and asked to help with clarification of the above questions. Either one or both are in a position to have easy access to the federal agencies involved and might well be helpful in resolving the questions. Hopefully this can be done in the coming week before the acrimony over Governor LePage’s personal, unnecessary and largely unsupported decision to remove the labor mural grows any stronger.

Obviously there is nationwide and even international interest and concern about this issue (a cursory Google search produced 48,900 media articles on the issue) and its resolution. Most of those objecting who have contacted me appear to see the issue as one of an completely uncalled for attack on Maine and national history and dictatorial censorship of work that displeases a “ruler” – not an elected official in a democracy.

1 comment:

Wendy Newbold Patterson said...

Sounds like we all should start contacting Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud to urge their support and action (as our "Federal" congressional reprentatives) on behalf of the Maine Labor Mural. If it doesn't belong to Maine people, it most certainly belongs to the Federal Gov. Sounds to me like LePage is a thief of public property!!!