Open Letter to PMA Director Mark Bessire, signed by “Untitled, 2020” artists and others (reprinted from a flyer passed out by PMA staff outside of the Portland Museum of Art on March 26th)
We stand in solidarity with the Maine PMA Union.
We are troubled by the Portland Museum of Art leadership’s decision to challenge the democratic rights of their staff to vote in a union election. Staff at the PMA organized a union, joining thousands of museum workers across the region who have organized unions, out of their commitment to the Museum and desire for a democratic voice in their employment conditions. The Museum’s legal appeal of this fundamental worker right is contrary to PMA’s values — equity, inclusivity and community — as highlighted in the “Art for All” initiative and the current “Untitled, 2020” exhibition.
We implore PMA leadership to do the right thing and to drop their Labor Board appeal so that the votes can be counted. We also urge leadership to reinstate laid-off part-time staff who are the lowest paid workers in the Museum. Forming a union is a basic right of all workers, and the staff at the PMA deserve the right to know the results of their election.
Henry Austin Enrique Mendia
Greta Bank Nikki Millonzi
Rachel Church Meghan Mitchell
Anita Clearfield Elijah Ober
Titi de Baccarat Ashley Page
Anna Dennis Dibble Veronica A. Perez
Christopher Dudley Charles Schreiber
Greg Jamie Giles Timms
Brian Leonard Nora Tryon
Natasha Mayers Evelyn Wong
Here’s how you can help:
Send an email, or post on the PMA’s social media pages, to Mark Bessire, asking him to drop the appeal and recognize the union.
Send a message of support to PMA workers at MainePMAUnion@2110uaw.org
Post supportive comments on our union Facebook page.
To Maine Arts Journal Editors:
Recently, I was searching the internet for photos of the Maine Festival held at various locations in Maine from 1980–1988. It was, in my belief, the best festival of its kind ever held in Maine. Unfortunately, my search turned up almost nothing, surprising for an annual event that had such high participation by Maine’s visual and performing artists. But the festival’s history was “pre-internet/digital,” so most likely all those film images are collecting dust in attendees’ attics.
One result from my search was an article in the Maine Arts Journal from spring 2019. Home Fires: Activist Art In Maine (or, You Had To Be There) by Lucy R. Lippard and Natasha Mayers was an informative and fun read. But, I wish it had spent a little more “ink” on the labor mural removal. The lesson to be learned by a more detailed examining of this incident is that artist activism can go awry. Thoroughly researching the facts and data of an issue before diving in with protests and lawsuits can only help elevate public opinion of activist artists. As the article stated, former Governor LePage was a favorite target, and it was no wonder when artists jumped on his ordered removal of Judy Taylor’s eleven-panel mural hung in the Maine Department of Labor administrative office waiting area in Augusta.
First fact not recognized by most activist artists was this mural was not public art and had not been acquired in any approved public art acquisition process. According to Donna McNeil, former Director of the Maine Arts Commission, the mural was not commissioned through Percent for Art but was privately funded by the Department of Labor. That federal funding was via a Reed Act distribution from the federal Unemployment Trust Fund. It was intended for financing the consolidation of five Augusta area administrative offices and the Lewiston unemployment claims center to the newly leased Central Maine Commerce Center in Augusta. The use of funds from that distribution for the mural should have required approval by the Maine State Legislature . . . but it was never requested and therefore never granted. At that time, Governor John Baldacci and Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman both felt it was an appropriate use of the funds so they, along with help from the MAC, picked the artist and told her what they wanted painted.
Second fact was that, since there had been no formal public art process followed in the mural acquisition, it was not required to have any process for the deacquisition. Meaning it could be removed for any reason at any time with no public process.
Third fact regards censorship. The initial press release from Governor LePage’s office stated the mural was inappropriate for the Department of Labor office and would be removed and stored until an appropriate location was found for it to be displayed again. Many artists ignored, only partially read, or never saw this press release. Therefore they assumed censorship. Even the Maine Arts Commission issued a statement including: “The State of Maine is actively seeking an appropriate place to reinstall the mural where it can be more fully enjoyed by the public.”
Fourth fact concerns the importance of the appropriateness of the art for the site. In most public art acquisition processes, the first question addressed is one of appropriateness. It would seem a mural depicting the history of labor would be well suited for a labor department office. But the Maine Department of Labor’s website stated at that time the department was “committed to serving Maine workers and businesses” and that it ”promotes the safety and economic well being of all individuals and businesses in Maine . . . by fostering economic stability.” Regardless of the historical truths depicted in the paintings, Maine businesses working with the Department of Labor could very likely anticipate a bias against them when entering the waiting area and viewing the mural.
Fifth and final fact was the misunderstanding by activist artists of what free speech fully entails. Political and ideological speech is at the core of the First Amendment. Protected government speech is an extension of that thinking. And the display of art is an extension of free speech. So the public display of a mural by Governor Baldacci was as protected as the removal of that mural by Governor LePage.
Jay York is an artist, businessman, and curmudgeon (maybe contrarian is more apt) living and working in the Last Church on the Left in the Bayside neighborhood of Portland, Maine. He spent eight years on the Portland Public Art Committee. And he only voted for Paul LePage the first time and readily admits it was a mistake.