Ian Clayton: Moore public art debate

5 november 2012.'Henry Moore sculpture Draped Seated Woman which is owned by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets but is on loan to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
5 november 2012.'Henry Moore sculpture Draped Seated Woman which is owned by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets but is on loan to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Have you seen the row that has broken out recently about the attempt to sell off one of Henry Moore’s big pieces?

Back in the 1960s Henry Moore presented a sculpture called ‘Draped Seated Woman’ – it later acquired the nickname ‘Old Flo’, but that’s another story – to Tower Hamlets Council in London.

He actually sold it to them for the price of £6,000, below its market value, because he wanted to demonstrate the belief that ‘everyone, whatever their background should have access to works of art of the highest quality.’ This is art speak for ‘we’re going to install it on a council estate.’

It’s not recorded whether the good citizens of Stifford housing estate welcomed their gift or not, but you can bet your bottom dollar that plenty of local councillors had their picture taken next to it when it was unveiled.

Over the years the housing estate became a bit run down and the sculpture, which looks to be a fine monumental piece of work, got graffitied and the local authority was worried that it might get nicked and weighed in for scrap. When the council estate was knocked down in 1997, the piece was moved to its current site, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where it sits among green fields and woodland, a long way from the tower blocks in Stepney, which filled Henry Moore with so much ‘delight’ at the time.

Now the London borough of Tower Hamlets and its mayor, Lutfur Rahman, are a bit strapped for cash in these hard times and plan to sell off the sculpture, some estimates now value it at up to £20 million.

The worry among the cognoscenti is that it might be bought by rich foreign art collectors and that it will be shipped off abroad. In last week’s Observer there was a letter signed by some very rich and powerful opinion makers who questioned the attempt to sell of the work, these included Mary Moore, the artist’s daughter, Richard Calvocoressi, director of The Henry Moore Foundation, Mary Creagh, the MP for Wakefield and the filmmaker and all round Olympic good sport Danny Boyle.

They say: “We understand the financial pressures, but feel the proposal goes against the spirit of Henry Moore’s idealistic vision.”

I think I agree with them on this, but I can’t help wondering whether there is some ulterior motive here. If, for instance the piece was now worth one and a tanner and not £20 million would they be as up in arms? If the piece was given to ‘the community’ and that ‘community’ no longer lives there, shouldn’t it go somewhere else where ordinary people live?

If someone gives you a present, do they or their foundation after they have died have the right to tell you what to do with it? I’m all for art in public places, if the public who live there want it that is, but just giving someone something, telling them it will be good for them and then telling them they can’t have it unless they do as they’re told, is like giving junk food to kids and then chiding them when they get bellyache.

Has anybody thought to ask the ‘community’ of Tower Hamlets what they would like to do with the Henry Moore piece? I think not, neither do I think the local council there comes out smelling of roses. That particular local authority has an annual budget of £1 billion, even if they get £20 million for the Moore, that’s just a one off drop in the ocean.

By the time this article is printed, I think Tower Hamlets Council will have made their decision, my bet is that they will either defer the decision, as councils have a wont to do, or they will bow to the strong lobby from famous people and the piece will stop where it is at Wakefield or become a ‘feature’ at the Olympic area, because that’s down there as well.

The last time I was visiting the birthplace of Henry Moore on the corner of Garden Street in Castleford, I noticed it was a bit run down and the current piece of ‘artwork’ that’s there was being used for felt pen graffiti and as a skateboard ramp.

I wonder if ‘Old Flo’ would fit there if local people were interested, it might make up for the ‘putting into storage for safe keeping’ of the piece that once rested on the grass outside Castleford Civic Centre.

There is an important debate to be had about public art, how it gets funded and what gets foisted on to local people. People who live in towns without easy access to art galleries deserve better. My hope is that one day, we truly will all have “access to art work of the highest quality.”