Thursday, November 08, 2012

Henry Moore Sculpture - a very poor precedent for public art

Lutfur Rahman, the controversial/discredited Mayor of Tower Hamlets has ignored the concerns raised by the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, a petition, and protests on a wide scale and confirmed his personal decision to sell a Henry Moore sculpture which is owned by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

Note that this was NOT a decision of the Council - this was a decision of the Mayor.

Ostensibly the Mayor intends to raise funds for the borough to help address budgets cuts.  However straight after the decision was taken, it was also alleged that he also has plans to give money to local mosques in order to buy votes (see Why Lutfur wants to sell Old Flo).  Doubtless we'll hear more on that score in due course.

Draped Seated Woman (1957) by Henry Moore
Bronze - Currently located within Yorkshire Sculpture Park
The story of "Old Flo"

The sculpture in question is a very large bronze called Draped Seated Woman.
The internationally famous sculptor originally sold the piece at a heavily discounted price (£6,000) - effectively a donation - to the (then) London County Council on the strict condition that the sculpture was to be placed in an underprivileged area.  Moore was extremely pleased that the Stifford Estate in Stepney in East London was chosen as an appropriate place.

Moore's gesture was a very significant and historical statement about the purpose of public art.  It benefited an area of London which had suffered grievous damage to buildings and lives as a result of the bombing in the second world war.  It was also a sculpture which reflected the drawings Moore made of people in the bomb shelters during the second world war.  It connected the challenges faced and losses experienced during the war with the developments taking place as new housing was built to replace that which was lost

Most importantly it also celebrated the women of the East End and the mothers of families who held life together despite the strain.
Drapery played a very important part in the shelter drawings I made in 1940 and 1941 and what I began to learn then about its function as form gave me the intention, sometime or other, to use drapery in sculpture in a more realistic way than I had ever tried to use it in my carved sculpture. And my first visit to Greece in 1951 perhaps helped to strengthen this intention . . . Drapery can emphasise the tension in a figure, for where the form pushes outwards, such as on the shoulders, the thighs, the breasts, etc., it can be pulled tight across the form (almost like a bandage), and by contrast with the crumpled slackness of the drapery which lies between the salient points, the pressure from inside is intensified . . . Drapery can also, by its direction over the form, make more obvious the section, that is, show shape. It need not be just a decorative addition, but can serve to stress the sculptural idea of the figure.
Henry Moore quoted in "Sculpture in the Open Air: A Talk by Henry Moore on his Sculpture and its Placing in Open-Air Sites", edited by Robert Melville and recorded by the British Council 1955: typescript, copy in the Henry Moore Foundation library (Reference: Henry Moore Works in Public)
It appears that for many years the location of the sculpture on the housing estate did not present a problem.  However it subsequently suffered from vandalism and was relocated to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park some 15 years ago in 1997.  There it has been enjoyed by very many people.

The fact that it has stayed there so long reflects on a lack of impetus to find a solution to the problem of how to place the work in Tower Hamlets.  This to a large extent reflects a lack of effort and brainpower since there are very clearly places within the Borough where it could be located.

The decision to sell

The Mayor and his Cabinet (ie NOT the Council) determined that the statue should put up for auction at Christies in February 2013 for the following reasons
  • Costs of returning the artwork to the Borough 
  • Security risks around the relocation the artwork to the Borough 
  • Difficulty identifying a suitable public open space the Borough in which to display the artwork 
  • Insurance and maintenance costs of displaying the artwork in the Borough given its current valuation
The Protest

On Sunday an open letter was printed by The Observer
We would like to express our concern about the proposal by the mayor of Tower Hamlets to sell the sculpture Draped Seated Woman by Henry Moore. While we understand the financial pressures that Tower Hamlets faces, we feel that the mayor's proposal goes against the spirit of Henry Moore's original sale to London County Council at a favourable price on the understanding that it would be placed in East London.

The presence of the sculpture in Stepney was a demonstration of the postwar belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to works of art of the highest quality. That is why Moore was so delighted to see the work sited as the centrepiece of a housing estate in London's East End.

We appreciate that times have changed and that the costs of protecting the sculpture are demanding, but we believe that there are a number of sites in the borough where the work could be safely placed for the benefit of the community. We hope that Tower Hamlets will reconsider and find a suitable location that continues to honour Moore's idealistic vision.

Mary Moore, the artist's daughter;

Richard Calvocoressi, director, Henry Moore Foundation; Nicholas Serota, director, Tate; Danny Boyle, film director and producer; Peter Murray, director, Yorkshire Sculpture Park; Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow; Mary Creagh, MP for Wakefield; David Adjaye, architect; Jeremy Deller, artist
6 reasons why the decision is a bad one

On Tuesday night, the Mayor confirmed his decision to sell the sculpture without paying any attention to the representations of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee or any of the other representations made on this matter.

Here are some reasons why this is a very bad decision.

1.  It's very unlikely that the estimated £20 million it's said to be worth will be raised.
  • As a number of people have pointed out this sum relates to an iconic piece created specifically for the Festival of London in 1951.  
  • More realistic estimates are that it might fetch £5 million at sale - and a good deal of opprobrium for both the Mayor and whoever deprives Henry Moore of his stated wish and the people of the East End of art that was given to them
2.  Public art does not have to be on Council land.  
  • The nature of local government has changed much since Moore donated the sculpture to the London County Council.  A lot of key services such as housing and schools have been hived off into other organisations.  One could argue that the sculpture should have been transferred with the housing stock to one of the social housing landlords which operate in the borough.  
  • It's certainly the case that a sculpture donated to the public should be seen in a public place - whoever owns it.  Since the Mayor's appointees only looked at the Council's own portfolio of land (which essentially means the parks!) there was no difficulty in finding support for the Mayor's decision.
3.  There are places it could be located within the borough where its safety would not be compromised.
  • The Council alleges that it cannot afford to provide a secure place or the insurance - which is why it's still in Yorkshire.  At the very least if the Council felt it could not house the sculpture it should have offered the sculpture back to the LCC's successor body - the Greater London Authority.
  • However within the borough there are a couple of Museums and Art Galleries, a University Precinct and a major Teaching Hospital.  However none of them form part of the Borough estate so presumably have been ignored by the Mayor - despite offers.  
  • Queen Mary college claims to have obtained a quote of £2,000 to insure it.
  • Let's also not forget that there are other sculptures within the borough by very famous British sculptors which are in public ownership, in plain view and on public land and have not been damaged or stolen.  I'm very familiar with one of them.
  • There are also other Henry Moore sculptures located as public art within London which have come to no harm
  • It would also appear that the temporary Head of Culture fails to grasp that moving a sculpture of this size and weight requires heavy lifting gear and a vehicle of a significant size to carry it away.  Also unlike bronzes stolen in recent years this sculpture would present a very considerable challenge to any thief - it is neither small, nor does it have an easy place to cut to lift.
4.  This decision does nothing to bridge the budget gap in future years - difficult decisions will still have to be made.  
  • Selling capital assets produces a one-time windfall pot of capital.  In this instance, this sculpture will make a very small contribution. 
  • However the budget gap is revenue based and thus selling this sculpture merely puts off the time when other difficult decisions will have to be taken - for which the Mayor has no plans.  
  • Let's not forget that the Mayor hopes to have been re-elected before that has to happen.  To me it's very clearly the decision of a selfish man who puts his own wellbeing first.
5.  This decision sets a very poor precedent for public art anywhere in the UK.  
  • It also impoverishes the borough in more ways than one.  More artists live and work in Tower Hamlets per square mile than any other local authority in the UK.  However I now doubt if any other artist or sculptor of note will ever give any public art to Tower Hamlets ever again.  Or at least not without a cast iron guarantee that it must be returned to the artist if it is not displayed in a public place.
  • This decision now creates the precedent for other public art to be sold off by other local authorities as a way of tackling the austerity measures required due to the financial mess caused by the bankers.  
6.  It's an insult to the generation - and mothers - who lived through the war.  
  • This sculpture has very clear links to the Second World War and the strain this created for the people of the East End of London.  Its design and history suggests it is a symbol of both steadfastness and regeneration.  However this aspect has not been considered to be any merit or benefit to the people of Tower Hamlets by the Mayor.
  • The Mayor appears to have little or no regard whatsoever for the generations of Londoners, and Eastenders in particular, who lived through the war.
  • At the very least, the sale goes very much against the spirit of Moore's donation to make public art accessible to everyone.
The reverberations around the world

To date the sale of this sculpture has attracted the attention of a variety of news organisations in the London, the UK and the USA
I think we'll hear a lot more about this before this sculpture is sold - if it can be.

Register of Public Art

As the Council points out in its press release two other councils have sold art to raise funds
Last year Bolton Council put up 35 works of art to be sold including works by Millais, Picasso and Hutchison.  In 2006, Bury Council raised £1.4m by selling LS Lowry's A Riverbank.
It's very apparent that all Councils should be required to complete a register of all public art - or else we'll see more sales of artistic assets with rather less press coverage.

Maybe it's also now time for the bankers to step in and start sponsoring public art in public places?

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