Public Art

22 Feb 2016

The excellent Historic England exhibition at Somerset House, “Out There” (3 February – 10 April 2016) examines public art in post war Britain. Starting with the Festival of Britain and moving into the new towns such as Harlow and Stevenage, it is inspiring to see how art was considered to be of benefit for all regardless of class or age.  Perhaps not surprisingly this idea emerged at the same time as the welfare state, NHS and Arts Council.

The work that was commissioned or purchased was often of the highest quality, work by artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Elisabeth Frink were placed in social housing schemes, civic spaces as well as on buildings. The irony that these works have gained in value is not lost on the more erudite observer, whilst to many a thief, the sculptures scrap value has led to its demise.

The number of lost, or stolen works from this period is saddening.  It has taken the vigilance of Historic England to save many of the works, most notably Henry Moore’s stone frieze for the Time Life building on New Bond Street.

Indeed very recently Tower Hamlets have been embroiled in a spat over another rather magnificent Henry Moore known locally as “Old Flo” (draped seated woman). The disgraced and corrupt leader of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, tried to sell it to reduce his budget deficit, he valued it at £20m.  But as his successor, John Biggs, rightly says, the sculpture belongs to us all; it is not a Council asset. Fortunately he prevailed and it currently resides at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

I had been thinking about the role of art in the city before I visited this exhibition following a recent trip to Hong Kong preparing for Art Central in March.  Hong Kong is not a city that you associate with art in the public realm, so it was fascinating to see Anthony Gormley’s installation ‘Event Horizon’ there.

Public Art
Event Horizon, Hong Kong 2016

These 31 sculptures were first displayed on buildings around the Southbank in London in 2010, since then it has been installed in New York, Sao Paolo and Rio. The compact and sculptural townscape of Central Hong Kong with its verdant backdrop of the Peak is perhaps the most stunning setting of all; the viewer can understand the relationship between the individual figures, the city and the landscape. For Hong Kong it is a particularly poignant work, the recent occupy protest brought people onto the streets evicting the traffic and creating an unprecedented large-scale public demonstration.

This installation is temporary, it is only up for 4 months or so, and it is also largely privately funded and supported by the landlords and owners of the buildings it occupies.  The logistics of organising such an event are a testament to the patience and vision of the organisers and I am looking forward to walking the exhibits with Cassius Taylor-Smith (of Giant Communications) who has spent three years organising the event.

Public Art
Event Horizon, Hong Kong 2016

Both of these exhibitions remind us of the value and relevance that the artist and art has on our daily lives.  It is not something we think about, we often take it for granted, but you may only glance at a sculpture briefly as you wait to cross the road for it to have a lasting impact.