Niru Ratnam

Go with the flow

Councils should be encouraged to sell public art that has lost its relevance, says <em>Niru Ratnam</em>

Go with the flow
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Last November Lutfur Rahman, the independent Mayor of Tower Hamlets, confirmed that the borough intended to sell a Henry Moore sculpture entitled ‘Draped Seated Woman’ (1958–9) that had been historically sited in the borough. Rahman’s reasoning was twofold: the sculpture was too expensive for the council to insure and the money raised from the work’s sale at auction, which could be up to £20 million, would ease the £100 million budget cut that Tower Hamlets is faced with over the next three years.

The announcement elicited a strong protest from the arts lobby. Sir Nicholas Serota, Richard Calvocoressi (the director of the Henry Moore Foundation), Mary Moore (the artist’s daughter) and London 2012 Opening Ceremony artistic director Danny Boyle signed a letter to the Observer asking the council to reconsider, arguing that ‘the presence of the sculpture in Stepney was a demonstration of the post-war belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to works of art of the highest quality’. In a separate interview, Boyle added that ‘the Moore sculpture defies all prejudice in people’s minds about one of London’s poorest boroughs’.

The Art Fund has now taken up the fight, disputing legal technicalities of the proposed sale, and the artist Bob and Roberta Smith has staged protests. That Rahman has a controversial reputation adds to the mix. He was elected mayor in 2010 having been sacked by Labour over his alleged links with an Islamic extremist group.

But the back story to the Moore is more complex than the debate has so far allowed. ‘Draped Seated Woman’ was one of about 70 works purchased by the old London County Council in a scheme that ran from 1956 to 1965 and aimed to embellish newly created housing estates and schools with monumental, modernist or quasi-modernist works of art. Since being the centrepiece of the LCC’s first open-air sculpture exhibition in Battersea Park in 1948, Moore’s art had become the prototype of this new kind of public art for post-war Britain. The LCC collected a number of artists but Moore was the main attraction and both the Stifford Estate in Stepney and the Brandon Estate in Kennington were allocated a Moore sculpture in order to signify the prominence of each estate in the LCC’s vision of a new London. In turn, Moore was content to take up the mantle of public artist du jour and generously, if not unconventionally for institutional sales or public commissions, allowed a discount of 25 per cent plus — he sold ‘Draped Seated Woman’ to the LCC for £7,400.

In 1965 the LCC was replaced by the GLC, which had a wider geographical range but weaker strategic authority, and the scheme came to an end. In turn, the GLC was abolished in 1986, and the London Government Act of the previous year transferred residuary property, rights and liabilities to respective London local authorities. By 1997, the post-war utopian dream of housing estates had failed in Stepney. The once-flagship Stifford Estate was demolished and the Moore, which had been partly vandalised, was packaged off to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park on long-term loan where it was cleaned up, insured and forgotten by the residents of Tower Hamlets and seemingly most of its council.

In early 2010, Tim Archer, the Conservative candidate for Poplar and Canning Town, started a campaign for the Moore to be returned to Tower Hamlets, suggesting that councillors should vote whether the sculpture should be returned to the borough or sold off to fund social housing. Later that year, the councillors voted in principle to keep the work, as long as the council did not bear any of the immediate or long-term associated costs, including maintenance, insurance and security. Two years later, the report on how to move forward on this was debated and the council, now under Rahman’s maverick leadership, concluded that the costs associated with keeping the work were prohibitive and its only recourse was to sell the work at auction.

But that was not the end of the story. The convoluted trail of ownership has opened up Tower Hamlets to a legal challenge from the Art Fund, whose lawyers are arguing that the work, like other leftover GLC assets, might belong to Bromley Council on the basis that the order transferring the Stifford Estate to Tower Hamlets does not specifically mention sculpture. Tower Hamlets is contesting this.

If, as seems likely, the work does turn out to be the property of Tower Hamlets, the art world’s shrill insistence that the council does not have the moral right to sell the work ignores two key factors about the changing relationship between the public and the art that has been brought in its name.

Tastes change, and so do populations. By 2011, according to GLA estimates, 47 per cent of Tower Hamlets’ population was (to use census jargon) Black Minority Ethnic. More than 30 per cent of the population had a Bangladeshi background, the largest Bangladeshi community outside Bangladesh and larger than the White British population.

In a way that echoes the LCC’s refusal to consult the inhabitants of the newly formed housing estates, the arts lobby hasn’t considered whether this new population of the borough would like the statue returned, with its attendant costs, to the borough. The assumption is that great artworks such as Moore’s should somehow transcend cultural differences. However, it is a fair guess that the council’s raucously popular A Baishakhi Mela (Bangladeshi New Year Celebrations) resonates more with its residents than post-war British sculpture. Moreover, the argument that the inhabitants of Tower Hamlets are in dire need of access to art is debatable — the borough has three Arts Council-funded galleries, the Whitechapel Gallery, the Chisenhale Gallery and Matt’s

Gallery, which is a far greater presence of art institutions than most local authorities enjoy.

It’s not only populations that change, taste does as well. Like all art, Moore’s work is of its time, addressing generalised social themes that were congruent with the emerging post-war nation. The family was a recurrent motif and female figures were solidly maternal. The oddity about public art is that its historical specificity is heightened. Surrounded by the flux of life, it ages more visibly than pieces sited in timeless museum settings. Once any initial excitement subsides, indifference and vandalism set in. Over in Westminster, opposite the Houses of Parliament, another Moore work, ‘Knife Edge Two Piece’, has deteriorated drastically as no one is interested in claiming ownership or paying for its upkeep. Increasingly curators are realising that there is little sense in public art being permanent and there has been a shift towards temporary commissions — The Fourth Plinth being one of the most noteworthy examples. Decommissioning costs are built in and the Greater London Authority, which commissions the Plinth, makes provision for clawing back production costs if a private sale of the work is subsequently made.

Perhaps it’s time to move on from the idea of great art being handed down from above to educate the public in perpetuity. After all, public art is just one part of the public’s art collection, which is housed in municipal museums as well as being sited on streets, in parks and on housing estates. It is a collection that is quietly being refreshed. Works in museums are being discreetly sold off — last year, Bolton Council shifted seven works, including two etchings by Picasso, and Gloucester City Council has approved 14 works of art for sale. Yet the public’s collection also grows. For instance, the Acceptance in Lieu scheme allows taxpayers to transfer important works of art into public ownership in lieu of inheritance tax.

This ebb and flow is fitting: a collection held on behalf of the public should be more than an ever-growing inventory of the whims of commissioners. The sooner the arts lobby accepts that permanent commissions are an increasing anachronism, and that the public’s art, like most other collections, is open for business, the more honest a debate we can have on what sort of relevance these works might have for a particular population at a particular moment in time; and when that relevance fades, what sort of money can be made for whichever local body happens to own it.