When one sculpture means a lot

In the Observer yesterday, Rowan Moore dedicates his page to the fate of a single sculpture. But if anybody thinks that that makes it a rather peripheral piece, they would be wrong. It would be hard to pack a larger number of pressing issues into a single piece.

Moore writes about a Henry Moore sculpture which is owned by Tower Hamlets in east London and which the mayor wants to sell because, he says, it is uninsurable, and of course to raise money. At the end of his piece Moore scotches the story about it being uninsurable – Queen Mary College (which is in Tower Hamlets) has offered to take it and put it in a publicly accessible place, and has been quoted just £2,000 a year for the insurance.

Moore also points out that if the statue were sold, it would probably raise £20 million which, although substantial, is not a vast amount in terms of council budgets. As he says, what they need is revenue, not sticking-plaster injections of capital.

One of the big issues, he argues, is that Henry Moore sold the sculpture to the council for well below market price, and if this sale goes ahead other artists are unlikely to do the same. I do wonder how many artists would be that generous now in any case. We have lost so much of our goodwill towards public institutions – particularly governmental ones rather than say art galleries – that I suspect it would be unlikely even without the latest brouhaha.

But Moore’s most important point is that this sculpture was donated in order to provide something special for local people – and that if you think this is of no value then you could in the end stop spending any public money on the arts at all. This would be very wrong. The specific argument in each case – food or art – would always be won by the more visceral need. But government – including local government – must spend its money on a range of things. We need both bread and circuses.

The ironies in the story come from the history of the sculpture. When Tower Hamlets bought it, it sat at the centre of the Stifford Estate. It had to be moved from there, not because of any unsuitability of the sculpture but because the estate itself was demolished in 1997. It went to Yorkshire Sculpture Park ‘until a new home could be found’ and is still there.
So art has outlasted architecture, which is a sign of its importance, but obviously the residents of Tower Hamlets do not feel that they are getting much benefit from a sculpture at the other end of the country. Queen Mary College’s offer sounds like an excellent solution.

Today, Building Design announces a competition in which the Mayor of Tower Hamlets announces that he wants the world’s best architectural practices to apply to masterplan the regeneration of Whitechapel (which will certainly cost a lot more than £20 million). How ironic in the same week to set out to get world-beating architecture and decide to lose a world-rank sculpture.







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