March 28, 2020

Ars longa, surplus brevis

One needn’t be a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal, a cultural Philistine or even a Republican from Guilford to have a serious problem with the state’s emergency entry into the art auction business.

While rank-and-file Mainers gird for a long debate about the most wise, prudent and consenus-gaining ways to handle this revenue surplus, the Maine State Museum apparently found the shortcut. It merely convinced the Legislative Council — that’s the leadership of both parties — to convince the full Legislature that it needed $162,000 pronto to go shopping.

With no discussion and, even worse, no public hearing, lawmakers caved and forked it over. On Wednesday, the museum went antiquing with the Maine Historical Society and bought two “historically important” paintings at an auction in Gray for a mere $74,500.

Why this happened, especially in a session that is supposed to be for emergency measures only, is anybody’s guess. Here’s a couple: No legislator in his/her right mind wants to cross leadership over what in Augusta amounts to small change when there’s big bacon to bring to the home district; and no legislator wants to be tagged as anti-art. A devotion to saving Maine’s cultural heritage for schoolchildren — the rationale given out by Speaker Libby Mitchell’s office — ranks right up there on the warm, fuzzy scale with a fondness for apple-pie, motherhood and the smaller woodland creatures.

Nobody spoke up. Nobody except Sen. Stephen Hall, the aforementioned Guilford Republican. “So much for tax relief,” said Hall, reminding his colleagues that of all the things they’re supposed to be doing, such as easing Maine’s ruinous tax burden and listening to its people, buying old paintings in a panic isn’t one of them. Good for Hall. He may or may not know art, but he knows the process by which the Legislature is supposed to work.

Incidentally, connoiseurs of Other Maine Syndrome may be interested in just what two works so desperately needed saving. One is a small watercolor of the old Portland State House that stood from 1820 to 1832. The other is an oil painting of the Portland Light Infantry encampment. Also on the block, we hear, was a recently discovered Monet of water lilies on Pushaw Lake, but it was passed over because it had nothing to do with Portland.

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