Niru Ratnam

How to fight back when ‘public art’ is not for the public

What ex-residents of Heygate Estate did about a planned sculpture that wasn't really about 'regenerating' the neighbourhood

How to fight back when 'public art' is not for the public
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In recent years contemporary art and regeneration have gone hand in hand. Works such as Antony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’ have been visible and celebrated examples of regeneration. So when, last year, Southwark Council decided to sell Elephant and Castle’s seemingly unloved Heygate Estate (above) to Lend Lease for development into new homes, it seemed inevitable that public art would be utilised.

Artangel, the country’s most respected public art commissioning agency, announced plans for a work by the artist Mike Nelson that would take the form of a pyramid made from the estate’s building materials as it was dismantled. James Lingwood, Artangel’s co-director, stated that ‘the project would mark a moment between [the estate’s] past and future life’. Yet instead of an appreciative public, Artangel ran into a determined group of ex-residents, angry that the site of their recent forced upheavals was about to be turned into contemporary art, before being replaced by expensive flats. Art was being used not to help regeneration, but to mask what they saw as a quick piece of gentrification.

An internet campaign gained national traction with an article in the Guardian. And at the end of last year, Southwark Council refused planning permission, seemingly spooked by the swell of negative publicity. It seems that developers have worked out that art’s role in regeneration can be used as a cover when more overt gentrification is about to take place. The public wised up in Southwark, but there will be other sites, other less clued-up local residents, and other artists ready to help developers’ ambitions.